“It’s all been done,” the Barenaked Ladies sang, and that was in 1998. Fifteen years later, it’s only truer: when it comes to the world of rock & roll, there’s precious little new under the sun. In light of the genre’s increasingly massive back catalog, artistic success depends less on how much you can stretch sonic and compositional boundaries (they’ve already been stretched to breaking point and back) and more on how well you can hide your sources. And lest you think this is another “Why isn’t music today as good/original as [insert decade here]” rant, let me aver upfront that 1) there’s tons of great music being produced today, and 2) even as they pushed the envelope, the likes of the Beatles or Bob Dylan were as deeply indebted to their influences as anybody.
The truth of the Barenaked Ladies’ chorus–and the fact that this truth by no means signals the demise of great rock & roll–was confirmed by both of the bands on the marquis at the Waiting Room Lounge in Omaha, NE on November 2, 2013: La Luz opening for of Montreal.
Touring in support of their debut album, It’s Alive (2013), La Luz clearly believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. They bypass all-female forebears such as the Bangles and the Go-Go’s, stopping only to pick up their girl-group-via-New-Wave harmonies en route to their true destination: tremolo-picked, organ-inflected, early ’60s surf rock. The ladies of La Luz do manage to distinguish themselves – for instance, their smoky, minor-key songwriting brings to mind, not the Beach Boys’ Southern California, but the grey Pacific Northwest whence the band hails. Lead vocalist and guitarist Shana Cleveland is particularly well-versed in the surf rock idiom, repeatedly invoking the spirit of legendary guitarist Dick Dale during the group’s frequent instrumental breaks. In the final analysis, La Luz ends up mostly recreating the sound of their favorite vintage records without ever reaching far beyond them. But it’s a faithful recreation, and the girls are clearly having fun.
In this respect, La Luz were a perfect opening act. They set up the question: “How can modern artists integrate and synthesize their influences while remaining fresh?” in a way that allowed headliner of Montreal to give a more convincing answer.
This is partially due to the fact that of Montreal (or, more to the point, ringmaster Kevin Barnes) have had the better part of two decades to develop their sound. The influences are much harder to pin down here, not because influences are few, but because they are legion. Their latest album, this year’s Lousy with Sylvianbriar, brings classic rock (especially Neil Young and the Rolling Stones) to the fore of a sound that has incorporated everything from chamber pop to electronica and avant noise. And certainly the legacy of the late 1960s/early 1970s looms large. But Barnes’ versatility, and the utter strangeness of some of his compositions–driven home in a live setting by a surreal stage show that intersperses psychedelic light shows and performance art with moments of sheer “What the fuck?”–sets the band apart. The same song might veer from Stevie Wonder funk to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd freakouts to classic power pop in the vein of Big Star via Jellyfish. But Barnes (usually) manages to make it work.
Going into Saturday’s concert, I have to admit I was only cursorily familiar with the band’s back catalog. And it’s hardly unusual for a band to sound better live than it does in the studio. However, as I’ve been listening to of Montreal’s back catalog on Spotify all day long, I’m struck by just how much better they sound live. Songs like “Gronlandic Edit” and “Oslo in the Summertime” sound fine in the studio, compelling even; but they are transformed live. The drums are punchier, the tempos livelier, the guitars rock harder, the arrangements are fuller–and perhaps most noticeably, Barnes’ vocals are stronger, more upfront, reminiscent of David Bowie circa 1972.
Indeed, after the band’s 80-minute set, it was comparisons to Bowie that ultimately left the strongest impression on me. For Kevin Barnes’ kaleidoscopic (literally, the light show is trippy as hell) eclecticism, incorporating so wide a range of influences and hearkening back to so many familiar songs and sounds while avoiding outright mimicry, is very much of a piece with Bowie’s. It proves that, while it all may have been done, paradoxically enough, it can still be done again in new and exciting ways.