Kevin Barnes might not be on a par with Neil Young or David Bowie, but he’s no slouch in the reinvention department. Over the past decade and a half, Barnes and of Montreal, his rotating cast of musical provocateurs, have evolved from the conceptually edgy Baroque Pop brilliance of their early work with the Elephant 6 collective to a song structure more directly influenced by The Beatles and The Kinks to their current Funktronica flavored direction. On stage, of Montreal is a swirling mass of musical humanity, translating Kevin Barnes’ singular visions into a spectacular live evocation, an impressive feat given that every of Montreal album to date has been concocted by Barnes alone on his laptop at home.
Until now, that is; False Priest stands as the first of Montreal album to benefit from the studio environment as well as outside perspective. Barnes wrote and recorded the songs for the album on his own, then took them to L.A. to flesh them out with super Pop producer Jon Brion, who had expressed an interest in working with Barnes, and provided of Montreal with their first real sonic depth (particularly in the lower ranges).
False Priest is an amazing mix of Barnes’ dual interests in David Bowie’s Glam Pop phase and his newer obsession with Funk and R&B in the Sly & the Family Stone/Parliament/Funkadelic/Marvin Gaye vein which, when pushed through Barnes’ creative filter, emerges with a Funk/Glam swagger that suggests Prince with Bowie as musical director, typified by the album’s opener, the falsetto-fueled “I Feel Ya’ Strutter” and the R&B travelogue of love gone wrong in “Our Riotous Defects.” False Priest also benefits from Barnes’ other influences, Atlanta’s Wondaland Arts Society, where he met Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles (sister of Beyonce) and Monae collaborator Chuck Lightning, who introduced Barnes to the work of late science fiction legend Philip K. Dick. To that end, Monae and Knowles both provide vocals to False Priest, and the sci-fi-overlay shows up in “Enemy Gene,” arguably the only Indie Rock song in history to discuss particle wave physics.
Elsewhere, “Godly Intersex” and “Casualty of You” sound like Hunky Dory-era David Bowie on a Bee Gees/Saturday Night Fever binge and “Coquet Coquette” offers up a mash-up of Marc Bolan and Jeff Lynne, while “Like a Tourist” presents an imagined collaboration between Prince and 10CC and “Famine Affair” shivers and shakes with the intensity of Robert Smith contracting a virulent case of dance fever.
In the end, no matter how much Funk and Soul is absorbed by Kevin Barnes, it still comes out with his particular Pop twist. You won’t ever hear Kanye West address the fetishizing of archetypes. Of course, there’s no telling where Barnes will take of Montreal next but, for now at least, there’s no parking on False Priest’s science fiction dance floor.
[For more about of Montreal, read my interview with Barnes before the band played the Madison Theater in September.]
Among all the bands that delve deeply into dark, erotic Rock, Swans stands alone. Under the perpetual and gravely brilliant leadership of Michael Gira, Swans has set a singular course that pays no attention to musical or cultural trends to make its point. Gira’s musical output has evolved over the past three decades (counting a 13-year hiatus), beginning as Swans’ Industrial fatalism, which sounded like a guitar-shaped chainsaw cutting an airplane in half, and morphing into a still brutally heavy but amazingly melodic and nuanced Pop version of that same general idea under the banner of Angels of Light
Although Gira’s recent Angels of Light releases have been considerably sunnier in atmosphere, the gravity-on-Jupiter heaviness of the material he created for My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky convinced him to return to the Swans persona. The effects of Angels of Light is certainly apparent, but even a kinder, gentler Swans has the ferocious snap of a snakebit wolverine and My Father is solid evidence that Gira is not going gently into the good night anytime soon.
Although the chiming church bells that announce the album’s eight-minute epic opener “No Words/No Thoughts” hint at a lighter atmosphere, the Wagnerian guitar squall that follows, along with Gira’s eulogistic Nick Cave-meets-Lou Reed drone vocalizing, dispel that notion. Musically, the Celtic Folk hymn “Reeling the Liars In” waltzes along with a melodic lilt as Gira’s lyrical focus (“Here is my hand, now drive the nail in/We are reeling the liars in”) counterpoints the song’s tone, but he climbs back on the funereal bandwagon for the electric dirge of “Jim” and the Middle Eastern Black Sabbath slam of “My Birth.”
But perhaps the best disconnect on the album is the pretty-mandolin-to-ugly-piano-and-guitar-apocalypse of “You Fucking People Make Me Sick,” a velvet shiv featuring dissonant vocals by Gira’s 3 1/2-year-old daughter and an ominous Devendra Banhart.
Gira has been quick to state that this new iteration of Swans is no crass reunion but a millennial resurrection of an idea that Gira believed in 1997 had run its course. It turns out there’s still plenty of venom left in Swans’ fangs after all.
Upheaval can be an excellent creative force, and Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s might be the latest example. The band’s longtime home in Indianapolis was damaged by fire last summer, they were dropped by Epic (band and label both obviously frustrated), frontman Richard Edwards relocated to Chicago and began writing the third Margot album and much of the band dispersed. Bassist Tyler Watkins and guitarist Erik Kang eventually joined Edwards and, with help from a stellar Chicago guest list, they created Buzzard, a fuzzier, buzzier, more shambling and stripped-down version of Margot’s previous expansive Chamber Pop explorations.
Buzzard was steered by a variety of oddball influences, including the discovery of 8mm nudie films in the abandoned theater where Edwards lived, and the theater itself, where the album was recorded in the twilight hours without benefit of artificial light. That metaphorical sightlessness gives Buzzard a visceral, intuitive quality that is more indicative of M&TNSS’s live presence than their more mannered catalog to date would suggest. Edwards stated in interviews during the Animal! sessions that the band was moving in a Noise Pop direction, and Buzzard is clearly the fruition of that claim, even as the album retains plenty of Edwards’ lyrical ambiguity (“Tiny vampire robot/wanna get sucked dry”) and musical sense of adventure.
Buzzard reveals moments of aggressive guitar-washed Ambience (“Lunatic, Lunatic, Lunatic”), edgy urban Folk (“Tiny Vampire Robot”), Pop/Rock expanse (“Let’s Paint Our Teeth Green”) and Glam Pop swing (“Your Lower Back”), where shades of My Morning Jacket and The Verve cross velvet swords with the likes of Clem Snide, Marc Bolan and Carole King. As a result, this leaner version of Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s may have crafted the band’s best album to date, as well as its easiest to translate in a live context.
James Sayce and Jake Fairley began their musical career playing together in an Electronic Rock outfit they christened Robot Jocks. They quickly and mercifully moved on — Sayce to the Deadly Snakes and Tangiers, Fairley to a Techno production gig in Berlin — but got reacquainted two years ago while decamped in a Dutch college community and eventually formed a new group, the Electronic/Indie Rock hybrid Bishop Morocco.
On its eponymous debut album, Bishop Morocco exhibits the dark influence of Joy Division (“Last Year’s Disco Guitars”), The Smiths (“The Catholic Band”) and New Order (“Petter”), but there’s an Art Pop/New Wave levity to the album, glittering flecks of Brian Eno’s Tiger Mountaineering (“Our Time,” “Eddie”) not to mention more than a shadow of Roy Orbison’s reverbed romanticism (“Goodbye Night”).
The success of Bishop Morocco lies in the fact that they pack their trunks with high quality luggage from the ’70s and ’80s and drive like a bastard for the border between now and next.
Twenty years ago, Selene Vigil founded 7 Year Bitch, the acerbic and heavy Punk outfit that helped set the stage for the Grunge acolytes that followed. After the 1992 death of original guitarist Stefanie Sargent and the subsequent departures of two replacements, 7YB dissolved in the midst of working up material for a fourth album. Vigil assembled the Goth/Psych-inspired Cistine in 2000 but has generally remained on the sideline for the past decade. After moving to L.A. and marrying Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk, Selene Vigil-Wilk has finally re-entered the studio to craft her debut solo album, That Was Then, a swirling, shifting style showcase that lives up to its title musically and lyrically.
Vigil-Wilk’s range on That Was Then is impressive. She gets in touch with her inner Perry Farrell on the album’s bracing opener, “I Brought the Rain with Me,” and the off kilter swagger of “Odds End,” while the avant Electronica of “Soak” and the Gypsy Folk of “On a Limb” bear the whipmarks of Tom Waits and Patti Smith and the bandages of Brian Eno. Vigil-Wilk’s dissonant spoken/shouted vocals were a visceral component of 7YB, but on the gentler, more melodic material on That Was Then, they offer an artily abrasive, Lydia Lunch-like counterpoint to the proceedings, from the quiet Folktronica strain of “Seattle” to the swirling Psych Pop smoke trails of “Blue Side” to the atmospheric insistence of “It’s Not On.”
With That Was Then, Selene Vigil-Wilk has crafted a fascinating, provocative and uncompromising set of songs that bridges the gaps between accessibility, experimentalism, modern expression and traditional translation.