2002 / 2004
aying tribute to 1987-1992, a friend of mine compiled a representative "Rad List". Ninjas, silk shirts, ramps, hair mousse, lasers, lines shaved in hair and spray paint all made the cut. The list captured the neon, tubular essence of a time period overridden by crimped hair girls and Bugle Boy'd boys. While it failed to prove the period was a pop cultural epoch, it is interesting to see how the aesthetically embarrassing period, is remembered.
If one were to play a similar association game with psychedelic pop and formulate a list of objects and sentiments that define the musical genre, it might include paisley designs, turtles with multi-colored shells, candy, hyper reality, cartoon flowers, smiles, treasure, black lights, and magic. Psychedelia's bubbly, sometimes goofy aura naturally stimulates smiles and sunshine within the listeners' mind, evoking images similar to these. Acoustic sing-a-longs, uppity circus organ figures and the layered xylophone arrangements of psych-pop have an uncanny way of lessening our capacity for dread and sorrow. Sadly, the mental states of the psych musicians who can spring-a-fy our winters and eternalize our springs, are not always reflective of their cheerful artistic outpourings. Their musical bliss can sometimes reach everyone but themselves.
Brian Wilson's struggle with paranoid schizophrenia and the ignorantly romanticized, yet sadly non-fictional, madcap existence of Syd Barrett are the best-known examples of psychedelic music-makers whose mental states were masked by the usual exuberance of their music. While modern psych has not given way to such recognizable tormented artists or even had a figurehead popular enough to become a renowned tragic hero, morose undertones still play a significant role in psychedelic pop. The 21st century has given way to several psych-pop artists who intertwine light music with dark subject matter. Last year, The Unicorns released an album containing some of the catchiest, brightest collection of musical hooks in recent years. The album's candy shell of happiness is paired with working titles and subjects about dying and ghosts. While this apparent fixation with death is undoubtedly tongue and cheek, it goes without saying that The Unicorns, and many other psychedelic pop acts, continue to use conflicting lyrical and musical tones.
Of Montreal, Athenian psych-pop veterans, has mastered these contrasting timbres. Their entire career has yielded several concept albums that are defined by the band's ingenious concoctions of hyperactive music and serotonin-slowing lyrics. Aldhils Arboretum, originally released in 2002, was re-issued to accommodate the newfound interest in the band, generated by their latest release, Satanic Panic in the Attic. The tracks are blanketed by lead singer Kevin Barnes' endearing, occasionally infantile, melodies and colorful, mosaic-like instrumental arrangements. While Barnes' lyrics don't indulge in apocalyptic imagery or read like autopsy reports, the lyrical subjects range from death, to low culture, to existentialism. When combined with such inexplicitly peppy music, the somber nature of Barnes' lyrics welcomes hesitant laughter. ("Is he being serious??")
"Doing Nothing" opens the album with twangy guitar rifts and snappy melodies that discuss Barnes' newly discovered meaninglessness of life. He sings, "We can ignore that this is sad / Because we know that it all adds up to nothing." "Old People In the Cemetery" follows and begs the question: Is it sad for the elderly "to visit the grave of a close friend / Who was the same age as [them] when they died?" Each song within the album is a separate entity, narrating its own short story. Introduced within these individualized narratives, is a husband whose middle-aged nihilism sends him into the arms of his wife's friend, a man who is reminded of breakfast dates with an old squeeze when eating pancakes and a person's ode to transcending life's blandness through sleep. Delivered in a culture that is hungry for black humor, these musical stories would lead one to believe they are sung in jest. But Kevin Barnes' career-spanning use of dark subject matter makes you wonder: is it presumptuous to assume sadness can't be expressed through major-keyed, richly textured musical medians?
Reviewed by: Kyle McConaghy
Reviewed on: 2004-11-24