OF MONTREAL

OVERVIEW:
Kevin Barnes is a unique songwriter worth getting to know, and he has a lot of great arrangement ideas. He can also be incredibly annoying and repetitive, and I’m not crazy about most of his records as extended pieces. But I respect the guy, and can’t deny the craftsmanship that went into nearly every tune in his catalog. Definitely start with “Satanic Panic in the Attic” for a good introduction to most aspects of this band.

THE ALBUMS:

Cherry Peel
The Bird Who Continues To Eat The Rabbit’s Flower
The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy
The Gay Parade *
Coquelicot Asleep In The Poppies: A Variety Of Whimsical Verse
Aldhils Arboretum
Satanic Panic In The Attic *
The Sunlandic Twins
Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
Skeletal Lamping
False Priest

Paralytic Stalks *
Lousy With Sylvianbriar *
Aureate Gloom

Innocence Reaches

 

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CHERRY PEEL  (1997)

B-

The first Of Montreal record is an unassuming little lo-fi thing. These are gentle 60s-inspired and mainly acoustic pop songs mixed with some more classic indie-sounding DIY recordings. Parts of this sound like Guided by Voices, and parts of it are a bit more twee and “nerd-cute.” In other words, it straddles two sides of archetypical “indie” music: the melodic, sloppy, pop-encyclopedic GBV/Pavement side which I love, and the precious “look-at-how-artsy-and-cute-I-am” side that I despise. In general, this is pleasant and engaging while it’s playing, but I have a hard time remembering any of the songs when it’s over. That’s actually an issue I have with Kevin Barnes’ song-writing throughout his career: he has a very unique hook writing ability and style, but the songs never stick. They’re mellifluous and fun, and many of the melodies spark my interest like a good classic pop hook should, but something is missing. Perhaps it’s the constant lyrical obtuseness. Anyway…on this album, I really enjoy “Baby” and “Sleeping In The Beetle Bug.” And the whole platter is pretty consistent, though “Tim, I Wish You Were Born A Girl” totally grates on my nerves – it’s kind of art-nerd lyric you’d to find in a high schooler theater student’s notebook. Though to his credit I’m pretty sure Barnes is using that template to make a more ironic statement about sexuality – a theme he would continue milking later in his career. In any case, I find the song obnoxious.

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THE BIRD WHO CONTINUES TO EAT THE RABBIT’S FLOWER   (1997)

C

This band has some really terrible album titles. I genuinely appreciate complex language in pop music, but I also think it’s sometimes useful to be more direct with your song and album titles. To me, it’s a sign of this on-the-verge-of-pop-genius band’s compulsion to be “different” that they name so many songs and records with overlong or unintelligible titles. It’s not a bad compulsion to have, of course, and I’m sure the titles are mostly tongue in cheek – I also don’t necessarily doubt Barnes’ enthusiasm and sincerity. But the over-the-top-wordiness just rubs me the wrong way with this band. This is a mini-album that sounds like a slightly more polished continuation of “Cherry Peel.” Nothing on here is too crazy, and the psychedelic touches are more accessible and less theatrical. They do a good cover of The Who’s “Disguises” which is by far the best thing on here. I’m also a fan of “If I Faltered Slightly Twice,” though I can’t really remember anything about it after listening to it and enjoying it multiple times. The rest of this falls into that same “pleasant and partially engaging, but way too slight” cavern of the previous record.

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THE BEDSIDE DRAMA: A PETITE TRAGEDY  (1998)

C

Here we have concept album of sorts – it takes us from the genesis to the break-up of a relationship. The album is much more somber and less immediate than “Cherry Peel.” It’s also less interesting than that record – there are definitely some genuinely beautiful moments, but I find it dull as a whole. Nothing quite gels conceptually, and once again there are a lot of complex but unmemorable melodies. The album opens with the happy songs, as the couple first meets, but things turn very dark and sad as the album progresses. The Radiohead-esque “Panda Bear” seems to be meant as the album’s centerpiece, and it’s probably the strongest composition. But that’s the only song on the record that truly stands out for me. This is hardly a bad record, and certain songs grew on me a bit. But too often it’s overly monotonous and ultimately just seems undistinguished. The sound is less lo-fi than “Cherry Peel,”, but I think that 4-track-y sound would have worked even BETTER on such a sad and lonely record as this.

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THE GAY PARADE   (1999)

B

This album finds Kevin Barnes’ songwriting and production skills getting better and more confident, and yet many of the old problems still persist. It’s a concept album of sorts – a bunch of little narrative vignettes about everyday life. There’s some serious Ray Davies influence at play here, and the band REALLY brings out their 60s pop side. And you can’t have a 60s pop album without lovely melodies, which do crop up on this album occasionally. “Fun Loving Nun” is definitely the best Of Montreal song to grace a record yet! In a sense, this is the definitive early-era Of Montreal album – it’s not quite as fractured as the follow-up, and still holds onto a shred of the lo-fi indie vibe of the previous albums (but it’s a very small shred, as this is pretty much totally stylized as a music hall-Britpop 60s piece). This is a very entertaining record – there’s a genuine sense of fun here. But alas, as before, everything is so whimsical it almost floats away, and while the songs are fun to listen to, nothing really sticks. The second half is way less exciting than the first, although as a finale the cute story-song “Nickee Coco and the Invisible Tree” is a major highlight. Cute is actually a good way to describe this entire record – cute and quirky enough, mildy ambitious, but ultimately nothing to write home about. The best early Of Montreal album though, FOR SURE.

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COQUELICOT ASLEEP IN THE POPPES: A VARIETY OF WHIMSICAL VERSE  (2001)

C+

Oh man. This is a REALLY hard one to wrap my head around. I’ve heard Barnes describe this as a “Os Mutantes” and “SMILE” type schizophrenic pop album – basically, my favorite genre in the universe. I wanted to love this. And the production is insanely impressive, and a giant leap forward for this band. Every nook and cranny is filled with interesting noises, and the whole thing is pulled off with incredible craftsmanship and attention to detail. It sounds like Barnes’ results are matching up with his intentions quite beautifully. And yet…I don’t like this album. The melodies aren’t that great, the schizophrenia feels forced, it’s way too long and tedious, and there are too many “story” tracks and not enough musical substance. It doesn’t feel like a pop record – more like a soundtrack to a piece of performance art. There are moments of genuine wonder, but the magical realism tone starts to get a bit old after a while. And paradoxically, for all the variety of instrumentation and ideas on here, the album somehow sounds very monotonous. There aren’t really any classic sounding “songs” on here, as it’s a fractured song fragment sort of record – usually the lyrics and narratives dictate what happens musically. The opening 5 tracks feel by FAR the strongest to me, which could have something to do with my aural exhaustion by the end. I’m also very confused by the epic closer, “Hopeless Opus…” It’s simply dreadful – a 17 minute amateurish piano solo, with a couple brief vocal lines,  and so unfocused that it sounds improvised. It sounds like one of those cheap silent movie scores sputtering in your ear without pictures for 17 fucking minutes. I don’t know if it’s just an extended bonus track (there’s a long pause after natural closer “Let’s Go For a Walk”), or Barnes meant it to be listened to as part of the record. But either way – I’m actually pissed off that I sat through it multiple times. It’s absurdly boring and goes nowhere. In the end, I can’t imagine myself ever putting this record on again, save to study some of the exciting arrangement ideas. It’s really a feat of engineering and production. But as music for the soul, it just doesn’t do it for me.

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ALDHILS ARBORETUM   (2002)

B+

This is a significant improvement over everything that came before, and yet this album seems to get swept under the rug by most. Perhaps it’s due to the refinement of this formula on the following record, or perhaps it too closely straddles the early sound and the later sound to win major fans in either area. And arriving as it did after the incredibly fractured and wacky “Coquelicot,” this must have sounded like child’s play to the band’s fans. It’s still very weird at times, but it’s definitely the most pop song-y album the band has put out yet. The playing is great on this – way more detailed and energetic than you hear from most bands around this era. That being said, the album sort of loses focus halfway through, and there’s only so much of this ONE MOOD I can take at any time – that’s probably this band’s biggest flaw – the lack of diversity in the delivery. But there’s still a lot of really great stuff on here – “Doing Nothing” is a killer opener,” “Jennifer Louise” a totally catchy and fun pop tune, and “We Are Destroying The Song” one of the best experimental-oriented tracks from the band. Later on, I really like “Kid Without Claws.” This is a very underrated record, even by the band’s fans.

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SATANIC PANIC IN THE ATTIC  (2004)

A

Easily the peak of the Of Montreal recording experience for me. This falls somewhere between the R&B-electro hipster records Barnes was soon to make, and the early 60s inspired psychedelia. But it all comes together on this release – the hooks are great, the production (by Barnes alone) totally awesome and creative, the singing mostly quite lovely and inspired, and even the artwork takes a step forward. This barely sounds like the same band anymore – and it isn’t really – but nonetheless, it’s BY FAR their most consistent record, and a mini-classic for 2000s-era pop music (which doesn’t contain very many mini-classics, let alone classics). Now, I say mini because even though I know I LIKE almost all of these songs, they seem to float away when the albums stops playing. I can’t name one of them by memory, partly because of the silly thesaurus-hunt song titles, and partly because of the general fluffiness.  Well, I can remember a couple of the best ones: “Lysergic Bliss” is a contender for all-time greatest Of Montreal track. That’s a fuckin’ a great groove, and those vocal harmonies are rendered absolutely perfectly!  “Chrissie Kiss The Corpse” is a wonderful pop song, and the horribly titled “Eros’ Entropic Tundra” has a spectacular bass-line and hook. But even these songs don’t quite don’t find their way into my soul, even if they please my brain while playing. Nonetheless, the arrangements are consistently dense and exciting on here, the melodies consistently fresh and interesting. There’s one big flaw: opening track “Disconnect The Dots” is way too obvious and sort of cloying in that overly precious indie-rock way, like it was made to be in a commercial. That vibe starts to kill the band for me on later records. Everything else is pretty great though (“Rapture Rapes The Muses” teeters on indie-80s-worship crap, with that obnoxious synth-line, but the hooks and general exuberance in the track win out in the end) . A winner! A real winner! But this newfound winningness wasn’t to last very long.

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THE SUNLANDIC TWINS   (2005)

B-

A couple big steps down, and here is where Barnes first really starts to show signs of “trying to fit in,” so to speak. I’m not sure whether or not he was trailblazing or simply following the pack, because I wasn’t really paying attention at the time. But what was once a very idiosyncratic and bizarre sound now starts to grow way trendier and way simpler, and parts of this sound like generic indie rock for loft parties. The electro-pop schtick is delved into even further this time (basically milking the formula of “Rapture Rapes The Muses,” one of the more annoying songs off of “Satanic”). Granted, Barnes is quite creative in the context of that genre, with his melodic bass-lines and slightly off-kilter grooves, and his vocals have grown totally commanding and even powerful at times. But it’s not all that surprising that this was considered Of Montreal’s “Sell-out” record – they infamously sold the dorky “Antarctica” hook of mediocrity “Wraith Pinned to the Mist” to Outback Steakhouse – they changed the lyrics, and coupled with this album’s follow-up boosted their career to previously undreamed of levels of popularity. Anyway, this is a weird record – clearly front-loaded with the “jams,” with a latter half of depressing electro-experiments and instrumentals. And while I’m not crazy about the thing, there are some minor gems on here. I love the last track – “The Repudiated Immortals” – as it’s super concise and has an awesome hook and harmonies. “Forecast Fascist Future” is another winner, and sounds like a “Satanic Panic” song. “I Was A Landscape In Your Dream” be a cool and haunting number, mon. The opener “Requiem for o.m.m.2” has a very well-written hook, though it’s a bit undistinguished and not all that exciting. Otherwise weak tracks abound, as well as too many overly simple bouncy indie hooks. Worst offenders to my ears include “The Party’s Crashing Us,” which sounds like a dance song for white college kids on coke, “So Begins Our Alabee” which is totally unmemorable and dull, and a bunch of instrumentals that scream “filler.”

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HISSING FAUNA, ARE YOU THE DESTROYER?   (2007)

B

(originally gave this a B-, but it has grown on me. “Suffer For Fashion” is a killer opener. Sue me, I changed. Original review below).

This was the big one for Of Montreal – it led to their complete indie rock canonization. Pitchfork nation really got behind this album, and suddenly Kevin Barnes was a huge star. Interestingly enough, it’s the least fun and catchy Of Montreal album since “The Bedside Drama.” Kevin was in the middle of some marital crisis, and he gets quite autobiographical here. I suppose this record was a kind of catharsis for him. He also ups the funk and glam quotient quite a bit, and I think every drum track on here is electronic. When I first heard this album I absolutely positively HATED it with ever fiber of my being. It was more of a reaction to the aesthetic, and the vocals, than anything else. I’ve since come to appreciate the density of some of these arrangements, and there’s a little run of songs in the 2nd half that I quite enjoy. “Faberge Falls For Shuggie,” “Labyrinthian Pomp,” and the glammed out Roxy Music-esque “She’s a Rejector” are the best tracks. You can’t talk about this record with mentioning the 12 minute centerpiece, “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal.” It’s an endless post-punky repetitive groove with Kevin singing random melodic snippets about his relationship issues. It’s so boring and wannabe-hip that it almost kills the entire record for me. The first half of this record is pretty unmemorable, though opener “Suffer For Fashion” has some OK hooks. I’ll never understand the indie rock scene, and I certainly don’t understand why this album has become the go-to Of Montreal record. I guess losing the humor and the 60s rock influences makes Barnes cooler or something.

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SKELETAL LAMPING   (2008)

B

This record encapsulates the entire of Montreal experience for me – it’s hooks can be magical but they’re almost always unmemorable, it’s production is highly creative and unique, and Barnes personality is simultaneously endearing and grating. When this record WORKS, it’s really great – but too much of it sounds like hipster-disco or underwritten filler servicing the concept (it’s a fragment album, with no real solid songs but instead a series of separate-but-equal musical ideas strung together into a collage). There are times when I want to wring Barnes’ neck, times when I’m just bored, and times when I think he’s onto something truly genius. It’s hard to break this into tracks, as it’s supposed to flow as one long stream of music, but “Wicked Wisdom” has some incredible hooks, and “I’ve Seen A Bloody Shadow,” though VERY indebted to the Rolling Stones, still works as an awesome pop tune. Barnes’ vocal arrangements are impressive throughout, though they can get overbearing with too much exposure. It’s hard to make it through this hour long production in one sitting – it starts to grow extremely tedious on the back end. But there are definitely enough exciting moments to recommend it. The much publicized overt sexuality and Prince-isms are way less interesting than the moments where pop hooks and cool playing seem more important. Plus, Barnes’ lead voice has grown into an instrument of genuine Bowie-esque elasticity and power – where it used to be the weak link in the project, now it takes center stage with total confidence. I just hope he loses the Scissor Sisters-isms for follow up albums…

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FALSE PRIEST  (2010)

B-

(Originally gave THIS one a D+! I like it a lot more now. Elements still irritate me horribly, but one cannot deny Barnes’ craftsmanship and boldness throughout. Original review below).

My goodness…this is like every bad trait Kevin Barnes had previously exhibited rolled into one obnoxious package! And minus even his usually interesting hooks and arrangements! This is mostly just a stream-lined sounding version of ideas already presented on the previous two albums. I had heard that Barnes was working with Jon Brion, and going for a more hi-fi sound. Brion and Barnes collaborating seems totally logical, and led me to expect a dynamite pop record. Instead, we get mostly stale and dorky R&B songs with boring melodies. This album seems more like a soundtrack to the bands’ funk-psyche stage-show than something meant to stand alone. And while things definitely SOUND pretty good (although not particularly better than on the previous record, just a tad more polished ), the actual material on here is totally under-par for this band. ‘Skeletal Lamping” had similar compositional ideas throughout, but that album was at least structurally unique and contained some interesting hooks. To my ears, the only solid track on here is “Hydra Fancies.”  It sports a very unique arrangement, and the vocals are nice and unique. The rest are either Barnes-by-numbers type tunes (and he’s definitely repeating already-weak ideas left and right on this record), or completely annoying R&B songs. The worst offender is “Our Riotous Defects,” with it’s “crazy girl” refrain and stupid spoken-word sections that make Barnes sound like the most vapid nerd on the planet. And then there’s the Solange Knowles collaboration, “Sex Karma” which has the dumbest hook of Barnes’ career and sounds like disposable mall pop. There are some other OK songs – the opener “I Feel Ya Strutter” sounds like a “Hissing Fauna” B-side, and has the old-style melodic bass-lines, and “Girl Named Hello” has some fun Berlin-Bowie-styled vocals. There are lines on this album that make me cringe – like the reference to Ali McGraw on “Famine Affair” and the one to Parliament’s “All Your Goodies Are Gone” on “Our Righteous Defects.”  Towards the end of the record, things get super dark as Kevin starts freaking out again about relationship issues. But the songs are just not there – “Famine Affair,” “Casualty of You,” and “Around The Way” are some of the least successful tracks in this band’s career. And then the album ends with a spoken rant against religious extremism – while I agree with what Barnes is saying during this section, his presentation comes off as condescending and pointless. Much like this whole album. A huge disappointment.

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PARALYTIC STALKS (2012)

B+

The Jon Brion/R&B commercialisms of the previous record did not convince anybody that Barnes had ceased being an artsy freak. It secured his place at the top of the indie landscape, but he’ll never be a Top 40 man. And thus, for his next trick, he turns to 20th century classical, drones, and orchestrated proggy bits. This album got DESTROYED by the evil Pitchfork upon release – the man clearly lost some hipster cred in the 6 years since “Hissing Fauna.” Well, to my ears, this is actually a huge move in the RIGHT direction. There are still traces of white-boy funk, but they’re filtered through a bizarre dense and disturbing sonic landscape. This is possibly the most epic sounding production of the man’s career, and he goes out on some totally twisted limbs. The closing tracks feature lengthy non-song sound experiments, ambient passages, and horror movie theatrics. “Dour Percentage” is one of the cooler pop songs the man had put together in a while. This is a grower – upon first listen it may sound like a mess – but as Barnes is no longer relying on disco beats and he’s back to  picture painting with his production, I’m back onboard!

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LOUSY WITH SYLVIANBRIAR (2013)

A

YES. This album totally won me back. Great songs, great warm classic production, NO obnoxious hipster funk, all recorded live to tape. Vocals sound totally classic. Melodic and warm, with lots of nods to Dylan and classic British folk-glam-psych. This is as close to “classic rock” as modern indie can get, and I mean that as a major compliment. I didn’t think he had it in him, the cad.

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AUREATE GLOOM (2015)

A-

Keeping up the back-to-basics vintage approach, with a live band recording to tape, but shifting from glammy folk to glammy punk-inspired rock. More fractured and obtuse than Lousy, and it takes longer to sink in – but it DOES. Lots of cool melodic ideas, and it rocks harder than any other of Montreal record. Keep it up!!!!

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INNOCENCE REACHES (2016)

D

Uh. Kevin? Kevin? Are you there? Hey man. So – you won me over big time with the last two. I went back and found my way into the previous few. So I shouldn’t doubt you, pal. I really shouldn’t doubt you. You’re one talented prolific fella. But Kevin? After a few listens — hopeful and excited listens – I must say —– this album is HORRIBLE. What HAPPENED?!?! It even SOUNDS ugly, from an engineering perspective. There’s nary a good hook to be found, and a whole lot of your most obnoxious traits are crowding upon each other at once. You’re repeating yourself left and right. You’re back to dance pop, but…not Prince-y or Parliament-y or Glam-y. This is — modern EDM-y? Sorta? This is – crap? Sorta? I’ll try again one day. But for now I’m scared. I’m very scared.

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