Elephant 6 gone electronic? Yes, it’s true. The movement famous for its four-track psychedelic symphonies is now fiddling around with laptops and drum machines.
But the experimentation on The Sunlandic Twins is not unprecendeted. On 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic, Of Montreal fooled around with everything from disco-funk to Afro-pop. And as a listener who last heard Of Montreal on 2001’s annoyingly whimsical Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies, I’m pleasantly surprised at how fun and exciting the band has become. By embracing different genres and arrangements outside of the religion of the Three Bs (The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and The Byrds) that Elephant 6 so often clings to, Of Montreal has become the sort of pop band the Talking Heads were in their Little Creatures period: weird, erudite, but still hook-filled enough to make your less hip friends think they’ve found “The Next Big Thing.”
The Sunlandic Twins begins with “Requiem for O.M.M. 2,” a song with a dissonant intro that quickly turns to a Flamin’ Groovies-esque power pop song about lost love, with a warm, treated organ playing during the fade-out. The next song, “I Was Never Young,” has that clicking beat and synth pad slap familiar to anyone who listens to laptop music, but at heart it’s a pop song about how lead singer Kevin Barnes never had the innocence of youth. The album’s third track, the oddly named “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (and Other Games)” is – excuse my language – the shit. Though my little brother thinks it sounds like a poppier Eno, I’d call it avant-disco, meaning it’s weird and a little spacey, but it grooves like anything off ’70s super label Casablanca.
Next up is “Forecast Fascist Future,” or what I like to call the important song. With the chorus “Boredom murders the heart of our age/while sanguinary groups take the stage/Boredom strangles the life from the printed page” the song seems to be about lame pop bands or artists refusing to deal with the state of the world. But Barnes even indicts himself, pointing out that he and his band are, “far away from all violence/ safely flying in our own orbit.” How true. It’s refreshing to hear a indie pop band admit that cute, white middle class people live in their own privileged reality, but Barnes’ plea that “we never go mental/ and forever remain gentle” is a little lacking in bite compared to the rest of the song.
Around track nine, the album starts to lose a little steam. “I Was a Landscape in your Dream” is slow, sort of ponderous, and features an annoyingly angelic choir on the chorus. The song really doesn’t have a hook and just seems sort of overdone, with Barnes perhaps thinking the first half of the album the pop side while the second side more epic and experimental. The result, along with the next track “Death of a Shade of a Hue,” just feels pointless and pretentious. Not until the Pet Shop Boys-esque “Oslo in the Summertime” does the album retain its momentum. Finally making a direct reference to the Scandinavian theme hinted at in the album’s title, “Oslo” has great fun with the culture shock Barnes experiences in Norway, with the sun never going down and beautiful people everywhere – people Barnes and his band can’t help but stare at.
Overall, The Sunlandic Twins is a triumph, winning back all those fans who’ve placed Of Montreal in the category of “those other Elephant 6 bands.” By adding the warm tones of electronica, Kevin Barnes and crew help you remember why weird indie pop is always better than weird TRL pop.