Do you remember our last summer of independence? Kevin Barnes apparently does, and spoke about such on the last Of Montreal album “Skeletal Lamping”. That was the band’s ninth album, and charting their evolution since the very first one in 1997 has been a highly interesting adventure. As part of the whole Elephant 6 collective, Of Montreal began as a very twee pop, innocent bedroom adventure. That sound was a great part of the band’s early appeal, though after a few records things naturally began to get a little tired and stale. So like all good artists do, Of Montreal evolved and the new phase was one of wackier, more spaced out hyperpop that owed great debts to 70s disco and funk while continuing to push the boundaries of modern music. Kevin Barnes and his merry band of misfits worked hard to essentially become Prince 2.0, and with a record like “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?” they damn well succeeded at it. But “Skeletal Lamping” was a sharp move in the wrong direction, to the point where Barnes created a transgendered alter-ego known as “Georgie Fruit” who took over on a handful of songs. Not only that, but lyrically things evolved to the point where everything became hyper-sexualized and explicit to the point of making even the most liberal people cringe just a little bit in disgust. Combine that with a collection of songs that only a child with ADHD could love (because they often began and ended with such speed and complete disregard for whatever came moments prior) and ultimately it was a mess – the first moderately bad Of Montreal album in quite awhile. How does one recover from such a musical misfire? If you’re Kevin Barnes, it probably means re-enacting the “Goodbye Horses” scene from “Silence of the Lambs”, but to each his own. But appearing to be just a little bit smarter this time around, Barnes enlisted the help of legendary producer Jon Brion to help with the next Of Montreal album, and also recruited friends such as Solange Knowles and Janelle Monae to spike up his punchbowl just a bit. All of these things are put together in the brand new Of Montreal album “False Priest”.
Sliding through even a couple of quick tracks at the beginning of “False Priest” brings an interesting idea of how things have changed in the last two years for the band. To start, Kevin Barnes has found his focus again. Somebody must have put him on a prescription of Ritalin because there’s no more bouncing between songs that are only halfway finished. Instead, songs expand and contract as they should and as they have on most other Of Montreal records. Additionally, the he/she character known as Georgie Fruit seems to have disappeared, though if Barnes merely singing in falsetto indicates he’s in character, then perhaps Fruit is still kicking on a few tracks. But the oversexed wordplay is toned down as well to make way for less cringe-worthy lines. The themes are still sexual in nature, but more on a PG-13 level than an NC-17 one. Relationships tend to be the topic of choice, but instead of sleeping with everything that moves, songs like “Our Riotous Defects” and “Coquet Coquette” are about the inability of men to understand women as Barnes echoes his confusion over why his woman is yelling at him or is withholding sex. As generally engaging as this might be, it does feel like territory that Of Montreal has covered before, albeit from different angles. Barnes doesn’t have quite as many interesting one-liners as he’s had on more recent albums, but he’s still without a doubt the chief architect of this band.
The way collaborators are used on “False Priest” is one of its strengths. Jon Brion acting as producer pulls the mostly minimalist arrangements that seem to dominate Of Montreal’s sound and dresses them up a little bit to give them a fuller and overall stronger feel, like the skinny kid that built up some muscle by working out. That said, Brion doesn’t nearly do enough to mess with what’s already a trademark band sound. You can throw lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. How much of an influence Brion had on this final product is officially unknown, but one gets the impression Barnes might have been a little sensitive about messing with songs he’d probably been working on for awhile. As for the vocal turns from Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles, both add a little bit of extra spice to the record. It’s nice to hear vocals other than Barnes and more Barnes harmonizing with himself. Monae’s work on “Enemy Gene” is simply wonderful, and the already good song only gets better when she steps up to the microphone. Monae also does a little vocal part on the second half of “Our Riotous Defects”, and it turns a very plain Of Montreal song into something far more worthwhile. Put together that makes the track just a little better than average. As for Solange, her work on “Sex Karma” is less inspired and more according to script. It plays like a back and forth dialogue between boyfriend and girlfriend, and the move is so cliched that even a fascinating melody can’t scrape off all the cheese. That along with the poor innuendos don’t necessarily make the track worth yoru time. Barnes is hit and miss when he’s on his own too, sometimes holding steady in old patterns that have become a little too comfortable to the point where they’re bordering on boring. Other times he pushes boundaries, such as on first single “Coquet Coquette”, where guitars really up the ante and hint towards a potential future in that heavier direction. There are moments of digital trash that pile up in some of the gaps between vocals on “Like A Tourist” that feel highly fascinating and innovative for Of Montreal as well. And a song like “Famine Affair” has a remarkably 80s new wave vibe to it that shifts past the funk and into a more rock direction, especially when the chorus comes around. If there’s going to be a next sonic evolution for this band, that might be the track to use as a future model.
Ultimately “False Priest” comes off like a transitional record for Of Montreal. For a band that’s been around for so long, continuing to come up with new and interesting ideas has to be a significant challenge, which is why a number of songs on this album feel like retreads of where Barnes has gone before. Should Of Montreal continue down this path, the band will wind up stuck in the same cliches and the fans will suffer. Of course it also hasn’t been easy trying to adjust to all the many whims that Kevin Barnes seems to have from album to album. But he does the right thing by putting the train back on the track in the right direction, most notably by rendering out complete songs with less offensive lyrics than the poor “Skeletal Lamping”. The collaborations on this album turn out mostly positive, but they do leave you wondering how much personal influence Barnes placed on top of things like Jon Brion’s suggestions. A spirit more open to collaboration can only help to diversify Of Montreal’s sound even more, and that’s exactly what’s needed at this point. Still, there are moments of greatness on this record, providing a road map for just what might be next for this band. Should Barnes actually choose to pursue one of these new directions, and past evidence suggests he might, it could mean the continued love and critical acclaim for a band that has proven its resilience time and time again in the face of difficult odds. “False Priest” may be a little bit of a recovery from the tumble they took last time around, but there’s still a whole other set of challenges that lie ahead. How they face them will determine their future as a one of today’s most brilliantly oddball bands.