On August 12th, the Georgia based indie band Of Montreal released their 14th studio album “Innocence Reaches”. Since 1996 band leader and songwriter Kevin Barnes has managed to form a heavy cult following by dropping albums on a near annual basis. The band has maintained a relentless touring schedule throughout their career; I’ve seen them over seven times over the past four years in North Carolina alone. Paired with a dramatically choreographed live show that fully explores androgyny and often leaves fans covered in feathers, Of Montreal has managed to remain relevant in the indie scene for two decades now.
Fellow die hard Of Montreal fans, myself included, have become used to the ever changing sound of Kevin Barnes’s performance project. Their 1996 debut album “Cherry Peel” was very much influenced by 60’s indie pop, and gave us playful songs such as “Tim I Wish I Was Born a Girl” and “Don’t Ask Me to Explain.” Barnes’s 2004 album “Satanic Panic in the Attic” saw the introduction of synthesizers and other electronic music elements being fused with their catchy, indie sensibilities. Tempo and rhythm changes became more frequent, but there was still that definite Of Montreal hook that Kevin Barnes has honed into a tangible sound. In 2007 their hallmark album “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?” was released. As well as cementing their transition into a Bowie-like glam rock sound, songs from this album still make up much of the band’s live set almost a decade after its release. This album featured heavier instrumentation and longer songs, but still keeping up Barnes’s deep reaching lyrics and self cynicism.
For their first release of 2016, “Innocence Reaches” continues Of Montreal’s trajectory of constant redefinition of sound. Relying even more heavily on synthesizers and electronic instruments than previous albums, this album sees Kevin Barnes shifting his attention into a more modern soundscape. Recorded over a two week stint in Paris, Kevin Barnes isolated himself to living in a friend’s studio and recording at night, while meandering about Parisian shops during the day. “Being in that place where no one looks at me twice and I can’t even understand the language was like entering a parallel universe,” commented Barnes. “It was cathartic and inspiring to amputate myself from my normal life and feel like an individual outside of all the baggage and memories.”
The opening track “Let’s Relate” sounds like it would be more at home on a Daft Punk single then on an Of Montreal album. The dancey “How do you identify? How do you I.D.?” sets the pace for the song with Kevin’s classic pseudo sing/speaking. Here he sounds to be addressing issues of gender identity and sexuality.
The second track, which also happens to be the album single, “It’s Different for Girls” openly talks about issues facing women. The lyrics “It’s different for girls,from when they are children, they’re depersonalized, aggressively objectified” pinpoint how women can be viewed in a less sensitive and harmful manner. A pulsating disco beat makes the song feel somewhat familiar for long time Of Montreal fans. “My Fair Lady” errs back to a more glam rock sound. Barnes returns to using indeterminate lyrics as he recites how he is dissatisfied with a relationship. The track builds slowly with a sleepy bass line and sparse chords in the back ground, and eventually it launches into another disco beat.
Probably the track that feels the most like an Of Montreal song on the album is “Chaos Arpeggiating.” It’s got that signature heavy instrumentation, abstract lead guitar motifs, wild chord progressions and each moment feels like something completely different from the last. The opening guitar riff sounds like something that would have come off of “Cherry Peel”, but the bulk of the song feels like “Hissing Fuana” or “Paralytic Stalks”.
Overall Innocence Reaches has the look and sound of an Of Montreal album, but something feels incomplete about it. The somewhat abrasive edge that Kevin Barnes has forged over past releases seems fairly diminished here, and has been traded in for a softer ride. Lyrically speaking the album doesn’t seem to measure up to Barnes’ typical wit and candor.
The real magic of Kevin Barnes I think isn’t in his recorded works, but rather in his live performance. I first saw them my senior year of high school, and to this day they are still my favorite band to see live. Even when an album falls flat on the ears, Kevin manages to make each song a moment of energetic bliss when on stage. Of Montreal is coming to the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro on Sunday, September 4th, and they will still have that indescribable magic that has drawn crowds for 20 years.