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Sleepless nights and singalongs

January 27, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Travel writer Pico Iyer once described jet lag as the sensation that your mind is "moving as with a phantom limb." He wrote, "I feel, when lagged, as if I'm seeing the whole world through tears, or squinting; everything gets through to me, but with the wrong weight or meaning. I can't see the signs, only their reflections in the puddles. I can't follow directions, only savor the fact of being lost."

This traveler's condition is common now, even for those of us who rarely leave our wi-fi equipped home offices. Psychic jet lag is the normal state for the wired individual, who can live in multiple time zones and even historical epochs (imaginatively, at least), hemmed in only by the number of tabs available on the Web browser. Inner mobility is taking us far beyond what dial-up postmodernists imagined, resetting all of our sensors until dislocation is the status quo.

It's no coincidence, then, that the first two really exciting rock releases of the year come from bohemian whiz kids making retro-futuristic singalongs about insomnia and anxiety attacks. "Wincing the Night Away," the third album by Portland, Ore.-based rising stars the Shins, and "Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?," the eighth from the prodigious Athens, Ga., collective Of Montreal, tap into the strange wandering mood of contemporary life in captivating, if not always perfectly contained, pop songs.

Both works are not just intellectual dalliances but expressions of real crisis. As he states quite directly in the lyrics to grandly titled songs such as "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger," Of Montreal leader Kevin Barnes came close to a breakdown after relocating to his Norwegian wife's homeland upon the birth of their first child. James Mercer struggled with insomnia and the sense that "my whole world was moving around," as he told one interviewer, after a spot on the "Garden State" soundtrack propelled the Shins into the upper echelons of alternative-rock success. These painful internal struggles led both facile songsmiths to go beyond the archival romps of their previous efforts into more emotionally and musically challenging territory.

"Hissing Fauna" hits harder on first listen -- it's more naked, more grandiose, just more. At the same time, it's less, because, as with the last few Of Montreal albums, Barnes generated the bulk of its raging disco-psychedelia solo on laptop and synthesizers. Part of the Elephant Six collective of artists who have been updating 1960s-style "baroque pop" for the era of the sampler, Barnes embraced dance music and computers simultaneously, but he kept Of Montreal's aura post-punk -- makeshift and tending toward extremes. It's this mix of little quirks and big beats that makes "Hissing Fauna" so much fun. But it's the way Barnes pushes himself, both to tell the truth and to try new things, that lends these songs a heavier, more compelling edge than most contemporary baroque-pop.

The intensity tops out on "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal," an 11-minute yowl based around guitarist Bryan Helium's coiling riffs. Like some feral child of the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" and Brian Eno's "Needle in the Camel's Eye," the song induces an altered state that's not a good trip at all.

Barnes, always an effusive vocalist, moans and yelps his way through the song's rambling lyric as if it's a forced confession. Unfurling verses recall his first encounter with the woman who would win him, his failure to stay won, their battles and his remorse; letting it all out, he grits his teeth and follows the simple melody line like a fluorescent path in the dark. "We're always connected by underground wires," he snarls, maybe letting her go, maybe not. "And none of our secrets are physical now."

In Barnes' songs, perception and reality are like tectonic plates in an earthquake; they should meet but keep breaking apart. This manifests in frenetically happy music paired with lyrics about hitting rock bottom. "Come on chemica-a-als," he croons like a lousy Elvis impersonator to his depressive brain; a synth riff bubbles up, defying the dark lyrics with pure giddiness.

"Labyrinthian Pomp" unleashes an alter ego (disturbingly named "Georgie Fruit") that's more funk than punk; Barnes narrowly avoids racist caricature by making sure his other schizo selves keep butting in to smash a few windows.

He's said that Sly Stone inspired "Hissing Fauna," and you can hear that great outsider's apocalyptic party jams in Barnes' tightly wound rhythms; plenty of other mutating geniuses have left their mark on him, including Prince, Eno and Jeff Lynne of ELO. Rising above his sources by diving into his own mental wreck, Barnes pioneers a new style for these dislocated times: confessional pastiche.

Mercer does nothing so extreme on "Wincing the Night Away" -- he's still a natty choirboy worshiping well-turned melodies, though now he renders them more chic through shimmery synthesizers and studio effects.

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