Polyvinyl Records, 2012
Reviewed by Kent Manthie
With the brand new year upon us, 2012 is sure to bring some surprises. So far, the most intriguing one has been the new CD from of Montreal’s, Paralytic Stalks, a righteous return to the heady days of the mid 2000s. Just when you thought the party was burning at both ends and had just about burned out, from left field emerges this brave new CD.
Originating from Athens, GA, of Montreal is the brainchild of singer/songwriter/guitarist Kevin Barnes. Of Montreal was part of the second wave of bands to emerge from the sprawling Elephant 6 collective. Barnes chose the band’s moniker to memorialize a failed relationship with a woman from, of all places, Montreal. Barnes originally signed with Bar/None Records whilst residing in that place called Florida and after having had enough of FLA, he made his way northwards, both to Cleveland and Minneapolis in order to seek out compatible, like-minded freaks that would suit his needs perfectly and complement the idea he had for of Montreal, finally returning home to collaborate with bassist Bryan Helium (also a member of Athens’ Elf Power) and drummer Derek Almstead.
Their first CD, Cherry Peel, appeared in mid-1997, which was followed up that same year by an EP entitled The Bird Who Continues to Eat the Rabbit’s Flower. From the start, Barnes & company merged their bright, flamboyant indie dance sound with heavy doses of psychedelia and humor; of Montreal’s earliest records also exhibited a lo-fi sound that bordered on “twee pop”, although the band steadily shed those influences throughout the early 2000s. After Helium left the group in 1998 to focus on Elf Power full-time, Almstead assumed bass duties, while keyboardist Dottie Alexander and drummer Jamie Huggins both joined the lineup. Next, though, of Montreal’s follow-up full length, 1998’s The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy, was recorded primarily as a Barnes solo project, wherein Barnes did most of the studio duties as a one-man outfit, playing all the instruments, singing, writing and producing and/or co-producing. But that was not to be just a one-time thing, as Barnes’s long shadow would penetrate most of the best of their CDs, with help, of course, from the others. But without Kevin’s vision and songwriting efforts, of Montreal would definitely not be what they are today.
On 1999’s The Gay Parade, multi-instrumentalist A.C. Forrester signed on as a collaborator; then the retrospective album, Horse & Elephant Eatery followed in the spring of 2000. The group continued with the release of Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse in April 2001 and Aldhils Arboretum in September of 2002, both of which were issued by the Georgia-based label Kindercore Records. With the subsequent folding of Kindercore, the departures of multi-instrumentalist Andy Gonzales and Almstead, and Barnes’ marriage, 2003 proved to be an up and down year for the group. Barnes’ wife, Nina, joined of Montreal’s lineup as the group signed to Polyvinyl Records and in 2004, delivered one of the first of the records that really started getting them noticed around the indie scene, Satanic Panic in the Attic.
The following year found Barnes exploring a bouncier, synth-driven avenue with the release of Sunlandic Twins, but things began to get complicated in his personal life at the same time. He and his wife moved to Norway for the birth of their baby. Deprived of familiar touchstones, Kevin fell into a deep depression and, upon returning to the States, continued to travel progressively downhill. He and his wife separated for a time, and she returned to her family in Norway with their new daughter. Through the emotional turmoil, Barnes concocted what was to be his darkest, most personal and ambitious album up to that point: 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? The same year saw the release of one of several compilation EPs: If He is Protecting Our Nation Then Who Will Protect Big Oil, Our Children? which, sadly, was thoroughly stomped on by critics. The next year, however, Barnes et al came out with something that surpassed Hissing Fauna… and all that had they had created up to that point (and in my opinion, still ranks as unsurpassed in creative, sexual chaos: Skeletal Lamping, a mind-blowing, 15-song magnum opus of brilliance that only furthered their ambitious sound by emphasizing Barnes’ outrageous alter ego, “Georgie Fruit,” whose influence pushed the album toward a funk and sexually charged disco-rock territory, with a slice of prog-rock hidden in the background. An Eluardian Instance (Jon Brion Remix EP) followed in early 2009, featuring five remixed tracks from the previous album. Of Montreal’s tenth studio release, False Priest, arrived the following year and besides (or because of) featured cameos from fellow genre-hoppers Janelle Monáe and Solange Knowles the album was not awful, but something about it was just a little off to me, of course, following up a mind-blowing, genre (and gender-bending) masterpiece would’ve been hard to do. At first I was into False Priest, danced around to the new tunes and enjoyed the variety of the novelty, but after a whole bunch of listens, found False Priest leaving me feeling a little bit empty and not as excited, as if Kevin Barnes and his cohorts had used up too much of their creative skills on the previous brilliance and instead of taking a little break had to go right back to work.
A smattering of songs originally slated for release on False Priest but which were, for one reason or other, were left off it saw the light of day in April of 2011 on thecontrollersphere EP, which was a nice, short EP that whet one’s appetite for the return of the raw, unyielding alter ego, “Georgie Fruit”, who seemed to be hospitalized or otherwise indisposed during the False Priest sessions. Songs such as “Black Lion Massacre”, “Holiday Call” and “Slave Translator” showed that the band was definitely on the mend and getting their groove back.
The following year Barnes revisited the lyrical rawness and supercharged emotion evident on Hissing Fauna… with Paralytic Stalks, the new CD just out, which explores themes of self-loathing, revenge, and romantic turmoil to create Barnes’s most honest, personal and naked offering yet. Although I, myself, still feel that Skeletal Lamping is somewhat of a peak for of Montreal, I must admit that Paralytic Stalks has the effect of returning to the greatness of 2007 and before. This is proof that of Montreal is not burned out and that their bag of tricks is not used up. Look for them (or at least hope they will) to show up in your neck of the country, as an of Montreal show is sure to be a colorful, Tubes-like gig for the 21st century.