Of Montreal mastermind Kevin Barnes is not one to make the same album twice. Roughly a decade ago he shifted from doing indie rock/trippy twee to electro-centric albums that often felt like twisted — but always fascinating — experiments. The first three albums from this second period of his career were especially experimental; Satanic Panic in the Attic (2004), Sunlandic Twins (2005) and Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (2007). Fortunately, both critics and fans enjoyed being along for the sometimes crazy but always inspired ride. Still, Barnes eventually churned out some truly superb albums that felt more focused, especially the funk-o-matic, magic carpet ride that is Skeletal Lamping (2008) and the peculiar electro-R&B masterpiece False Priest (2010). If there was one album that felt like a bit of a misstep, it was last year’s rather avant-garde Paralytic Stalks, which felt like the work of an artist trying and often failing to rediscover himself. So, it wasn’t surprising that Barnes would shake the tree for his new album, Lousy with Sylvianbriar, and he really shook the hell out of it.
The first step Barnes took toward creating the new album was moving, albeit temporarily, to San Francisco, California to find himself a new muse. And it didn’t take him long, the city flooding his imagination with all sorts of ideas. He was so inspired that he practically wrote a new album overnight. Once he was done writing, he ventured home to Athens, Georgia and cherry-picked himself a mostly new band. They proceeded to spend two weeks of 12-hour days fleshing out and rehearsing Barnes’ new songs. As soon as everything felt right, they headed into the studio and quickly cut Of Montreal’s twelfth studio album, recording most of the songs live together in the same room on a 24-track tape machine without computers.
It turns out San Francisco motivated Barnes to write a very organic, guitar-centric album that blends old school country, Americana and psychedelic rock — with a touch of the blues — in the vein of The Rolling Stones’ early work, vintage Bob Dylan and the latter days of The Beatles.
“Fugitive Air” ushers in the new album with layers of ’60’s-flavored guitars, including some trippy slide guitar that immediately hooks the listener. Meanwhile, Barnes’ vocals swirl around splendidly, even if the lyrics seem designed to confuse the hell out of the listener, not unlike many of Barnes’ poetic lyrics over the years. Here, he mentions “mausoleums,” “witchcraft,” and “genitalia,” among other peculiar things.
The lyrics of the ballad-esque “Obsidian Currents” make considerably more sense. “You’re so lizard-like / You don’t feel any passion for anything but yourself,” Barnes croons with a melody that calls to mind early Bowie, as does the psychedelic music, which also has a hint of The Grateful Dead.
“Triumph of Disintegration” has more of a modern sound with lo-fi garage rock guitars and a vibe that seems to split the difference between The Strokes and The Doors. Barnes sing-speaks some of the lyrics here, which would seem to be about one pondering whether they should stay in a relationship that’s disintegrating.
The album shifts into more of a folk rock mode for “Raindrop in My Skull,” which features Rebecca Cash on lead vocals. It’s the second to last song on the album and it’s like a breath of fresh air, just as things are starting to feel slightly redundant, the album overall almost being a bit too cohesive.
One thing is for certain: Barnes let his creativity run wild here, crafting a rather pleasant album that’s rich in kaleidoscopic color, and it’s sure to please longtime fans, particularly those of his early albums from before he found his electro-muse. It might be a strange trip, but it sure takes you to a lot of interesting places, and you have to bow down to him for still being able to pull a rabbit like this out of his magic hat after so many albums.
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