Series of reissues offers recent fans a chance to turn back the clock to Of Montreal's formative years and explore the progression out of the garage and into indie pop brilliance.
Going back and re-reading the reviews of Of Montreal's The Sunlandic Twins a year after its release is a gently amusing pastime. Reviewers who had either caught the buzz of the prior year's Satanic Panic in the Attic or were existing fans from such well-received early releases as The Gay Parade and Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse were a bit taken aback by the seemingly abrupt shift in Kevin Barnes's musical muse. Whereas he'd spent a career developing a distinctly psychedelic flavor of indie pop that began lo-fi and had over time progressed to epic pop-rock productions, the disco-kissed electro-pop of The Sunlandic Twins caught people by surprise. Initial reviews were wary, if not befuddled: the intensely evocative lyrics were intact, and the sense of melody sharp, but critics were unsure of how they worked in concert with the new music.
Fast forward to the end of 2005 and suddenly critical opinion had coalesced and The Sunlandic Twins was appearing on Top 10 lists and being hailed as one of the year's best -- if not quite the brilliant collection that Satanic Panic was, then at least a worthy successor in its own right.
I say "gently amusing", because that same initial reaction and eventual coalition towards acclaim is nearly an exact mirror of the experience I had with The Sunlandic Twins. I am, admittedly, a late-comer to Of Montreal's brand of beatific sounds, one of those drawn in first by Satanic Panic. While I filled in some of the band's back-catalog and came to appreciate exactly how far Barnes had come in his songwriting, I too was not sure what to make of Sunlandic on first listen. Yes, "Requiem for O.M.M.2" was an obvious indie pop classic straight out of the box, but it took a while for tracks like "I Was Never Young" and "Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games" to bubble up to the surface. And yet I kept coming back to the album throughout the year. And coming back. And coming back. And at some uncertain point, everything clicked into place and suddenly the ebullient melodies made sense in the context of the lyrics, and vice versa, and "The Party's Crashing Us" became one of my favorite songs of 2005, and I realized that Barnes's experiment had worked -- the downcast pscyh-pop precision whimsy was still in place, just in time-release capsule form.
Apparently, Polyvinyl Records has also taken this long-delay aspect of Of Montreal's brilliance to heart. First coming to prominence in the mid-'90s thanks to its association with the psych-pop collective Elephant 6, Of Montreal's earliest work was in some sense overshadowed by the more dramatic masterworks of its brethren bands. Though the Athens, Georgia, setting of Elephant 6 was certainly fertile, and along with the Denver crew in E6 West helped foster the career of dozens of great pop bands, Barnes was not immediately accorded the same level of respect that quickly attached itself to musicians like Jeff Magnum, Bill Doss, and Will Cullen Hart. It's only been in the 21st century that Of Montreal has managed to carve out its own name for itself in broader musical circles, and following the collapse of their initial label, Kindercore, much of that earlier material has been unavailable.
The new label home of the band, Polyvinyl has seen fit to fill in the publishing gaps in the older Of Montreal material from the fabulous, near-mythical Kindercore days when Elephant 6 was still standing on all four legs. Since Of Montreal's discography of releases stretching back to 1997's Cherry Peel had gone out of print following the Kindercore implosion, Polyvinyl has been gradually releasing reissues since 2004. The latest spate of releases digs back deep into Of Montreal's past, starting with the pre-E6 solo recordings, skipping over the already-reissued Cherry Peel, and filling in the gaps leading up to the band's first definitive album, 1999's The Gay Parade.
For more recent fans of Barnes and company, the first thing you'll notice about The Early Four Track Recordings is that it sounds nothing like the band Of Montreal has become. The second thing you might notice (if you look into the liner notes at all), is that all the tracks have been named after activities involving Dustin Hoffman, such as "Dustin Hoffman Needs a Bath", "Dustin Hoffman Gets a Bath", and "Dustin Hoffman's Wife Calls Detective to Dust for Porcelain Particles". No, this isn't a whimsical psych-pop opera concept album masterpiece involving a day in the surreal life of Dustin Hoffman (after all, as the album cover reminds us in the fine print, "Writing about Dustin Hoffman is illegal."), rather it's a silly mask to give some coherence to the content of these songs. In fact, most of the tracks on this disc are skeletal song-structures, some of which don't feel like much more than sketches.
As the title indicates, these are true four-track recordings, made at the early stages when Barnes solo was Of Montreal (something that's come full circle in recent years), and these are the tinny sounds of a young musician playing at finding a voice. The guitars are rough, scratchy garage pop chords and the rhythm section consists of simplistic and rattling drum patterns, and in comparison to Barnes's later work there's little hint of the melodic genius he would later display. If there is something of note to these tracks, it's the decidedly trippy word-jumble pastiche of the lyrics. For the fan, it's a fascinating look at the early stages of creativity, the practice stages that are necessary for building up to the artistry displayed in the characters that notably inhabit the mature Of Montreal's songs. But in general, it's a sub-lo-fi recording of a guy just beginning to exercise his strengths and not having yet developed an established sense of song. As a historical record, The Early Four Track Recordings is interesting, and there is certainly a select audience for whom primitive technique and raw expression is the pinnacle of authenticity, but these are home recordings through and through.
Of considerably more interest is The Bird Who Continued to Eat the Rabbit's Flower. Recorded by the same initial Athens line-up that recorded the Cherry Peel debut, Of Montreal's The Bird Who Ate the Rabbit's Flower was the second official release of the band, a five-song EP that collected four original Barnes compositions and a cover of the Who's "Disguises". Two years later, the EP was expanded to add three more tracks, including covers of Elf Power's "The Secret Ocean" and Yoko Ono's "I Felt Like Smashing My Face Through a Clear Glass Window", and the title was amended to its name here. Although the Barnes tracks vary in quality, it's the cover of "The Secret Ocean" that sums up this mini-album best. With Bryan Poole splitting his time between Of Montreal and Elf Power, it doesn't come as much surprise that the former sounds much like the latter here. At this stage, Of Montreal was still a garage pop band, though the leap from Barnes's work on the four-track recordings mentioned above is abundantly clear, and, like Elf Power, there's a lo-fi charm to tracks like the relatively plain-spoken "On the Drive Home" and "When a Man Loves a Man".
But if you're looking for the real blueprint for the Of Montreal that would burst forth with The Gay Parade and continue to evolve up to The Sunlandic Twins, then you really don't need to look back any further than The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy. Here, we finally get to see the complex songwriter in Barnes begin to emerge, taking chances and honing his particular take on psychedelic pop into a more expressive palette. The Bedside Drama is a sixteen-track excursion through all the different facets of love, from infatuation and devotion to waning and dissolution. But while Bedside has a unity of theme, it also displays an expanded sense of melodic variety than was found on Rabbit's Flower, despite being an overtly more acoustic collection of tracks.
Things kick off on the right foot with the bubblegum confections of "One of a Very Few of a Kind", placing strummed guitar pop simplicity against cleverly undercutting lyrics, and then proceed to charm the pants off a lover through "Happy Yellow Bumblebee". That track's first-insect-person story is one of those early breakthrough moments where Barnes nails the marriage of killer melody and fun, playful lyrics decisively, crafting one of the album's standout songs. The same feels true of "Honeymoon in San Francisco" -- though this is more downbeat, it is a rougher version of the same prettily sad mystique in careful observations that marks some of the best of Satanic Panic and Sunlandic Twins, and in fact the melody bears a strong resemblance to "I Was a Landscape in Your Dream".
Notably, the mood swings of the track ordering gives Bedside a sort of rolling, almost manic quality that drives home the directness of the lyrics, slipping back and forth between expressions of love and uncertainty and keeping the whole collection from being sappy or maudlin. By the time you get to "Panda Bear", you're not sure if this whole album isn't a singular statement about a passionate, slightly dysfunctional relationship. Nestled at the center of the album, and one of only two long, fully-drawn-out tracks, "Panda Bear" follows the lugubrious "Cutie Pie" with Bedside's most overt Beatle-isms, anchoring the track with a shuffling, ominous piano line and building and receding from that point to create a contemplative and melodically slippery expression of creeping dread. Two tracks later we've got "Please Tell Me So" begging for a declaration of love, followed by "Darling I've Forgotten", wherein the narrator explains that he doesn't even remember why he was attracted to his paramour in the first place, but then a plea not to leave the relationship in ""You Feel You Must Go, Don't Go!". Individually, they're wonderfully plainspoken expressions of different aspects of coupledom, but put together they offer a sad, dissolving end to the earlier songs of adoration. After a couple of tracks dealing with emptiness, Barnes gratefully takes things out on a hopeful note in "It's Easy to Sleep When You're Dead", in which the lure of the quietude of death finally loses out to living, since the dead miss out on all the riches of life.
As The Bedside Tragedy comes to a close, it's easy to be excited all over again for the riches offered on the later albums, and its tempting to turn around and fire up The Gay Parade and Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies just to continue the evolution forward. While the earlier Of Montreal albums don't offer quite the level of refined sophistication that Barnes and company would achieve in the 21st century, they are still reflective of the path that Of Montreal would follow. Historically, it's fascinating in its own right to listen to the pieces falling into place over time. And while Of Montreal is officially classified as one of the outer-edge Elephant 6 groups, closely affiliated but not quite at the core of the Athens group, it's telling that while Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel have already cemented their spots in history, they're also defunct (though the third leg of the triumverate, the Apples in Stereo, is touring and set to release new material) . Barnes, in contrast, has kept his vision going, and moving forward, and Of Montreal has come to be the standard-bearer for the E6 crowd in more recent years.
These reissues may not offer up quite the same riches, but as record of Of Montreal's course of development, it's a welcome thing to have them back in print. The trip back to the past is instructive for new fans, and offers an even greater opportunity to appreciate the work of the more recent achievements.