Of Montreal: Lousy With Sylvanbriar
From Polyvinyl Records, 2013
Review by Kent Manthie
Kevin Barnes’s traveling circus, aka Of Montreal are back. This time with new, mellow toxic gold (my italics) encased in the new CD, Lousy With Sylvanbriar. The tunes are smooth, groovy, laid back, a slight change from the whimsical wildness of Skeletal Lamping, or Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer. Still, though, there is a lot of the core of what O.M. is all about – many time changes, the same creative crucible of dada style lyrics and a wild self-expression. I still have to say that I like it a lot better than False Priest, which, after the peak of Skeletal Lamping would’ve been extremely hard for anyone to follow-up. I was excited at first, when I initially received False Priest, because it was the follow-up to Skeletal Lamping. But, after the ‘honeymoon’ wore off, it started getting on my nerves. There were some good tunes and hummable hooks, but also there were a few cuts that didn’t have a long shelf-life. I got over it, though, especially when thecontrollersphere came out a year or so later. It was an EP of supposedly what you would think was left off of False Priest, but if it was, they left the wrong stuff off!! I really dug that one, even though it’s only about 22 minutes.
Well, fast-forward to just a couple months ago and they’re back! This time the product is named Lousy With Sylvanbriar. It’s much more groovy in places and doesn’t have as much dada to it, if you know what I mean. Included on here are some honestly cool riffs, hooks, musical phrases and whatnot. In all, I’d say it’s rather a “celebration” record. I honestly can’t articulate what it was about this CD that reinvigorated my status with the band. The je ne sais quois that got me hooked at first listen was, I expect, something that had tapped into my subconscious (not so deep as to get way down into my un-conscious), but it was just below the relatable. If you’re a serious fan, after a listen (or two) then you, too will understand what I’m getting at.
The song “Belle Grade Missionaries”, for instance, is a catchy, toe-tapping, sing-along. It still has the typical surrealist lyrics and circus-like atmospherics that are the essence that of Montreal stand by. There are guitars and an organ featured very well on “Belle Grade Missionaries”, it fades out at the end with a sexy Rickenbacker-like guitar solo, with an undercurrent of an organ shimmering in the background.
After this one, “Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit” is a down-tempo, quiet yet (in of Montreal’s own way), it’s got its own complexities. What I mean is that it’s not just Kevin singing and playing an acoustic guitar or a piano, but a panoply of instruments chiming in and out, such as a cello, organ, synthesizers and other various cosmic sounds. “Colossus” is also a little on the mellow side, but not syrupy or hokey, but, as with the album in general, a unique, psychedelic-tinged album. It’s nice to see that of Montreal has not remained static in their musical output. Just for example, look back to 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic through the album that saw them shifting into a more whimsical outfit, Sunlandic Twins, in 2005, through their funky, musical interpretation of Magritte, Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer? (2007), which was followed by an EP also released in 2007, Icons Abstract Thee, which was a continuation of the ecstasy-filled romp of Hissing Fauna… Then with the release of 2008’s Skeletal Lamping, a sexually charged escapade of kaleidoscopic proportions of Montreal seemed to have hit their peak. I say “peak” because False Priest, which, when I first received it I enjoyed all right, but it didn’t take too long for it to, so to speak, run out of steam. It had its moments, but I think False Priest was made under impossible circumstances, such as, maybe they were trying too hard to come up with something that could top the theatrical, androgynous album that really spoke to a generation of youth who were alienated, felt trapped in a box and who detested labels of any kind. Not only that, but it was one hell of a great album, musically. It was completely unique and there was nothing to whom I could compare it to. Also, who knows, what was going on, personally, in the lives of Kevin Barnes and other band members, stuff that can affect artistic creativity and the sense of being on the cutting edge.
Last year (2012) of Montreal put out Paralytic Stalks, which did produce a “hit” of sorts, “Dour Percentage”, which made its rounds on “modern rock” radio stations and then disappeared as quickly. I even remember seeing them as the musical guest on Jimmy Fallon’s late night talk show, performing “Dour Percentage”. I must admit, that,while Paralytic Stalks had it’s moments, it, too, wasn’t a great album. After this album had been out for a time, it really didn’t click with me the way the three albums after Satanic Panic in the Attic came out (Hissing Fauna…, Icons Abstract Thee (EP) and Skeletal Lamping) did.
I can still recall when Satanic Panic in the Attic came out in around 2006 and I reviewed it for Polyvinyl Records, their label. I thought it cute and catchy with an androgynous spin to it, but not a dripping wet, sexual springboard, which was yet to come. That’s what I got after their next two CDs: Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer? And Skeletal Lamping. Now, when I term it so, I don’t do it with a dismissive attitude or as a cop with the “derivative police”. What I mean is that its androgyny is much more sexually aggravated and like an repressed sexual being who has held it in for too long, explodes with excess. But along with the aforementioned, exploded creativity that was also unlocked, a great wave of depraved, dark, danceteria club, 3AM, type of creativity. Wake up the next day and write like Oscar Wilde. I think this catharsis was achieved and after those two CDs were let loose, that’s when False Priest was next up. When thinking back on it, I think that False Priest was an attempt to continue with the orgiastic, kaleidoscopic, Marcel duChamp vision that the previous two (Hissing Fauna… and Skeletal Lamping) had. BUT – as I mentioned, thecontrollersphere came out after False Priest, as if they were outtakes or whatnot, not from the last CD, but unreleased stuff from Hissing Fauna… and Skeletal Lamping, at the risk of repeating myself. For another great EP, check out an earlier released EP, Icons Abstract Thee, from 2007.
Now here’s where I have to say something about of Montreal’s earlier work: even in the midst of the “cutesy” stuff of Satanic Panic…, Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse and even the compilation, If He is Protecting Our Nation…Who is Protecting Big Oil, Our Children? of Montreal did squeak through a cool, rambling CD, The Bird Who Continues to Eat the Rabbit’s Flower, which, somehow, foreshadowed the loosey-goose stuff yet to come. Actually, there is no of Montreal CD I would say “don’t listen to”, because then one would not see the evolution of this unique musical combo.
But now, with the release of Lousy With Sylvanbriar, of Montreal redeemed themselves with a great album, one that, indeed, was catchy and captivating, from beginning to end. Songs like “Amphibian Days”, “Triumph of Disintegration” and “Raindrop in my Skull” are just a few samples of the great, seamless way this album erases the mistakes of the past but it doesn’t go backwards, to recapture the greatness of those mid-career days, but it takes the good elements of them and adds present and future sounds that are brilliantly put together and by the end of the album, you’re just not ready for it to end.
Now that we have this great new album out to celebrate, I can put Skeletal Lamping away for a bit, while I focus on Lousy With Sylvanbriar, which will have my full attention for a time. -KM.