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2012 Outlook: Of Montreal, Van Halen & Fun

We are quickly approaching the end of the first month of the last year of all times, so them durn Mayans tell us. With that come three reasons to either cheer or fear the impending onslaught of new music.

Kevin Barnes and Of Montreal (which is somewhat misleading as Kevin Barnes is Of Montreal for all intents and purposes) return with Paralytic Stalks. Some may have already heard that Barnes has stepped back from his white-funk, dirtier mind than Prince alter ego which dominated the past few oM releases, and the rumors are true to a point. Paralytic Stalks (February 7), while still sounding part and parcel like an Of Montreal release, also has threads of the lo-fi pop and hyper psychedelia of a latter Flaming Lips release and a latent fascination with prog-pop elements. This is not a bad thing, and although the subject matter can get raw and personal at times as it did on Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, the end result also remembers that album’s inherent positives: hooks and melodies, and Barnes’ vocabulary mutations. It also renders Paralytic Stalks as something you want to come back to, versus something you’re afraid of getting an STD from.

For years I’ve moaned and groaned about why older bands cannot be more lyrically mature, and how skeevy it is when fifty-plus artists are still scamming for jailbait in their advanced states. I’ve complained that a whole sector of music was being ill served because the impulse to rock seemed genetically tied to the conceptual stereotypes promoted in the form for decades. Having not heard the full album of Van Halen’s pseudo-reunion A Different Kind of Truth (February 7), I can’t honestly speculate on whether the lead single “Tattoo” is a switcheroo or not.

What I can say is that, as singer David Lee Roth shows his age in the pre-chorus of the track (which, at times, sounds disconcertingly jowly), he also nods to it in the lyrics and I appreciate that. “Tattoo” is not what I expected at all when I first heard that title. I thought, “Oh no, this is going to be four minutes of an old man ruminating on the ink of a teenage conquest.” Instead, it talks up the concept of a tattoo itself, as an act of liberation, defiance, a rite-of-passage, or as a scar worn both proudly and, at times, not so proudly.

The song only sounds fully like a Van Halen song when Eddie solos, and for all the complaining I can do and have done about the iterations of the band, I cannot deny his place as one of rock guitardom’s greats. He proves it again and again. What remains is a stark reminder of how much a role Michael Anthony played in the band whether Eddie likes it or not, for even if he wasn’t the most electrifying bassists out there, his backup vocals distinctly identify the group’s sound, and that is the element missing here.

So it doesn’t quite sound like the band of old, but if the rest of the album manages to walk that lyrical fine line and not drift into hard rock self parody, as so many others embarrassingly have, I think I will be able to appreciate A Different Kind of Truth on a unique level. That’s a good position to be in, honestly. After all, who but the band’s fans will buy the record? Do they assume they’re going to get a whole new audience and have a massive comeback? The past five years have squelched such ambitions as bands from 2007 that make a new record can’t even earn the “Comeback Kid” crown anymore.

“Tattoo” is a decent track with the guts to show its wrinkles a little.

When Fun’s album Aim and Ignite appeared, it caused a stir here at Popdose. Large sections of the staff immediately fell for it, finding it to be the comfortable intersection between Jellyfish-sized power pop ambitions and Queen-sized pomp with a canny multi-instrumental arrangement. Some others found it to be a little bloated and a tad full of itself. I wound up falling for the record, and hard. Sure, at first it was difficult to locate the through-line of tracks like “Be Calm” which swiftly veered from slight Euro-folk-cabaret into a pop tune, then into an emo-tinged rave up, but once I got it it was hard to let it go. It became the most listened-to album of that year and, even now, I drift back to it steadily.

So you can imagine that I was thrilled to learn their second album Some Nights (available February 21) was “in the can” and the first single, “We Are Young” was now resting patiently on YouTube. Featuring a “featuring” from Janelle Monae, the track shouldn’t have proven as difficult a sell as it does. It is, to my ears, not a bad song as much as it is a conventional one. The instrumentation is a standard pop-rock set up of guitars, bass, vocal and that buzzy keyboard sound. There is only one tempo change up here and it occurs early in the song, and after that the tune just plods along like a funeral march.

What is going on here? I suppose the starting point is that producer Steven MacDonald (who, along with Aim & Ignite, produced Nate Ruess’s previous Dog Problems as part of The Format) has been changed with Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Drake). The sound that comes then is very calculated, somewhat cold, and predictable. It feels contemporary, but what struck me about Fun’s previous effort was it’s warmth and disregard for the hit-making mechanism. This track wants to be a hit very, very badly.

And it is. In mid-December when “We Are Young” debuted it made huge leaps on the Billboard Digital Songs chart. It was covered by the show Glee. It will, in all likelihood, make the album land somewhere cozy when it is released. And I will just as likely buy Some Nights on its week of release because I believe in this band and the track is not all that bad. It’s just cold, and I have difficulty finding Fun in the cold.

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  • http://sonicweapons.net Thierry

    As someone who really, really enjoyed fun.’s debut and has been thrilled with everything Janelle Monae has released thus far, I was also disappointed with this new single – it’s incredibly conventional in both structure and instrumentation and would not stand out at all if I heard it on the radio (which, I guess, I will). This reminds me a lot of Panic at the Disco’s step back towards overwrought emo-pop after their shockingly excellent – but commercially unsuccessful – second album, which had had featured surprising nods to Jellyfish, Love and the Left Banke. Shame.

    Also, I was kinda bummed that “We Are Young” wasn’t an update of “Love Is A Battlefield” with Monae on lead vocals. I think I would’ve liked that a lot more.