I’m glad that I came out of this month’s Spoon show (you know the one) feeling so maligned, because it provides a perfect foil for the wonderful of Montreal show Sunday night at the Majestic Theatre. For those who don’t remember (or don’t care), I left Spoon’s set disenchanted with indie rock and its ethos; it seemed hollow and depleted and it was distressing seeing a staple band of the scene just going through the motions to an apathetic and cooler-than-thou crowd.
But where Spoon failed, of Montreal succeeded at every turn, proving that there was still something to be said and enjoyed by a genre that hasn’t been exciting since Mission of Burma obliterated audiences 25 years ago in mostly empty clubs.
Revitalized by last year’s trim Lousy with Sylvianbriar, the current incarnation of the Athens, Ga., indie pop band is leaner and punkier than ever. Their five member live setup—consisting of Kevin Barnes, Clayton Rychlik, Jojo Glidewell, Bob Parins and Bennett Lewis—was considerably more guitar-centric than other variants of the band, transposing songs long-ago etched as Beatles-aping synth pop into fuzzed-out jams.
Lewis’s guitar work especially brought a distinct heaviness and crunch to the product, and for the first time in many years the band sounded full and enthused. More than just a circus troupe backed by music, of Montreal seemed like an actual rock band.
And if that sounds suspiciously like how one would talk about Spoon—another notorious studio band who play up their rock sensibilities live—it really isn’t that far off the mark. But whereas Spoon is a band that relies purely on craft in a live setting, of Montreal were truly there to have fun.
From the moment they took the stage it was pure engagement; the band sans-Barnes filed out and churned out country guitar noodles and meandering bass lines as a masked and caped MC warned the audience that American country steak consumption was the only thing keeping the earth from hurtling off its access and into the godless vacuum of space.
Much like other avant-pop artists (Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, PC Music and so on), of Montreal in their later incarnations understand the relation between the sublime and the absolutely horrific. As per the norm, the show wove in nightmarish theatrics with the music, creating an immediate disparity between sugar rushes and eerie thespian antics. It’s maybe in this particular pocket of Montreal separate themselves from the pack, with a distinct sense of tension that makes you think about what exactly they’re trying to say.
That’s not to say it’s the theatrics themselves, which—having seen them now eight times in as many years—can definitely grow tiresome after repeated exposure, but rather the ideals they highlight. If Spoon play with subversion and mess with rock formulations while never breaking free of their hold, then of Montreal revel in the destruction of norms. Their pop music is at once aggressive and abrasive but also sweet and empathetic, powerful but subtle.
When Barnes, decked out in a wig and mesh top (introduced as a female ghost who haunts King Street), sang “I want you to be my pleasure puss/I wanna know how it feels to be inside you” on “Plastis Wafers” over chugging guitar, it’s not the delicate effeteness or limp campiness that usually categorically confines Barnes’ pansexual writing niche. Instead it’s muscular and sweaty; masculine without the binary restrictions (and it also got the Majestic floor literally shaking with the crowd jumping along in time). Think of Cakes da Killa, another artist making loose-term pop music but infusing it with thematic gender politics. This is brilliant pop music masquerading as exhibition, equal parts fun and provocation.
So: visceral music, theatrics, intellectual stimulation, what else do of Montreal do that Spoon don’t? For lack of a better word, fun. From the buzzing and monstrous bass of a reworked “Oslo in the Summertime” to the new anguished shrieks on the falsetto bits on “Gronlandic Edit” and the blistering eight-minute jam on “She’s a Rejector,” the band and the audience never stopped having a good time. Just as often as Barnes was gallivanting stoically around the stage playing Apollo he was cracking jokes with his bandmates and grinning at an endless animated crowd.
The audience never stopped moving, either; it was a constant, swirling mass of Dionysian proportions, especially during the epic “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” which closed out the second encore with a blisteringly noisy jam of feedback and frantic guitar shredding. It wasn’t just a great show or even one of the best of Montreal shows I’ve been to, it was one of the better shows I’ve ever seen. Everyone else, take note; this is how you resuscitate a dying scene. This is how you have fun.