- What's worse?: Kevin Barnes' outfit (center) or that dude's silly 'stache?
The most enduring albums and films allow you to identify with strong central characters. In both media, the narrators can gain public empathy by showing they're fallible in ways that are defiant without being standoffishly defensive.
Recent releases by the Athens, Georgia quintet Of Montreal and Portland, Oregon's the Shins show songwriters submerged in exploring their characters while searching for connections. The contrast between the indie-pop acts is this: James Mercer -- the leader of the Shins, who feels shouldered with the responsibility of changing others' lives -- recognizes he can't be something to everyone, so he indulges himself. And Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes -- almost manically concerned with life changes -- isn't sure he can be anything to anyone . . . so he indulges himself as well. The path each band has taken to its current level of success is certainly the stuff of which coming-of-age scripts are made.
The Shins' ability to alter states of mind has already been canonized in the 2004 film Garden State. A surprisingly large audience connected with Zach Braff's cinematic story of battling disassociation, and the Shins' comforting simplicity played a major role in that tale. Apparently, the group's jangly indie-pop disarms even the most withdrawn perpetual adolescent.
With the Shins' latest full-length, Wincing the Night Away, the act addresses the kind of expectations that make bands insomniacs. And they do this by sidestepping total earnestness for minor-key vernacular. Wincing adopts a somber aura; arrangements are unobtrusive, but not unnoticed, featuring splashy reverb and droplets of synths. Drums are more voluminous, while the lyrics are often more closed off -- especially noticeable following so many arms opening to embrace the band post-Garden State. Frontman James Mercer has said he enjoys water analogies, because the aqueous images represent apathy prevalent in the world. On Wincing, that comes through in such searching songs as "Sealegs" and "Black Wave." But the struggle of reconciling identities jumps out as early as the opener, "Sleeping Lessons," where Mercer sings, "Glow, glow, melt and flow/Eviscerate your fragile frame/And spill it on the ragged floor/A thousand different versions of yourself."
Mercer prefers making his songs into puzzling snapshots to crafting easy portraits. With Wincing the Night Away, he centers on themes of transition, and in this approach, the Shins attempt to be less the key to joy for troubled minds and more accurately a band with its own insecurities to unlock.
Of Montreal, meanwhile, received its most concentrated acclaim as the revamped vehicle for singer-songwriter Kevin Barnes. Unlike the Shins, Of Montreal has no simple parallel in contemporary cinema, although Dr. Seuss' 1953 live-action movie The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T -- about children enslaved to play a madman's rhythms in a surreal piano factory -- possesses qualities similar to Barnes' fantastical sense of reality. Of Montreal has always featured lysergic cascades with an increasing undercurrent of hyper-real maladies -- alongside melodies.
Whereas doe-eyed Mercer has become more obscured on this year's output, bloodshot Barnes is more forthcoming, albeit in his own way. Previous Of Montreal albums were imbued with too much middle-school affectation, Barnes defusing emotional impact with quirky figurines and flatulent rainbows of instrumentation. There was an inherent melancholy embedded in the music, but the singer often spent more time personifying benign creatures in woodland glens than aiming for the frenzied confessions reached on Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Of Montreal's eighth and most realized album.
Compared to early Of Montreal one-two-twee bounce, Hissing Fauna contains a cancerous point of origin. "I spent the winter with my nose in a book/While trying to restructure my character/Cause it had become vile to its creator," croons Barnes during "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger." From there the disc chronicles the frontman's chemical depression during a Norwegian sojourn.
The first half of Hissing Fauna shares a wintry shimmer with Wincing the Night Away. This especially comes through in a 12-minute flagellation ("The Past Is a Grotesque Animal") that spirals into the album's post-antidepressants second half, which sees Barnes indulge his inner freak through the persona of "Georgie Fruit," a black she-male. Admittedly, the kinky glam-funk portion of Hissing Fauna showcases many of Barnes' odd fantasies. But it still avoids the obtuse fables of the early years. Hissing Fauna represents a barbed paranoia -- yet for all the rancor, it remains giddy, following the narrator's rootless feelings to the self-destructive brink and back.
On these two albums both Mercer and Barnes present characters less overtly lovable -- or at least less emotionally stable/ accessible. And yet they're reaching out to be loved even more for publicly chronicling their doubts and bouts. Often successful, they (at the very least) should be respected for establishing poise as they shoulder their burdens. Whether passively or aggressively, evasively or with embellishment, the new Shins and Of Montreal albums use faults as episodes, not epilogues. Able to hold an audience's attention, these characters have earned a sequel.