Album Review: of Montreal – Daughter of Cloud

[Polyvinyl; 2012]

of Montreal are no strangers to leftovers. At last count, they’ve released three separate albums of b-sides, remixes, and rarities, and there’s no doubt that they have enough discarded songs sitting around in some dark studio collecting dust for one or two more collections. If you count Horse & Elephant Eatery (No Elephants Allowed): The Singles and Songles AlbumThe Early Four Track Recordings, and Satanic Twins, not to mention numerous tour-only EP’s and vinyl-exclusive releases, of Montreal seems about as restless a band as any in recent memory. It’s possible to chalk that up to frontman Kevin Barnes’ sometimes garish, sometimes quixotic public persona and his proclivity for relentless recording, as of Montreal can seem at times to be simply a vehicle for his outlandish musical perversions. From their beginnings peddling twee pop and casting fey aspersions, the band has slowly transformed into the nightmarish pop purveyors that we’ve come to know since they released the band-changing pop epic Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

But change is the lifeblood of any great band. Whether Kevin Barnes acknowledges this or is simply following some ephemeral muse will likely never be confirmed nor denied. On some records, the band seems to be veering wildly off course, and on others, it seems to be determinedly single-minded in its creative drive. And as such, Daughter of Cloud, their newest collection of unreleased songs, b-sides from previously released singles, and tracks from tour releases, suffers from the same split personalities that bogged down their previous releases, as well as having raised the bar for their psych pop peers in the process. And then there are tracks here that just make no damn sense. But this is of Montreal we’re talking about and any longtime fan is willing to take the good with the bad when it comes to any new material. The good with the absolutely nuts may be a better way to look at it though, as there is generally always something to dig your teeth into on each of these tracks—whether it’s a particularly memorable melody or some unusual dynamic within the instrumentation itself. Some of these aspects just get drowned out by the less-than-advisable musical detours that Barnes and the band seem perfectly content to follow without reserve.

Daughter of Cloud focuses on newer material rather than songs recorded before Hissing Fauna, as their previous compilations had already made a fairly comprehensive assessment of the unreleased material from those early records. It is difficult to keep from trying to compartmentalize this collection according to the album around which each song was recorded, as it becomes obvious very quickly to which release’s timeline each track belongs. And if you had assumed that those songs recorded around Skeletal Lamping and False Priest would be among the weaker tracks here, you’d be right as Georgie Fruit makes several unfortunate appearances, which only reinforces the lack of substance that plagued those records. Tracks like “Georgie’s Lament” and “Jan Doesn’t Like It” with their faux Prince posturing really do the band no favors in terms of creating a consistently engaging narrative and allowing the listener to have a participatory experience. These tracks are almost purposefully cold and emotionally distant and never rise above the level of being just a passing curiosity.

The heady guitar psychedelics on “Sails, Hermaphroditic” and “Obviousatonicnuncio” place them firmly inside False Priest territory, though with some greater sense of success but still falling short of anything from Paralytic Stalks or Hissing Fauna. Lyrically, Barnes has always slid just this side of nonsensical at the best of times and he places no greater emphasis here as lines about “your creepy black licorice servant’s long milk tits” and boasts like “this synth solo ’bout to pay my bills” pretty much stop the songs dead in their tracks. And the less said about his pseudo-rapping on “Steppin’ Out” and “Alter Eagle” the better. Let’s just leave those two alone.

Excepting the excellent Hissing Fauna-era cut “Our Love Is Senile”, the front half is very disjointed. Though as weak as those first seven or so tracks are, Daughter finds firm footing with the Rebecca Cash-sung “Feminine Effects.”  Certainly one of the highlights here, this piano’d country swayer feels immediate and emotionally vested in a way that most of the other tracks here can’t begin to understand. I hope this song shows Barnes that he can step back from the mic every now and then and his fans won’t mind too much. “Tender Fax,” with its multi-tracked vocals and flanging effect, not to mention a rather spirited midsection, proves a worthy follow-up to “Feminie Effects.” The album ends on two particularly high notes, as the elastic beat of “Noir Blues to Tinnitus” and the bands reverent take on Neil Young’s “Expecting To Fly” show that the band still has ways of amazing us, even on a release like this. How were these tracks not ever included on an official album?

But do we really need another of Montreal compilation?  It’s a fair question to ask and one that might quickly lead to Daughter of Cloud’s dismissal if not for the strength of quite a few of these tracks. If only because of “Feminine Effects” and the echo-rich cover of Neil Young’s “Expecting To Fly,” this compilation stands out among their others as a bit more effective, even pulling from so many different albums and feeling somewhat scattershot at times. Barnes knows how to write a melody and he knows how to put together a great pop song, but you get the sense that he’s not really the grand arranger that he thinks he is—that often times his ambition overreaches his ability. But barring that, Daughter of Cloud feels like the first non-LP of Montreal compilation that actually feels necessary for any non-completist fans.

If you can forgive Barnes’ very unfortunate excursions into hip-hop and overlook what is hopefully the last few Georgie Fruit guest spots, you’ll be amazed at the range of sounds that the band manages to successfully explore here. If Barnes can reign in his overly dramatic tendencies a bit and allow the band more leeway to contribute, there’s hope that the seemingly disparate, though very welcome, elements found on this record will help to shape their next release. And please Barnes, for chrissake, no more Georgie Fruit.