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Song of the Week: Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks – Little Fang

Dave Portner, aka Avey Tare, has made plenty of fascinating music as a member of Animal Collective, not to mention outside of that band as a solo artist. Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks is his third project, but if you’ve heard anything he’s done previously then what he’s bringing to the table here isn’t a whole lot different. The good news though is that it is diverse and different enough to justify creating a whole new band to put it together. At the same time, whitewashed, fun house psychedelia seems to be a specialty of Portner’s, and it’s almost always a great idea to play to your strengths. So with this track “Little Fang,” the first audio we’ve heard from this new band and from the forthcoming record Enter the Slasher House, we get that tricky blend of strange and trippy composition complete with modulated vocals and stray sound effects. Yet unlike anything else, there’s an extreme clarity and straightforward approach to the song that makes it remarkably easy to digest. For my money, it’s one of the most commercially accessible and catchy things that Portner has ever done, and he’s managed to pull it off without diminishing expectations or sacrificing key elements of his work. If you didn’t know any better, it’d be remarkably easy to confuse it with something by Of Montreal or Ariel Pink. There’s no guarantee the entire record will sound this way, but at the very least it’s a strong introduction to this brand new band.

Preorder Enter the Slasher House (out April 7th)

Album Review: of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks [Polyvinyl]

Another year, another of Montreal record. Technically speaking Kevin Barnes puts out a new full length album every two or so years, but there’s usually an EP or a collection of remixes or something that gets releaed in between. For example the last of Montreal album was 2010’s False Priest, but in 2011 it was thecontrollersphere EP. In total there have been 11 long players released under the of Montreal name since 1997, including this year’s Paralytic Stalks. There’s been a steady evolution in the sound of each record too, even if it hasn’t always been for the better. 2008’s Skeletal Lamping largely ruined the momentum built up by the critically praised Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer, as it was a mess of an unfocused record filled with ADHD-type songs. Just as a song would be reaching its stride and burrowing its way into your memory banks, it’d take a sharp left turn and send you someplace entirely different. More often than not you’d get about 3 separate thoughts spread across a singular 4 minute track, making it a rather difficult listen on the whole. That’s not even mentioning the fact that Barnes invented an alter-ego called Georgie Fruit who was a sex fiend and a disco queen with a falsetto voice. At least False Priest was built on the rock solid foundations of wanting to craft an R&B record with funk/psych-pop vibes. Packed with guest stars like Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles, the concept was interesting but the execution was much less so. You can’t really fault the guy for wanting to experiment, but most recently he seems to have reached some creative stumbling blocks.

Now we’re faced with the monumental task that is Paralytic Stalks, a record that foregoes any guest stars and alter-egos in favor of a return to some of the more core odd pop elements that earned of Montreal praise in the first place. Kevin Barnes would object to the idea that he’s backpedaling at all, even as he claims that his songwriting style has become far more personal again, akin to what it was on Hissing Fauna…. Believe what you will about the guy’s lyrics, but it’s a small challenge to pinpoint a time when he wasn’t being coy and metaphorical about things, his colorful palette of words functioning closer to a locked door than an open window. If anyone wants to explain what the lines, “You speak to me/like the anguish of a child doused in flames” are hinting at on opening track “Gelid Ascent”, it might go a long way towards proving those personal ideas. Still, there are a few moments where Barnes mentions his wife Nina by name, as when he pointedly asks, “Oh Nina, how can I defend myself against the world that batters me like a retarded cartoon” on “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff”. That at least tells you he’s speaking from the heart. Most of the time though we’re left with a puzzle, and a line from “We Will Commit Wolf Murder” probably says it best: “I’ve tried to understand his logic, but there’s just no pattern there/no sympathetic voices anywhere”. As confusing as many of the lyrics can be, their actual themes make solid sense. This is a violent and dark record, filled with thoughts of revenge, emotional breakdowns and infidelity. Not the most pleasant of subjects, but at least these are things that mean something to the man writing about them. If you can relate to his sentiments, so much the better. It should be obvious, but you’re not going to walk away from this record with a smile on your face.

From a purely sonic perspective, you could say that Paralytic Stalks is one of the more fascinating of Montreal albums to date. Spanning 9 tracks and a runtime of almost an hour, there’s an easily recognizable divide after the midpoint “Malefic Dowery” where 3-4 minute songs suddenly become 7-8 minute ones before the grand 13 minute finale hits. Ironically that’s also the point where the record starts to go awry, even though most of the nearly 9 minutes of “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff” aren’t bad by any means. The front half of the album is positively delightful on the ears in spite of its lyrical unpleasantness and unfocused tendencies. Single “Dour Percentage” is absolutely the best moment, channeling his most soulful pop side complete with some horns and flutes for accompaniment. What it lacks is a truly dynamic hook. The chorus is good but not quite good enough to stick with you. Almost equally compelling but far less pop-driven is “Malefic Dowery”, which has the distinct honor of being one of the most un-of Montreal songs in of Montreal’s catalogue. It’s beautiful, lush, straightforward and gets by on mostly acoustic guitar, piano and flute – all instruments you don’t really think of when talking about of Montreal. If Barnes had chosen to craft an entire record based around the elements of that song, it might have been exactly what he needed to make that next leap creatively. Instead, the album slowly descends into madness. Key to this collapse is the penultimate track “Exorcismic Breeding Knife”, an atonal psychedelic bad trip that entirely lacks any sort of shape. Its nearly 8 minutes amount to a series of noises, drones and sound effects, all atmospherically akin to a truly bad drug trip. The walls are quickly closing in, the floor is melting, and there’s a clown in the corner with a knife and a menacing look on his face. Those visuals are pretty much the auditory equivalent of what goes on in that track, and thinking about it further, there’s also a remarkable similarity to The Beatles track “Revolution 9”. The equally lengthy “Wintered Debts” and the doubly long closer “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission” both at least have some looser, more pop-driven moments to offset the stranger and more detached moments. That doesn’t make them much easier to sit through, but at least they feel more upbeat and logically constructed.

A careful listen to Paralytic Stalks would seem to indicate that Kevin Barnes has very much lost his mind. That may very well be the case, or at least he’s allowed his eccentricities to take control for a bit. Those peculiar flights of fancy are almost certain to alienate a fair amount of the of Montreal fan base currently in place, undoubtedly hoping for something brighter and poppier more akin to the Satanic Panic in the Attic era. A few might find it inspiring though, a very forward-thinking take on 20th century orchestral movements. That seems to be what Barnes was going for, the actual success of it dependent at least in part on your own peculiar musical tastes. You’ve got to admire the guy, at least for a moment, for the sheer audacity it took to put together a record like this. Very few artists with of Montreal’s level of popularity would even dream of doing something so obtuse and uncommercial. Barnes’s dignity may be entirely intact, though his mental facilities may not be. Let’s hope this is a phase he’s working through, or a stepping stone towards a record that will define his legacy. It’d be such a shame if it were anything else.

of Montreal – Dour Percentage
of Montreal – Wintered Debts

Buy Paralytic Stalks from Polyvinyl Records

Live Friday: 9-24-10

Earlier this week, I reviewed the new of Montreal album “False Priest”. I wouldn’t say I was unkind towards the band, but the review wasn’t completely positive. Die hard fans might not like what I had to say, but I stand by what I think are fair words. That being said, I’m white hot about this session the “band” did on Minnesota Public Radio just yesterday. The reason I put “band” in quotes is because Kevin Barnes performs solo, with just him and a piano. The results are remarkably awesome. Stripping back all the layers that make up each of Montreal song and taking it to such a minimal level actually works wonders. Barnes does “Flunkt Sass vs. The Rute Plume” to start and there’s something so emotionally satisfying about the rendition. At many of their live shows recently, the band has also been performing the song “Tonight” by the obscure folk artist Sibylle Baier, which Barnes does here as well. Finally, Janelle Monae (who’s currently on tour with of Montreal) steps up and does her part on the “False Priest” cut “Enemy Gene”, and the piano only version is once again pretty jaw-droppingly great. For the interview portion, should you want to hear it, Barnes talks a little about his dislike of discussing the meaning of lyrics and the importance of having a strong visual element within live performances. It’s good, and not what I expected to hear from him. So you could say this is one great session on the whole, and it’s actually served a good point in getting me to develop a new found appreciation for of Montreal. Also, if Kevin Barnes released an album of solo piano songs, I’d buy it in an instant.

Of Montreal – Flunkt Sass Vs. The Rute Plume (Live on MPR)
Of Montreal – Tonight (Sibylle Baier cover, Live on MPR)
Of Montreal – Enemy Gene ft. Janelle Monae (Live on MPR)

Stream the entire interview/performance

Buy “False Priest” from Amazon

Album Review: Of Montreal – False Priest [Polyvinyl]

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.

Of Montreal – Coquet Coquette

Buy “False Priest” from Amazon

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