Music

of Montreal: Lousy with Sylvianbriar

On its newest album, of Montreal pares back its kaleidoscopic, occasionally crowded sound for an album of understated, Americana-inspired art rock that delivers on its promise.


of Montreal

Lousy with Sylvianbriar

Label: Polyvinyl
US Release Date: 2013-10-08
UK Release Date: 2013-10-07
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Some bands seem just too massive to discuss critically in any reasonable way.

Over a 17-year career, of Montreal has released eleven full-length albums, nine EPs, and a number of non-album singles and compilations. Across this monstrous career, its albums have contained bits of twee indie pop, glam rock, 60’s-influenced psychedelia, electronic music, funk, as well as pieces snatched from countless other styles. Each stylistic left turn in the band’s discography has been both lauded as its greatest success and panned as its greatest failure.

The latest in that ever-increasing series of stylistic shifts finds of Montreal embracing late '60s/mid-'70s rock and country on their 12th full-length album, Lousy With Sylvianbriar. The band’s frontman/chief songwriter Kevin Barnes has name-dropped Neil Young, the Grateful Dead and Flying Burrito Brothers as influences in the interview cycle leading up to this album’s release. The album’s press kit plays up the creative resurgence Barnes experienced during the recording of the album and its short, organic writing process, with Barnes himself linking his new writing methods to those of his stated influences.

As with the best albums from the second half of of Montreal’s career, Lousy With Sylvianbriar opens with an undeniable standout, first single “Fugitive Air". Stomping glam rock (augmented with slide guitar that wouldn’t feel out of place on Satanic Panic in the Attic) sits pretty beside a vitalized variation on the poly-pop Barnes has mined since the band’s inception. While steeped in classic rock traditions reminiscent of everyone from Neil Young and the Rolling Stones to the MC5 and T. Rex, strip those away and this is still the same energized art rock as found on the more upbeat sections of Aldhills Arboretum or Satanic Panic in the Attic.

There are still plenty of twists present in Barnes’ songwriting, as what starts as a barreling rocker showcasing the confident garage rock bark Barnes displayed on the band’s “Fell in Love With a Girl” cover picks up instruments as it rolls along, and finds Barnes switching to the softer, more melancholy croon fans associate with the band about halfway through. The whole thing softens considerably as it spends its last minute dissolving into wordless “Lalala” and “Oooooohaaaah” vocalizations. “Fugitive Air” fuses new and old in a way that signals a new chapter in of Montreal’s musical life while acknowledging the band’s past.

Third track “Belle Glade Missionaries” is another instantly memorable song, anchored by a swinging, raucous riff and featuring some of Barnes’ most quotable writing since high-water-mark album Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? The song’s title missionaries want to “steal your cocaine,” while elsewhere characters want to be “the female Henry Miller” and “post naked .gifs of [their] epileptic fits". While it’s one of the most wryly funny recent of Montreal songs, there’s a dark undercurrent that’s most evident in the song’s chorus, which laments “They’re letting children get blown up in their schools today/So they can get them back into their factories.” Despite its musical differences, especially to their recent material, in attitude and sentiment, this is vintage of Montreal.

One of the record’s best moments comes on the soft, string-backed “Raindrop in My Skull". The song finds Barnes ceding the lead vocal spot to recently added member Rebecca Cash for a duet that may be the prettiest of Montreal song since Satanic Panic in the Attic’s “City Bird". Barnes’ lyrics sound natural coming from Cash, and the strange, poetic writing sits snugly with the tender arrangement for, oddly enough, one of the most of Montreal-sounding songs on the album.

Sylvianbriar’s outside narrative of creative resurgence, along with Barnes’ continuously tumultuous relationship with wife Nina Grøttland (“Nina Twin” as she’s known in the band’s universe) makes it possible to read Cash as a surrogate June Carter to Barnes’ Johnny Cash, a stand-in for a presumed “other woman” who seems present in the album’s lyrics. “Raindrop in My Skull", Cash’s most prominent appearance on the album is immediately followed by “Imbecile Rages", a vitriolic send-off to just such an “other woman” character. “When you said to my woman at the show / That we were just desperately breathing life into a dead ghost / Do you really think these things you say / They won’t get back to me?” Whatever the song’s actual ties to Barnes’ personal life, its cathartic energy, aided by its straightforward arrangement, makes it a fitting closing track. And “Imbecile Rages” plays as the best kind of closing track, since its understated fade-out makes the album beg to be replayed as soon as it finishes.

Classic- and garage rock-style material like “Fugitive Air", “Belle Glade Missionaries” and foot-tapping rocker “She Ain’t Speakin’ Now” is balanced by softer, more heavily folk and country indebted songs like “Raindrop in My Skull” and the airy, mesmerizing “Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit". The manner in which the album’s style shifts from track to track without feeling disjointed is perhaps the best trick lifted from the classic rock playbook. Like Let It Bleed or Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, high-energy rock tracks appear beside the twang and strum of country and folk, the contrasting textures lending the whole a sense of movement and diversity.

This record’s success is ultimately not predicated on its choice in musical styles, but rather the verve with which Barnes approaches it. There’s something to that press kit mythologizing about the change of scenery (San Francisco) and recording method (three weeks, band in a room, tape machine) because for the first time in years, something of that loose, slapdash Elephant Six energy has re-entered of Montreal’s music, to the point where it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to find a march sequenced around track nine or ten.

One of a few criticisms to be made of the album is that its pacing flags slightly somewhere near its middle. While there are no duds here, “Colossus” and “Triumph of Disintegration” (despite the undeniable energy in the latter’s “The last ten days have been a motherfucker!” opening) bear most of the responsibility for that mid-album flabbiness. It’s not until “She Ain’t Speakin’ Now” ushers in the album’s strong last act that its pacing fully recovers.

The weight of expectations aside, Lousy With Sylvianbriar is a comfortable, understated collection of Americana-flavored art rock. While not reaching the flamboyant, glitter-dizzy heights of the band’s very best, it manages to be the band’s finest offering since the band’s 2006 crown jewel, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Exactly where the album fits within the band’s catalog will probably be debated for as long as people talk about the band; where precisely you place it is irrelevant if the listening experience itself is this enjoyable.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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