Two summers ago, my friend invited me to go see Of Montreal — the electro-pop paradox that managed to sell itself to both indie tastemakers Pitchfork and corporate flesh-peddlers Outback Steakhouse. Twenty-five dollars and one endless van ride later, I found myself deep in the paunch of Amish Country, Pa., swallowed whole by a palpitating throng of multicolored jeans and sweat-matted Death Cab tees.
Between humid gasps for air, I focused my penetratingly critical gaze on the band. They were all dressed in drag and playing what sounded to me like a shoddy parody of my favorite band — the criminally overlooked and undersung Self — and I was thoroughly unamused. The packed crowd called for an encore, and I sighed when the band came back to turn in a straight reading of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” without question the most excessively covered song of 2006. Pretty-boy frontman Kevin Barnes looked a bit like Tom DeLonge, and the aesthetic choice seemed to be a conscious one — he began asking audience members to make out with him after the show, and, like teenyboppers at a Blink182 concert, the audience replied enthusiastically. For a band of such renown, they seemed all too pedestrian, roughly on par with the average college frat party band.
The evening was not a complete fiasco, however, and that was thanks to Grand Buffet. Preceding Of Montreal’s set, these two scrappy miscreants from Pittsburgh took to the stage without an instrument in sight, a brave gesture at an indie rock show. The burly Lord Grunge seemed to proudly represent the working class heroes of the Steel City, while the slimmer redhead Grape-A-Don cut a skeletal figure in an ill-fitting Bart Simpson T-shirt. Backed by two-bit beats that bordered on cartoonish, the duo spat rhymes about worshipping Satan, voting Republican, sniffing vampire shit and a host of other activities they had probably never done. It was intelligently moronic, definitively ironic and for me at least, love at first sight. After the show, the two emcees hawked apparel featuring a slogan that championed soft pretzels and damned the illuminati, and a live DVD that, among other things, documented Grape-A-Don rapping to a crowd of six bored preteen skateboarders from atop a vending machine in an empty Wal-Mart parking lot. I paid in cash.
Unfortunately, “King Vision,” the first Buffet full-length in seven years, is something of a letdown. While still reliably bizarre in the live forum, Grunge and the Don have grown dissatisfied with being a simple novelty act, as first evidenced on yesteryear’s “Haunted Fucking Gazebo.” But while that EP achieved a delicate balance between the poignant and the hilarious, musical refinement and raw quirk, “Vision” finds the Buffet botching the equation and losing sight of their goals. “Tiny Vacation” begins with a brief dialogue about “the baseball brigade,” but soon veers into an unremarkable electro-beat instrumental. “Outside,” “Seek To Know,” “Heavy Targets” and roughly half the album are all midtempo pontifications that meander far but arrive nowhere, exceedingly broad lyrics applied to disappointingly narrow-minded music. The bug-eyed “Cream Cheese Money” is a throwback to the strangely sparkling sound of classic Buffet, but it lacks the stupid impact of old staples like “Candy Bars” and “Double Crazy.” Their acrid wit has dulled, and the result is a record that simply underwhelms.
In the mire of the monotony, Grunge and Grape-A-Don occasionally hit upon some salvageable revelations. Pop-rock anthem “Casting Shadows” provides needed variety and questions political apathy by coupling a pretty melody with the smart quip, “Something dark is casting shadows over you and yours / Fuck you if you really think it doesn’t matter anymore.” Abrasive synth assaults on “Overcoming” deride self-satisfaction as the two chant, “We take steps to perfect this device / To destroy our contentment with average lives,” a message compelling the listener to begin work on a device of his own.
And then there’s “Dark Autumn.” The aquatic beat submerges the duo in a sea of reverb as Grape-A-Don casually tosses off a succession of potent witticisms, a stream of consciousness that actually adds up. On the chorus — a triumph of rhythm and rhyme — Lord Grunge contemplates the motivations behind ambition, the choice between simply cursing the system and resolving to create your own. It’s a stunningly perceptive and eloquent track, something several thousand leagues above the light-hearted misadventures of the old Buffet and a hint of what the album could have been.