Of Montreal – False Priest
Kevin Barnes frustrates me. After his Elephant 6 also-rans Of Montreal released the archetypal power-pop album (Satanic Panic in the Attic) about seven years too late, Barnes hopped onto the electro bandwagon, had some relationship problems, and devolved further and further into his fictional alter ego, a middle-aged African-American former glam rocker named Georgie Fruit who had undergone multiple sex changes. That was a lot to type, and Of Montreal’s latter years output has been quite a lot to listen to. Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? was rightly applauded as the sort of quasi-operatic electro-pop epic Barnes’ talent has always hinted at, complete with twelve-minute existential crises and fanciful wordplay. But Skeletal Lamping was everything I hated about Hissing Fauna magnified, Barnes’ rampant imagination given a green light to roam by all the critical masturbation, resulting in an album that was in desperate need of an editor, or better yet, a hook of any kind. So now comes Of Montreal’s tenth album, a milestone for any band but even more so from a group that is barely recognizable from their twee Elephant 6 days.
Considering I’ve gotten less and less excited for an Of Montreal release since Sunlandic Twins, I came to False Priest with more or less an open mind and one question: will we be getting crazy transsexual Georgie Fruit with this release, the one who doesn’t know when to shut up, or the relatively more mild-mannered Kevin Barnes, who could write a pop song to stand up with the best of Mangum and Schneider? I was pleasantly surprised to find that False Priest definitely leans towards the band’s earlier days, most noticeable in their decision to return to live instruments and a more organic recording process. Opener “I Feel Ya Strutter” is almost a revelation in this regard, although it’s without doubt a stereotypically Of Montreal-ian song – the drums are crisp and bouncy and the bass bubbly with a hint of funk, all while Barnes’ less-vocodered-than-usual vocals propel a pretty straightforward power-pop delight. There’s no electro gimmick, no crazy shift in tone or style, no Barnes yelping like a castrated maniac. There’s still that faint tinge of weirdness that reminds you this isn’t the Apples in Stereo, like that spoken-word bit in the bridge and typically bizarre lyrics (“I’m in a flight simulator / and I am crashing the birth of any potential memory / hey, I’m still way erect for you”). Right from the get-go, it’s obvious this isn’t going to be another Skeletal Lamping; False Priest is composed of actual individual songs, not a thousand piece cut-and-paste experiment, and the album as a whole is better off for it.
It’s not as if Barnes is entirely abandoning his Fruit persona. Some of False Priest’s best tunes mix in a healthy amount of funky R&B, particularly the blue-eyed soul and fat bass on “Hydra Fancies” and the superb combo of “Sex Karma” and “A Girl Named Hello.” It makes Barnes’ past missteps even more tragic when you hear a song like the effortless booty-shaking of “Girl Named Hello,” where it becomes obvious that a Kevin Barnes with a specified direction and a studio environment that doesn’t encourage endless tinkering is far superior to a Kevin Barnes trying to be the Elephant 6 version of Kevin Shields. And then there’s songs like “Coquet Coquette,” which sounds like a noise-rock outtake from Sunlandic Twins (read: awesome) or the Janelle Monae collaboration on “Enemy Gene,” where Barnes and the R&B superstar combine for the smoothest, most satisfying melody on the album. These songs are good precisely because they don’t try to overstep their bounds or become something they’re not – they follow the melody Barnes sets out for them, and although it’s been a while since he’s been so straightforward, his first-rate songwriting chops rise to the surface quite clearly here.
But it wouldn’t be an Of Montreal record if Barnes didn’t decide to fuck around here or there, and False Priest is as inconsistent as most everything else in the band’s discography. Where Barnes falls, he falls hard: the primarily spoken-word verses of “Our Riotous Defects” are embarrassingly bad; “Godly Intersex” can’t decide whether it wants to be an oddball slow jam or psychedelic pop and instead fades away with nary a lasting hook; and the way Barnes ends the proceedings, with the average “Around The Way” and the completely unnecessary 7-minute wankery of “You Do Mutilate?” is practically criminal. Don’t get me started on Barnes’ lyrics or predictably eccentric song titles – with lyrics like “you fetishize the archetype” and “when we experiment, I will put down your surrogate,” I’ve long given up trying to understand just what Barnes is getting at. Then again, isn’t that what Of Montreal have always been about? Subverting the Elephant 6 power-pop convention with his own quirkiness and defiantly unique peculiarities, Barnes has always been his own man, although once he finally made it out of the shadows of his contemporaries he got a little bit over his head with the genre/gender bending. With False Priest, Barnes finally seems to be settling into his own skin, cherry picking from his long history and patching it all back together into something that Of Montreal could ride into the new decade. Just no more concept albums, please.
Of Montreal – “Sex Karma”
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Release date September 14, 2010.