In October 2008, Kevin Barnes and Athens' ragtag art-pop ensemble Of Montreal found themselves in a desirable — if rare — place for an indie rock band. They were standing at the peak of both commercial potential and unrestrained creativity. It was a strange crossroads for such an outsider act. As bands like Weezer and Kings of Leon can tell you, the pressure of success often stifles artistic vision.
At the time, the group was taking heat for licensing the song "Wraith Pinned to the Mist (and other Games)" for use in an Outback Steakhouse commercial. For their own peace of mind, Barnes and Co. moved forward with both barrels blazing, and 2008's Skeletal Lamping, the group's first CD to land on the racks in Targets, Walmarts and other big-box stores across the country, was also its weirdest.
Skeletal Lamping unfolds in a spew of impulsive, confusing ideas that tumble forward without a recurring phrase, rhythm or motif, and its singular sense of dream logic befuddled listeners.
Love it or hate it, Skeletal Lamping left an impression on the indie music world's collective subconscious. So how does Barnes follow up such a bold and twisted offering? Simple: By stripping down his songs to the basic elements and writing a pop- and soul-infused record, done in Of Montreal's unmistakable style, that isn't bound by a single underlying concept. It sounds like a pretty cut-and-dry effort, but after such a strong string of conceptually driven albums, stretching all the way back to 2005's The Sunlandic Twins, the lack of an overall narrative direction leaves False Priest feeling a bit hollow. Like some sort of Pavlovian conditioning, Of Montreal fans tend to put their brains on overdrive to look for the hidden layers with each of the band's new records. But with False Priest, what you see is what you get.
"I Feel Ya' Strutter" opens the album with a blast of Barnes' falsetto yowl that becomes a shrill counterpart to the old-school soul beat that carries the song. "Our Riotous Defects" reads like a cartoonish diary entry about a dysfunctional relationship. If you can't make it past these first two songs, False Priest probably isn't for you. Barnes' jarring attempts at soulful rumination are a defining part of the album. And while his lyrics remain rooted in his trademark flare for whimsical, sometimes nonsensical digressions, there's not an ounce of irony behind his blue-eyed James Brownisms. If anything, False Priest is Of Montreal's attempt at a modern day Georgia soul record, and it can be a bit awkward at times.
"Coquet Coquette" is the most rocking track on the album, and producer Jon Brion fleshes out a thicker sound than what the group has created in the past. Even more than Brion's production, the influence of Atlanta songstress Janelle Monáe holds a strong sway over the album. One of the album's most addictive songs, "Enemy Gene," finds Barnes and Monáe in a duet, singing about love, machines, gods, etc., and it could almost have been plucked straight from the grooves of her 2010 album, The ArchAndroid. Put on a pair of headphones, and the futuristic sound design of nearly every song on False Priest bares a likeness to something Monáe's Wondaland Arts Society production team could have churned out.
The schmaltzy collab with Solange Knowles for "Sex Karma" takes shape like an evocation of Barnes' gay, black, cross-dressing alter-ego, Georgie Fruit. But this time around he/she is more of a smooth operator — and less the experienced, but still confused, sexual cheetah we first met on Hissing Fauna back in 2007.
It makes sense to find Georgie hanging out here. Both Monáe and Knowles possess naturally feminine qualities that elude Barnes' she-male persona. Beyond that, he probably just digs their style.
Despite bringing a whole new set of eccentricities to False Priest, Barnes can't escape the strong musical identity he's fostered over the last 13 years. "Like a Tourist" is an impressive display of the group's overall abilities, complimented by Barnes' ability to keep wandering through new terrain, even if it means taking things back to the basics.
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