Friday, February 3, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: of Montreal - Paralytic Stalks

By Steve Jones.

Paralytic Stalks is the new album dropping next week from of Montreal. However, I already received my LP of it in the mail, so I'm reviewing it early.  Fuck tha police.

More so than most contemporary artists, Kevin Barnes has emerged as a chameleonic Bowie-figure.  Each of his albums is as distinguishable by its musical style as by its personality, but all of them are still unmistakably of Montreal records.  The style and personality to expect from Paralytic Stalks, then, is best described by the first moments of the opening track "Gelid Ascent."  A few seconds of low droning explodes into a cacophony of looped and garbled voices, after which Barnes says in eerie monotone, "You are what parasites evolved are the refuse energy from a superior form."  This is not going to be the fun funk romp of False Priest or the flamboyant flaunting of Skeletal LampingParalytic Stalks is going to hurt, and in a good way.

That's not to say this album is one of those "difficult listens."  Granted, certain moments are, but the majority of the songwriting here is accessible and engaging, and personally I believe Barnes has penned some of the strongest melodies of his career for this record.  Although the album is divided into only 9 tracks over the course of an hour, of Montreal returns to the Skeletal Lamping style of cramming more than one songform into a single title.  This time around, though, the transitions feel more fluid.  Even the shocking stylistic shifts sound impeccably placed when considered in the context of the album as a whole.  The addition of session musicians, a first for of Montreal, adds wonderful color and makes the arrangements stand out definitively from the rest of the band's discography.  Since I do love me some baroque pop, I may be slightly biased in my love for this incorporation of woodwinds, strings, and brass, but it is the finesse with which they are used that really impresses me.

Most importantly, Barnes returns to the heavily confessional lyricism and delivery which defined Hissing Fauna.  Like the best of personal albums, Paralytic Stalks draws you in at the beginning and releases you at the end with a profound sense of catharsis.  Because this is very much an album with a structure going from the beginning to the end, I hope you'll indulge me as I forgo a more complex arrangement and simply give you my impressions of the songs in the order in which they are heard.

Pink Floyd haze and guitars feature on "Gelid Ascent."  The pace is slow and deliberate, almost dirge-like.  Barnes communicates a sense of being trapped, which is a fitting introduction for an album called Paralytic Stalks.

"Spiteful Intervention" is a swirl of bass, piano, strings, and pain-filled vocal delivery.  Just listen to the bitterness in the opening line, "It's fucking sad that we need a tragedy to occur to gain a fresh perspective in our lives / Nothing happens for a reason. There's no point even pretending. You know the sad truth as well as I."  So much bitterness (see: "Wintered Debts").  But I think the line that best captures the tone of the record happens when Barnes screams "I made the one I love start crying tonight, and IT FELT GOOD.  Still there must a more elegant solution."  It's that contrast of angrily lashing out at a lover in the moment and the detached analytic reconsideration which comes after the fact.

Suddenly, sweet '60s pop and soul meet in "Dour Percentage."  The press release compares it to ELO, but I actually hear more of Young Americans when the vocal harmonies layer perfectly over the horns.  It's by far the sunniest track on the album.  I mean, there's a lot of lyrical dissonance happening, but I can't help but smile when the flutes come to the forefront in the climax.

"We Will Commit Wolf Murder" sounds like three different Kevin Barnes engaged in a desperate conversation.  He also does this thing with his voice when he says, "You're the only beauty I don't want to strangle," that is seriously one of the sexiest things that I as a straight male have heard in a song.  The arrangement is standout, and the strings in the outro are particularly wonderful.  That is, before the song transitions into electroclash.  I can understand why it's there, but what comes before it is so nice I wish I could have had another minute of the strings instead.

In another unexpected sonic shift, "Malefic Dowery" is a short, bright piece of bossa nova.  I like it!

"Ye, Renew the Plaintiff" is the of Montrealest track on the album.  It moves all over the place and rocks hard.  Barnes also returns to the confessional style of Hissing Fauna, directly addressing his wife Nina and screaming lines like "It's eating a hole in me!" over a screeching guitar solo.  But the best part of the album comes after the five minute mark when the song gets too groovy for its own good.  The smooth bass, horns, and flourishes of woodwinds soon descend into a beautifully demented and baroque jam session.  This also marks the midway point through the album, and things start to get more abstract from here on.

But just when you thought this album couldn't take more left turns, "Wintered Debts" begins all singer-songwriter with acoustic guitar and vox before turning into a honky-tonk country jam complete with pedal steel guitar.  The second half of the track, however, is a toned down tone poem of glistening and improvised orchestration.  It comes across as slightly calming, but the song concludes on a rather defeatist note.

Your reaction to "Exorcismic Breeding Knife" is going to determine whether you think this album is brilliant or a self-indulgent mess.  The track is nearly 8 minutes of what seems to be the formless noise of every instrument in the album playing a slightly different song.  The composition is unashamedly avant-garde, and I think, unfortunately, it's going to turn a lot of people away from the album, but the more I listen to it the more I'm able to dissect and appreciate it.  It also meshes electronic and orchestral sounds quite well, in my humble opinion.  It's not the kind of track I'd listen to on shuffle, but in the context of an album dealing with dark and disturbing thoughts, it achieves a kind of beauty by not even trying to be pretty or conventionally musical.  

If you make it through "Exorcismic Breeding Knife," your reward is "Authentic Pyrrhic Remission."  The first five minutes of the track are everything you can want from of Montreal: excessive, catchy, and relentless pop.  It just makes you want to dance, and it's a relief to hear Barnes sing things like "I love how we're learning from each other" and "In your hands I'm quite simply a different instrument" after the depressing tones of the rest of the album.  It descends into another noisy sound collage afterwards, but this time around it is distinctly more blissful than worrying.  And to finally bring a close to this swell of emotions, the last few minutes are restrained and gorgeous.  An upright bass accompanies Kevin on the piano.  The mood is slightly sad, a little wistful, but overall content and resolved.

Hissing Fauna is currently considered the magnum opus for of Montreal, and for good reason.  Barnes' depression fueled a startlingly personal album which still managed to produce some of the best indie pop tunes of the last decade.  Paralytic Stalks treads similar ground, but it'd be wrong to call it a rehash, or a feigned attempt at past glory.  In fact, I think Paralytic Stalks surpasses Hissing Fauna in terms of being a complete artistic vision and still being progressive, different, and enjoyable enough for me to want to listen to it over and over.  I foresee myself revisiting this album a lot over the course of this year, and it's my hope I can comprehend a bit more of it with each pass.  Kevin Barnes' lyricism and songwriting has never been stronger.  This record will be difficult to top, but if he continues to be so unwilling to stagnate, he can only get better.

Score: Decent 9

(Steve Jones likes listening to music and writing about music even though he can barely make music. He has an underused Twitter and enjoys large numbers.)

P.S. The fuchsia-colored vinyl is really pretty!  Buy it! 


  1. Great review, way better then those other guys...

  2. what is pitchfork anyway? great job