Lousy With Sylvanbriar
, October 15th, 2013 05:31
Fine, I'll be the prick and say what everyone's thinking. Look at that fucking artwork. Just look at it. I dare you not to laugh. This is a book you can judge by its cover. The music inside sounds just like the sleeve looks: hackneyed, nauseating, backward-thinking, and dumb. It roars with all the fierceness and edge of a midlife crisis, a sonic mid 40s bachelor pad – walls littered with faded black-light posters, the knee-jerk motorcycle purchase rotting away in the corner. For all intents and purpose this is what Lousy With Sylanbriar is, a midlife crisis album.
In 2007, broken by chemical instability and a shattering romance, Kevin Barnes retooled, blossoming into an oversexed, Prince-obsessed mutant funk auteur. The resulting Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer? was a hooky but dense masterwork of corkscrewed dance, technicolor flamboyance, and candy coated eroticism. Barnes had a found a new creative centre – a she-male alter-ego named Georgie Fruit – and it was brilliant. Since then the trajectory of Barnes' Of Montreal has been in steady freefall. Admittedly, Hissing Fauna's follow-up, Skeletal Lamping, was also fascinating, but only in that it offered essentially the B-side leftovers of the former's unexpected artistic shift.
Roughly five years later, and the Georgie Fruit party has crashed. The orgasm is over, and the morning light spilling through the curtains reveals a grotesque scene – a nauseating tableau of ugly flesh and sticky sex. The once miraculous transformation from LSD drenched 60s psych to neon-lit 70s glam is now terribly played-out. Kevin Barnes' refreshing change has become gray-scale mundanity. Barnes knows this. That's why in an attempt to reclaim form, he's yet again altered his approach. That is, on his new outing, Barnes is doing the whole full-analog “real music,” sad bastard change-up; ya' know, 24-track tape recorder, actual human backing band, live recording, all the typical old hat fall-backs. When the ageing free spirits tuck their hedonism back into their pockets, circle round the fire, and, with good, old-fashioned instruments in tow, start farting out all their old intuitions for the sake of empty remembrance. It's sad really; never before has Barnes sounded so lacking in imagination.
Sonically, Lousy With Sylvanbriar is a steep departure from the cluttered sonic collages and decadently layered arrangements of post Hissing Fauna Of Montreal. But this is no leap forward, not even a sidestep, just a full on sprint backwards – an empty and fanciful redressing in old, mothballed clothes. Lousy sees Kevin Barnes folding back on himself, fixating his gaze, once more, on the bands and sounds of the late 60s and early 70s. The resulting product is another nostalgia-damaged recreation in a time when the last thing we need is another anachronistic pop/rock album.
Don't be mistaken, it took a lot of effort to sound this stale, this removed from 2013. It took a slew of analog equipment, a crew of musicians, a new singing partner (Rebecca Cash), a physical move to San Francisco, and presumably a lot of somebody else's money. In other words, Lousy With Sylvanbriar boasts a very exhaustive, well thought out blandness. Kevin Barnes has taken every painstaking effort to reproduce the methods undertaken by iconoclastic 60s acts, while intentionally failing to include everything that has happened in music since. It's a very convoluted way to eschew genuine song craft. However, in this light, it is somehow, albeit perversely, impressive. If the ultimate goal was to create a pretty duplicate, Lousy With Sylvanbriar is a success. But alas, here I sit, hopefully not alone, wanting for something satisfying. We just asked for ambition, we just wanted art. Unfortunately, in the wake of these humble expectations, Barnes' new music is a spit in the face.
Lousy With Sylvanbriar doesn't just wear its influences on its sleeves, they're tattooed there. While a litany of comparisons spring to mind – Bob Dylan, The Kinks, The Zombies, The Flying Burrito Brothers – it feels useless to discuss them at length. Because while it's easy to hear these reference points it's difficult to cite them with any sort of confidence, since in every regard the music here fails to reach their standards: it has the alt-country twang of The Flying Burritos Bros., but lacks their humour; it contains overtly pleasant Kinks-like melodies, only devoid of charm; it has the narcotic glow of the Zombies, but remains starkly one dimensional; the strumming resembles Dylan, but the lyrical pedigree is light-years removed.
For an album that's primary concern is organic musicianship, Lousy comes across as alarmingly synthetic. The album is overproduced, over thought, beaten down, and polished into one flat plane. Everything appears in the foreground. The tracks are a depthless series of uniform timbres, muted hooks and laminate textures. Opener 'Fugitive Air' is a perfect sample section of Lousy's grossly ordinary arrangements. It all kicks off with a tasteless meat-and-potatoes Americana riff and Barnes' newly adopted gruff, distortion-draped vocals. There's a faux grit to Barnes' voice on Lousy, a forced, posturing, lifeless half-scream, produced in a manner that would even make Julian Casablancas wince. The track winds down with cooing “la la las,” before closing with the always-predicable fadeout.
Lyrically, it's typical Barnes-ian stuff – unnecessarily complex, hyper-personal, plump with non-linear narratives – only magnified to further detriment. Here, Barnes' verbose dribble comes across, not as obtuse lyrical knots in need of unwinding, but rather the mumblings of a disenchanted pseud. You feel the need to shoo the words away, like the white noise of an eccentric grandparent spilling nonsense into your headspace. On Lousy, Barnes' incongruent lyrical delivery shows him to be an inconsistent and self-consciously pensive songwriter.
Lousy With Sylvanbriar is a drab, insufferably uninteresting album. It's an exhibition of Barnes' creative impulse rotting in a mess of forced conventionality and an unsavory fixation on traditional, yet painfully dull, processes. These tired methods have stifled Kevin Barnes' manic extravagance – the source of Of Montreal's bizarre emotional appeal. While there remains something admirable about Barnes' continued artistic unrest, it's hard to forgive the direction it has taken him on this occasion.