Graded on a Curve:
Of Montreal Paralytic Stalks

Of Montreal’s Paralytic Stalks clocks in at just under an hour and it ultimately registers every minute of its running time. However, that shouldn’t be read as a bad thing.

Ten albums deep into a career that falls into two distinct halves (with a little bit of expected overlap) beginning with the Elephant 6 twee-pop era and followed by the more stylistically robust glam and R&B inflected portion to which Paralytic Stalks is the latest unfurling, leader Kevin Barnes hasn’t exactly been identified with the idea of restraint in creativity at any point across that span. And this certainly has its appeal; part of the fun in Of Montreal’s younger toy-town psyche incarnation was the boldness of execution.

1997’s debut Cherry Peel made it immediately clear the band’s (as a band they indeed were in those days) music was a love it or leave it alone proposition. With the shift essentially begun with 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic and solidified on the big indie splash of 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Barnes’ confessional, heart-on-sleeve album-as-therapeutic cleansing has probably turned off as many listeners as it has won over with its conceptual boldness, judicious stylistic pilfering, and strident agenda of newness.

Indeed, any curious body looking to dip a metaphoric toe into the pond of murky mascara that is Of Montreal should begin with Hissing Fauna, which remains his most widely appreciated release. Since that time, Barnes has been messing with the program of Fauna’s success with wildly divergent results, and Paralytic Stalks is the latest attempt to test the boundaries of his sound world and challenge the perceptions of his listenership. As released on double-LP vinyl Stalks can be summed up as having a relatively accessible disc followed by one that’s significantly less so. And it can be tempting to predict that in a decade, sides A and B of many copies will be showing a lot more of the ol’ snap, crackle and pop of frequent play than will sides C and D. This is pure conjecture of course, and in fact Paralytic Stalks already feels like the kind of release that begs for a re-reviewing in six months’ or a year’s time.

My personal early impression is that it takes a little too long to really get cooking, not fully igniting until the arrival of its third track “Dour Percentage,” which sounds like the product of a fictitious mid-‘70s collab between David Bowie and Todd Rundgren, recorded in the house of Gamble and Huff. Alas, in another era it would’ve made a great single, and for that matter so would the song immediately following it, “We Will Commit Wolf Murder,” which combines the by now expected glammy atmosphere with Barnes’ appealingly Robin Hitchcock-like vocal inflection before the song redirects into a tidy techno showdown. And “Malefic Dowery”’s flowery music-hall pop actually feels somewhat in line with the post-Barrett pop-direction Hitchcock explored back in the second half of the ‘80s, though Barnes’ weirdness is more immediate, and the relative directness of the lyricism is not only different from Hitchcock’s but distinct from the looser imagery found on the rest of the album.

From there, the nearly nine minutes of “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff” is the gateway to the record’s more experimental second half, and it’s easily the most successful example of Barnes’ ambition on the whole set—it’s certainly the most rocking—its pivot point standing as one of the release’s high points.

Barnes has stated the influence of 20th century classical heavyweights like Penderecki, Ives, and Ligeti are felt on Stalks, and that’s enough for some snipey folks to bellow the “p” word (that would be pretension) in his direction. Not me. The record’s last three tracks all show a desire to unfurl into drifts of abstraction, and I’ll take Barnes’ word for it regarding the specifics of his inspiration. I don’t think he’s pretending, and I don’t think ambition (successful or not) is any kind of artistic crime. To the contrary, I welcome it, particularly in comparison to the disappointingly smoothed out and safe direction of 2010’s Of Montreal effort False Priest. I do however think that his flights of experimentation could’ve used some editing (or in the case of “Wintered Debts” a few of the more fragmentary song bits could’ve benefited from some expanding), for in the end the finished result lacks the depth required to sustain such a long chunk of the album’s running time.

Word on the street is Stalks’ “Exorcismic Breeding Knife” is getting likened to “Revolution No. 9,” and if so, it’s the kind of wide open observation that can either be paid as a compliment or wielded as a putdown. I won’t deny it crossed my mind while listening, and that I dug the slight similarity. It’s also worth mentioning how that particular bit of Beatles weirdness was in large part just a crib upon John Cage’s Variations IV, so people eager to brand Kevin Barnes as pretentious should perhaps take that parallel into consideration. In no way am I equating Paralytic Stalks and The White Album in terms of quality, I’m just noting the similarity in tactics.

If the boldness of Stalks’ aims ultimately fall short, its second half is far from a failure, and in fact “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission,” the record’s closing and longest track at over thirteen minutes, actually is the most successful of the final three experiments, opening strongly and heading gradually for outbound territory before culminating with a sweet bit of melancholy piano balladry that shows off Barnes’ potential at stripped-down, straight-ahead songwriting.

In the end the ambition of Paralytic Stalks registers as a sincere attempt at artistic growth rather than as folly, and in a contemporary music scene rife with acts well versed with playing it safe, that’s a real breath of fresh air.

Graded on a Curve: B-

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  • http://indiehipsterawesomeness.Tumblr.Com/ OFKEVINBARNES

    I LOVE PARALYTIC STALKS SO MUCH!!!! oM FOREVER!!!!!

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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