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Of Montreal

Incorporating his distinctive BOLAN-like quaver and glam-rock/psych-prog-punk persona, Athens, Georgia-based singer/songwriter/guitarist Kevin Barnes is a man who continues to astonish the music world with his plethora of whimsical, twee-pop verses. Still, his math-pop and vaudevillian style (plus OTT fashions) can either grate or gyrate on the uninitiated or the unconverted. And where to begin with OF MONTREAL’s exhausting discography? – draw up numbers and pick carefully from a bag!
After leaving his native Athens in 1996 following a relationship split with a woman of Montreal (hence the band’s name), Barnes travelled around the northern cities of Minneapolis and Cleveland looking for suitable band mates to fulfil his weird musical ideas, eventually heading south and home where he recruited ELF POWER’s bassist Bryan Poole (aka The Late B.P. Helium) and drummer Derek Almstead. This trio were a second generation “Elephant 6” outfit, an indie music collective whose bands included APPLES IN STEREO, The OLIVIA TREMOR CONTROL, NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL, the aforementioned ELF POWER and now, OF MONTREAL.
Debuting with the LP, CHERRY PEEL (1997) {*8}, Barnes showcased his unique talent on to the indie pop scene. The set – which remains one of the high points of the group’s career –showed all the elements which would make the combination one of the more influential of their peers. Heavily influenced by the perfect pop melodies of early BEATLES, The BEACH BOYS and The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL, OF MONTREAL also added their own dashes of revived psychedelia and circus type styling, a la `Everything Disappears When You Come Around’, `In Dreams I Dance With You’, `I Can’t Stop Your Memory’ and `Don’t Ask Me To Explain’.
Hot on its heels was the EP, `The Bird Who Ate The Rabbit’s Flower’, which, although compelling and gravitational pieces, were not essential OF M, rather displaying more of their earlier lo-fi light garage-pop aplomb; it was bookended by a notable cover of The WHO’s `Disguises’.
At this point Helium departed to devote more time to his own sonic experimentalism with ELF POWER. The revolving door roster was kept strong with the introduction of Dottie Alexander and James Huggins, although OF MONTREAL’s sophomore full-length outing, THE BEDSIDE DRAMA: A PETITE TRAGEDY (1998) {*6}, was more of a one-man project for the noble Barnes.
The outfit’s psychedelic sound was bolstered by the multi-talented A.C. Forrester for their brilliant concept opus, THE GAY PARADE (1999) {*9}. This set exemplified the perfection for which whimsical indie pop bands sought, described as it was in some quarters as the genre’s very own “Sgt. Pepper”. Utilising the naïve sleeve artwork of his brother David, the fairground or carousel aspect was inflated by semi-classics `Jacques Lamure’, `Fun Loving Nun’, `The Autobiographical Grandpa’ and `The Miniature Philosopher’.
It seemed that the indie band could do no wrong and, as a nod to the fans, Kev issued compilation work, HORSE & ELEPHANT EATERY (NO ELEPHANTS ALLOWED): THE SINGLES AND SONGLES ALBUM (2000) {*8} which, alongside their own scribed material, also contained such beauties as their interpretation of The KINKS’ `The World Keeps Going Round’. This was followed by the not-quite-as-great nascent OF MONTREAL rarities collection, THE EARLY FOUR TRACK RECORDINGS (2001) {*5}; worthy of note is that each of these old tunes were given an amusing title relating to a fictional bath-time episode of the actor Dustin Hoffman.
The same year also saw the delivery of their next stellar step forward, COQUELICOT ASLEEP IN THE POPPIES: A VARIETY OF WHIMSICAL VERSE {*8}, a record which provided another good bout of Barnes’ unpretentious weird and wonderful storytelling on tracks such as `Lecithin’s Tale Of A DNA Experiment That Went Horribly Awry’, `Good Morning Mr. Edminton’, `The Events Leading Up To The Collapse Of Detective Dullight’ and `Let’s Do Everything For The First Time’. If one was to explain his unadulterated tale of the Elfeblum Coquelicot and all his psychedelic adventures then one would be taken away by the fairies to a land far away… and so on… and so on.
OF MONTREAL’s next, simpler offering, ALDHILS ARBORETUM (2002) {*7}, witnessed an adroit turning towards ear-candy pop-fuelled fodder that might’ve worked in the 60s, but the 00s? – no chance! The HOLLIES, The TURTLES, HERMAN’S HERMITS, The PINK FLOYD (45s-only!), et al, could’ve had these ideas in their heyday, nevertheless the retro regurgitation by way of `Pancakes For One’, `A Question For Emily Foreman’, `Predictably Sulking Sara’ and `Jennifer Louise’, were the radio airwaves’ loss.
Intended only for “tour” release, somehow everything OF MONTREAL touched seemed to be coming out from all angles; IF HE IS PROTECTING OUR NATION, THEN WHO WILL PROTECT BIG OIL, OUR CHILDREN? (2003) {*5} complemented a busy time for the eloquent Barnes, and showed up one further cover: The ZOMBIES’ `Friends Of Mine’. Through the previous several years and beyond, the B-sides had seen: `I Felt Like Smashing My Face Through…’ (YOKO ONO), `A Spoonful Of Sugar’ (The GANTS), `Expecting To Fly’ (BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD), `Jimmy’ (M.I.A.), `Back To School’ (ROYAL TRUX), `Know Your Onion!’ (The SHINS), `Spanish Dance Troupe’ (GORKY’S ZYGOTIC MYNCI), `Delinquency’ (V TWIN) and `Color Me In’ (BROADCAST).
While the latter four featured on a bonus covers EP of 2004’s SATANIC PANIC IN THE ATTIC {*8}, the album itself was purely and fundamentally the work of Barnes, although concluding freak-beat/disco track `Vegan In Furs’ suggested it might be from another VU planet – not! A harmonious time for OF MONTREAL and Kev’s fresh enterprise, Polyvinyl Records, the Elephant 6 connections must’ve irked him somewhat. Still, it was no fault of the innocent reviewer who could easily draw thin lines between The BEACH BOYS’ `Pet Sounds’ and the C-86 indie scene (examples `Climb The Ladder’, `City Bird’ and `Your Magic Is Working’).
In keeping with Barnes’ newfound avant-disco/glam approach, THE SUNLANDIC TWINS (2005) {*7} had a definite swing towards a quirky futuristic psychedelia; `I Was Never Young’, `Wraith Pinned To The Mist And Other Games’, `The Party’s Crashing Us’ and `So Begins Our Alabee’ (named after Kev’s daughter), almost RAY DAVIES fronting HIGH LLAMAS.
It was only a matter of time before OF MONTREAL had their first sweet taste of success. 2007’s Top 75 set HISSING FAUNA, ARE YOU THE DESTROYER? {*8} might well’ve been a depressing state of affairs after the split from his Norwegian wife and child, instead it prevailed over a self-assured set of songs that displayed diversion after diversion; `Suffer For Fashion’, `She’s A Rejecter’, `Faberge Falls For Shuggie’, `Gronlandic Edit’ and the death-disco 12-minute warning `The Past Is A Grotesque Animal’ (transforming into Georgie Fruit), as schizoid as anything he’d previously revealed.
Sprawling and funky as inaugural Top 40 set SKELETAL LAMPING (2008) {*6} was, the record also witnessed the re-introduction of Barnes’ aforementioned alter-ego Georgie Fruit, a cross-dressing Afro-American in the mould of BOWIE’s Ziggy Stardust, but sounding as if taken lessons from PRINCE or SCISSOR SISTERS, while prog-rock and Studio 54 disco were fighting for air-time in the next room. With a inkling to flash on occasion, the fantastical Georgie boy was safe in respects to freedom and frolicking, but too many times (with the exception of `An Eluardian Instance’, `For Our Elegant Caste’ and `Id Engager’), the man spiralled out of musical continuity.
Co-produced by Jon Brion and roping in Matt Chamberlain on drums, his second Top 40 effort FALSE PRIEST (2010) {*7} aspired to again funk under the disco mirror-ball. Unlike BOWIE’s Ziggy, Barnes’ Georgie Fruit has not been killed off after one album, but expanded beyond his self-imposed sell-by-date. However, most of the songs guaranteed entertainment, while the singer’s lyrics fitted in no matter the degree of difficulty; `I Feel Ya’ Strutter’, the single `Coquet Coquette’ and the very STROKES-esque `Famine Affair’, thick with modern-day glam and R&B. Augmented by live members Dottie Alexander and James Huggins (up to 2010 at least), the set also highlighted duets with Solange Knowles (`Sex Karma’) and Janelle Monae (`Our Riotous Defects’ and `Enemy Gene’).
2012’s PARALYTIC STALKS {*7} received mixed reviews, most above average, but cutting into sales nonetheless. His personality still in hijack or morph mode, the emotional and confessional Barnes travelled wider musically than before, almost forsaking PRINCE for prog/psych-pop a la BOWIE, The BEACH BOYS and The SOFT BOYS; check out `Spiteful Intervention’ and `Dour Percentage’. The final four pieces exceeded 37 minutes (from `Ye, Renew The Plaintiff’ to `Authentic Pyrrhic Remission’), with so many twists and turns one could almost imagine the maverick getting lost in the windmills of his mind. Calling ground control to Major Kev, `Exorcismic Breeding Knife’ ate breakfast from the same plate as PINK FLOYD’s `Atom Heart Mother’, while the aforementioned bookend crashed into GOBLIN-esque soundtrack terrain.
That multi-personality disorder still in full flow, LOUSY WITH SYLVIANBRIAR (2013) {*8} was Barnes’ attempt to get all starry-eyed and radio-friendly. Influenced by ALICE COOPER (`Fugitive Air’), LOU REED (`Obsidian Currents’), DYLAN (`Belle Glade Missionaries’), The ROLLING STONES (`Hegira Émigré’) and a cocktail of 60s/70s icons (Peter Perrett from The ONLY ONES on `Sirens Of Your Toxic Spirit’ anyone?), the 11-song set affirmed the mischievous and whimsical nature of the main man, while vocalist Rebecca Cash added a country flavour to `Raindrop In My Skull’; other band alumni featured were:- Clayton Rychlik (drums, percussion), Bennet Lewis (guitars, mandolin), Bob Parins (bass, pedal steel, upright bass) and Jojo Glidewell (keyboards).
These musicians were also part (alongside the re-introduction of violinist KISHI BASHI) on OF MONTREAL’s next album turn, AUREATE GLOOM (2015) {*7}. Opening with the funky, tongue-twisting, genre-bending `Bassem Sabry’ – apparently dedicated to the mysterious death in 2014 of the eponymous Egyptian activist hero – Barnes and Co beat out glam-punk on `Last Rites At The Jane Hotel’ (very BOLAN), `Empyrean Abattoir’ (very SWELL MAPS) and `Chthonian Dirge For Uruk The Other’ (mmm… The FALL?). Of course, an OM album without a mention of BOWIE would be quite unique, and in `Aluminium Crown’, `Virgilian Lots’ and `Monolithic Egress’, there were plenty spoils for critics ready to stick the knife in further.
On the back of a live, vinyl-only round-up, SNARE LUSTROUS DOOMINGS (2015) {*6}, the BOLAN-esque Barnes re-called upon bassist Davey Pierce and multi-instrumentalist Nicolas Dobbratz – Cash, Lewis and Parins having fallen by the wayside – for album number whatever, INNOCENCE REACHES (2016) {*8}. While it was no “Skeletal Lamping” or “False Priest” in terms of success, the jet-set glam-boy a la OF MONTREAL chalked up another love-him-or-loathe-him electro-indie record; the witty and almost gender-bending `It’s Different For Girls’, `Let’s Relate’ and `Gratuitous Abysses’ bouncing off the satellites and ripped from the hot pants of the 70s. From BREL to BOWIE, from CHIC to DAFT PUNK (via NICO), Kevin takes his listener on trips passing `Les Chants De Maldoror’ and `Ambassador Bridge’, whereas his kaleidoscopic classic `Chaos Arpeggiating’ awakens the ghosts of Ziggy Stardust and Zinc Alloy from his home on Mars.
Whether the bold Barnes would ever regain the momentum and plaudits he received several years back, was very unlikely. However, with the passage of time and a handful of alter-egos probably yet to be invented, the neo-punk prog-psychic professor transcended beyond us mere mortals. Any hope of a renaissance did not transpire with 2018’s WHITE IS RELIC/IRREALIS MOOD {*6}; another convoluted contribution to indie-electronica. For this set, Barnes enlisted extras Zac Colwell (sax, percussion, synths), JoJo Glidewell (keyboards, synths) and Clayton Rychlik (drums, percussion, xylophone), but all too often the singer’s showmanship outweighed the retrograde, hip-swaying passages within the double-edged six tracks, with the possible exception of the moribund `Writing The Circles / Orgone Tropics’ and the effervescent `Sophie Calle Private Game / Every Person Is A Pussy, Every Pussy Is A Star!’.
The neon, glam-dance of loquacious Barnes’ subsequent OF MONTREAL set, UR FUN (2020) {*8}, was by far an improvement, absorbing as it did all sorts of hook line and sinker post-divorce freedom(s). Kev’s new partner, Christina Schneider (aka Locate S,1), was on board the good ship jolly as backing singer (credited on `Gypsy That Remains’), and concentrating on 70s-styled pop (`Peace To All Freaks’, `You’ve Had Me Everywhere’ and `Don’t Let Me Die In America’), there were also sarcastic punk ditties such as `Get God’s Attention By Being An Atheist’ and `20th Century Schizofriendic Revengoid-Man’ – titles that scream out from the cocktail-soaked lyric sheets.
© MC Strong 2003/GRD series // rev-up MCS Mar2015-Jan2020

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