opinion by MATTHEW M.F. MILLER
Authentic musical swagger sounds effortless and the more you try to fake it, the more likely you are to alienate your audience. Just ask of Montreal. Once upon a time in a land called 2007, the Athens, Ga.–based band had arrogance and strut to spare. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, a momentous album of psychedelic, funky flamboyance, not only perfected the nonsensical song titling trend of the mid 00’s, but it captured the band’s raw, tuneful weirdness completely unfiltered. It was the fifth in a series of sparkling albums that thrust the band from relative obscurity onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater.
Once you’re Letterman big, things change fast and in the case of many an unlikely success story, usually not for the better. of Montreal’s output since 2008 has been a self-conscious, mixed bag of songs that too often played as recycled, lukewarm leftovers. of Montreal lost their game, they appeared handcuffed by expectations after unexpectedly finding a seat at the popular table and settling into a sound people came to expect.
Lousy With Sylvianbriar mostly exonerates of Montreal for their recent missteps.
Lousy With Sylvianbriar mostly exonerates of Montreal for their recent missteps. It’s a refreshing return to the stripped down folky pop of their debut, Cherry Peel and 2002’s Aldhils Arboreteum. It was recorded with engineer Drew Vandenberg (Deerhuter) on a 24-track tape machine in a home studio, an attempt to recapture the sounds of the late 60s and early 70s by recording as a band, live in the same room. Sonically it has more of kinship with Spoon and the Rolling Stones than Bowie. Gone are the Afro beats, electronic flourishes and Prince-y falsetto. Front and center are Kevin Barnes’s voice and literate lyrics, both of which have regained poignancy and fire when paired with funky, country-ish guitars, real drums and those oddly perfect hints of Renaissance flare.
Most notably, the swagger is back, which was quasi unthinkable after the release of their second shrug-inducing album of 2012, Daughter of Cloud, a collection of rarities and B-sides spanning 2007-2011. At that point even the most loyal fans couldn’t be blamed for needing an of Montreal break. Without a doubt they had become victims of diminishing returns. As it turns out, that seemingly unnecessary collection was one of the band’s most significant. It served as a palette-cleansing, throat-clearing, bookend to an era that started with a bang and ended with a repetitive whimper.
Lousy With Sylvianbriar has a lot of bang. Leadoff track and first single, “Fugitive Air” is all bravado, a rollicking Rolling Stones style riff that is most notable for its simplicity and crisp sound. Barnes’ shout-sung lyrics waste no time in tackling the band’s stagnancy head on. When he sings “It makes me feel like a real man to hold hegemony over my business, and I refuse to be abused by the milieu of wistful decay”, it would be easy to feel a bit guilty about ever doubting their talent in the first place. It’s commanding fun.
“Belle Glade Missionaries” is the twisted sister of Tommy James’ classic “Draggin’ the Line,” borrowing the iconic song’s chugging beat as Barnes rambles on like a Dylan reincarnate. It’s no doubt unexpected, but for the first time in years it sounds as if of Montreal has settled into a comfortable groove that doesn’t rely on weirdness and layered, electronic drama as the glue – it’s a fully formed and fun pop song.
Drastic changes of strategy almost always guarantee missteps, and the album’s greatest fault is an inability to sustain momentum. The sequencing is wildly off. Second track “Obsidian Currents” pumps the brakes far too soon. It doesn’t expand upon the new sound, and sandwiched between “Fugitive Air” and “Belle Glade Missionaries” it sounds duller and more lifeless than it actually is. It’s a track too good to be skipped, but it’s also too easy to pass over on your way to more exciting endeavors, such as the stomping “She’s Not Speaking Now” and the rebellious punk-abilly gem, “Hegira Émigré” (“My baby’s meditating to stop the war, but I got myself a rifle cuz I ain’t gonna get walked on anymore”).
Almost the entirety of Lousy With Sylvianbriar alternates between up-tempo tracks and gentle numbers. The mandolin and harmony drenched “Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit” and the barebones “Colossus”, both of which are strong entries in the band’s catalog, feel like standing in a line when all you really want to do is run. Every time the album begins to soar, it dives.
As it stands, the album plays better on shuffle than it does start to finish, but there are far worse things, especially for a band on the verge of regaining its footing. All of the songs demand a listen and most of them are worth a repeat. While of Montreal aren’t exactly strutting 2007-style again, their tweaked, re-energized sound has them strutting nonetheless. And that’s what they do best. [B]