The Sunlandic Twins
By Christopher Alexander | 21 October 2007
There are two factions in my house: me vs. Dan. Dan displays a completist tendency for the Elephant 6 collective that’s typically reserved for the likes of Bob Dylan and the Beatles. As I’m writing this, Dan is attempting to fix our one broken record player so he can play both versions of Olivia Tremor Control’s “The Opera House” single simultaneously. Wait, he’s given that up. Now he’s going up to his room to play the CD that William Cullen Hart recorded with a microphone under the ground. Needless to say, Dan loves Of Montreal. He considers them one of the four or five essential American bands of the last ten years. He’d tell you himself if he wasn’t busy trying to convince me that Elf Power’s “Pay to Cum” is superior to the Bad Brains.
While a decided Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel enthusiast, I have more ambivalent feelings toward the rest of E6’s cronies. I consider the bulk of the Of Montreal catalogue to be uniformly competent with the occasional flash of brilliance. I can understand the critical fervor, even if I don’t share in it. Dan can’t get his head around this position.
But a house divided can not long stand, and fortunately we’ve had great occasion for a ceasefire. Indeed, there can be no argument in the face of a record like Satanic Panic in the Attic . I found the logic of Kevin Barnes’ songwriting too airtight to refute, and Dan agreed nothing to date, not even the beloved Gay Parade, had been as solid or fully realized. We toasted to peace and danced to “Rapture Rapes the Muses,” and when fall arrived and our loves had left, we brooded in our rooms to “Eros’ Erotic Tundra.” A bridge had been built.
The Sunlandic Twins should, by all rights, rekindle the war. It eschews the sunnier sounds of Satanic Panic for more electronic terrain, and features an ersatz opera tacked on its end that even longtime partisans find puzzling, or, as a colleague said, “pretty silly.” Both of these are, technically, true: it’s not the unabashed ear candy the previous record was, and the operatic tracks certainly don’t command as much mental residence as Barnes’ best work.
The critical litmus then becomes: so what? Does it sound frigid where it had previously been inviting? Then, does the ponderous thing toward the end derail the album’s momentum, or is it something easily ignored? Finally, we come to the meat of the matter: the songs. I mean, sure: you could have a (perfectly valid) conversation about whether the reliance on electronic instrumentation betrays the sixties-style sensibilities of his earlier work and, ergo, whether or not the bad taste in your mouth ruins your pallet for the record. That still leaves the one key question: Are the songs any good?
The answer: Oh, yes. Not only do the songs on The Sunlandic Twin meet the high-water mark set by Satanic Panic, but it passes the other criteria as well. The record is elastic and gooey, lively even if it seems to rest on every analog drum machine ever made. Further, the “difficult” portion earns significant goodwill from being bookended by two of the album’s best songs, and survives superficial analysis (which is a fancy way of saying that it doesn’t bug me when I clean the dishes). So while the record’s weaknesses collapse under scrutiny, we’re left with the album’s strengths: songs.
The beginning seems as good a place as any to start: “Requiem for O.M.M.2” may not be the most representative starter —- mostly due to the actual drums —- but it’s irresistible, with sly references to Ric Ocasek and Revolver. It and “Forecast Fascist Futures” sound like holdovers from Satanic Panic, not simply because the latter title evokes that record’s predilection for alliterative song titles. This is not an insult: “Forecast” recalls Hunky Dory-era Bowie in its intro, and the rest flirts openly with Satanic Panic’s combination of R.E.M. style chord-stuffing and hooks from hell. In fact, it’s probably my favorite song on the record.
Still, a better place to start would’ve been the undulating rhythms of “I Was Never Young.” Compositionally, it’s one of the most economical things Barnes has done, most of it relying on two chords. It shakes, it grooves, it does everything you’d want something that sells itself as “21st century A.D.D. electro cinematic avant-disco” to do. [Note that I’ve also satisfied Polyvinyl’s proviso that the preceding sentence find its way to every review printed.]
Even better is “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games,” featuring a cheek-puffed bass line that outdoes most of the recent dancepunk records. The dog gets buried with “The Party’s Crashing Us,” a happy marriage of Barnes’ hook-mongering and the synth-heavy electro-disco-whatever he strives for, and usually succeeds, with Sunlandic Twins.
I’m not trying to minimize the flaws of the record. I freely admit that I usually stop after “The Party’s Crashing Us” when I’m in more discriminating moods, even if “The Repudiated Immortals” is as strong as anything I’ve written about here. The fact is, Kevin Barnes has hit his stride with two great albums released inside a year’s time, and though not perfect, it’s unlikely 2005 will see many records eclipsing The Sunlandic Twins.