Album Review: of Montreal – “Lousy with Sylvianbriar”

of Montreal - "Lousy with Sylvianbriar"
of Montreal – “Lousy with Sylvianbriar”

I’m sure I already said this, but I’ll say it again: every time that of Montreal releases an album I get nervous. I don’t know why this is. I have never been disappointed by anything that the band has ever done. Even obscure B-sides, EPs, old stuff, early 4-track recordings, I absolutely love all of it.

Well, now that I have my absolutely unabashed bias out of the way I’ll get to the part where I actually talk about the album.

Yes, Kevin Barnes has ditched his entire band that he’s worked with for almost 10 years. I think that some of them (Dottie Alexander, maybe B.P.?) have been with him even longer.  It makes total sense though, considering what this album is all about. Something else that I’ve talked about is the psychological story arc that takes place from “Hissing Fauna…” all the way through “Paralytic Stalks,” and that is over now. I guess that was the first thing that I was happy about when I listened to the album all the way through for the first time, which was actually yesterday when it was streaming for free on some other music blog. I’m not happy because that’s over, I’m happy because this album, working the way that it does, strengthens my thesis of the story arc in that it does not continue through this album. Georgie Fruit is dead. Kevin Barnes is back.

The way that this album works is as more of a singles collection than the album oriented rock that the band had been exploring for at least the past 6 releases. It’s as if the band clipped off its trajectory after “Aldhils Arboretum,” became an electro pop band for like 10 or 11 years and now they are back again with concise songs.

The personal lyrical content is, of course there, but the sound is certainly more immediate. Less studio wizardry is involved. The album feels more like an actual live performance than anything they have put out recently. It’s a nice balance between, on the one hand, albums like “Sunlandic Twins” or “Hissing Fauna…” that added that element of lysergic haze generated through synthesizers and dance beats, and their early whimsical works like “The Gay Parade” or “The Bedside Drama.” The songs are written for a “rock band” (ie guitars, keys [acoustic], bass, drums) like the earlier material, and for that matter the Beatles influence shows through on a couple tracks of “Lousy with Sylvianbriar,” but the lyrics discuss personal relationships and still have the intricate basslines that came out of the middle-period works.

I think that this album starts off a new era for of Montreal, where there was the early material from “Cherry Peel” through “Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies…” as the first period; the middle-period would be “Satanic Panic in the Attic” through “Paralytic Stalks,” [and yes, I know that that covers a ton of music and a lot of changes, but I think that the main thing that I am thinking about is the movement from mostly acoustic, retro and poppy to more synth-dance based with more personal lyrical content] and now “Lousy with Sylvianbriar” beginning the most recent step in the bands evolution.

The pedal steel has stayed from “Paralytic Stalks,” as has Kishi Bashi on violin, which is a good thing; and verse-chorus-verse structure has also become a constant element once again on this album. The addition of Rebecca Cash on vocals is the first time that someone other than Kevin has sang on an official release (“Keep Sending Me Black Fireworks” appeared on the Sunlandic Twins bonus EP, featuring Nina Barnes [Gemini Tactics] on vocals). Cash’s voice is most certainly a welcomed addition most notably on “Raindrop in my Skull”, adding a smooth and relaxed approach to singing that contrasts nicely with Barnes’ sneer.

And as far as the overall sound of the tracks goes, I don’t think I have ever heard the drums on an of Montreal record done so well. The bass drum is nice and dry, adding to that element of presence and live performance sound that I mentioned earlier.

In my opinion the second side of “Lousy with Sylvianbriar” is the side to beat. That side is stacked with driving, edgier songs that show the band really stretching out. The echo and brightness of a country twinge comes across loud and clear on “Hegira Émigré” with extensive pedal steel solo combined with a speedy and clean solo guitar work (sounds like a Les Paul). The album ends on a bombastic note with “Imbecile Rages,” with Barnes’ showing off his vocal stamina, holding his final note across 5 measures with a raspy, powerful yell.

Once again of Montreal has not disappointed. Considering that I have had the album for about 7 hours and I have already listened to it 6 times, I think that it is going to remain in heavy rotation around here and most likely on the year end best-of list. And I’m sure that I am not the only one that is going to have it on their year end list.

The album is out now on Polyvinyl. It’s also streaming on Spotify.