CLAIMS TO STAKE 


Last September, a new Outback Steakhouse advertisement provided the year's definitive "Wait, what? Rewind!" television moment for indie-rock connoisseurs. The spot unveiled an altered version of Of Montreal's psychedelic-dance single "Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games," with its lyrics revamped, its chorus heftily reinforced and its instrumentation Aussied up with tribal rhythms and didgeridoos. "You call that a hook?" Crocodile Dundee might ask fans of the original. "This is a hook."

Outraged posters at IndieHQ.com called upon Of Montreal's label Polyvinyl to issue a cease-and-desist order to quell this "blatant rip-off." However, the band was well aware of the appropriation. "We thought it would be totally amusing to hear their take on one of our songs," singer Kevin Barnes told the Web zine Stereogum.

Following the five stages of grief in linear fashion, fans progressed from denial to anger. "Having a restaurant actually change the words to your song to sell overpriced foodstuffs is totally selling out," a Stereogum reader ranted. In a MySpace post that detailed "misguided creeps" heckling the group with a "steak, steak" chant at a January gig in New Orleans, Barnes dismissed their indignation, writing, "Sometimes you have to suck a little dick to get by."

"Wraith" presents a unique case. Usually, an unfamiliar yet engaging song used as an advertisement backdrop prompts web searches, with intrigued listeners using lyrics as their criteria. This process introduced viewers to Grandaddy, Goldfrapp and other underground artists whose tunes lent classy ambience to car and computer commercials. The "Wraith" ad won't spark curiosity in the uninitiated, because after Outback's alterations, the song appears to be a proprietary jingle.

On the album version, Barnes proposes "bizarre celebrations": "I'll play the satyr in Cyprus/You the bride stripped bare … We'll play Tristan and Isolde/But make sure I see white sails." During the chorus, he sings, "Let's pretend we don't exist/Let's pretend we're in Antarctica."

Outback's anonymous vocalist eschews the mythological role-playing, instead concentrating on the rejuvenating effects of casual dining: "Let's kick back for the moment/Toss all your worries in the air/'Cuz you'll forget them when you're there." He then offers this invitation: "Let's go Outback tonight/Life will still be there tomorrow."

"Let's pretend we're in Australia" would have been an easy fix and an apt transition into the announcer's thickly accented testimonial about Down Under—style shrimp (presumably prepared on the barbie). But Outback's advertising execs harbor greater ambition. Blatant plug aside, this creative phrasing, which suggests eating at Outback is an experience that transcends life itself, preserves the escapist mood of the original.

Initially, this seems like a lose-lose proposition: Of Montreal lures scant new listeners while alienating a vocal segment of its existing fan base. However, the band surely received compensation for its melody, supplementary income that helps bankroll its flashy live show. Wearing feather boas, Raggedy-Andy makeup and shoulder-padded sparkly gold jackets, Of Montreal's members toss handfuls of glitter into the audience. Disco beats, hard-jangling riffs and the most convincing British accent ever honed in Athens, Ga., collide during the group's Studio-54-meets-Ziggy-Stardust sets.

Even touring with a band could be seen as an Outback-aided luxury, given that Barnes handled virtually all instrumentation on Of Montreal's three most recent records. Without a steak-subsidized slush fund, perhaps he couldn't afford to justify, say, a drummer who only sporadically squats behind his kit. (Drum machines generate many Of Montreal rhythms.) His benefactors' contributions might also surface in the studio, where the kaleidoscopic composer is always looking to expand his sonic scope.

And if a few hardened purists can't forgive his corporate dalliance, well, life will still be there tomorrow.

music@orlandoweekly.com

More by Andrew Miller

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