It goes without saying that listening to music is a contextual experience. We all have our songs that led us through our drunken nights, our long car rides through the middle of nowhere, our fortunes and misfortunes of love and heartbreak, and everything else in our lives we deem worthy of remembering. It thus seems a bit drab when the most extraordinary of experiences is tainted by the wrong song.
Two months ago, I was driving my brand new Volvo on its maiden voyage when I was rear-ended by a car going 50 mph faster than mine, compressing my vehicle to half its size and my sentiment of youthful immortality to about a hundredth of its size. A year before I had had a brush with death and my soundtrack was the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs,” and the song has carried an eerie glow that resonates to my very core ever since. Unfortunately, during this more recent accident I was listening to “Pancakes for One,” one of the many completely uninteresting songs on Of Montreal’s completely uninteresting Aldhils Arboretum. Any sort of emotional association between this album and my near-death experience is still lacking, and I can only blame the music.
Not to say that Of Montreal is an uninteresting band. These Athens, Georgia-based Elephant 6 contemporaries have been making pleasant-at-worst ’60s-style pop and alliterative song titles since 1997’s Cherry Peel. With their rising fame — due to last year’s surprisingly dance-pop Satanic Panic in the Attic and a featured single on The O.C. (the strangest but also most well-used of indie rock right of passages) — some of their older work is getting the ol’ reissue treatment.
Aldhils carries on songwriter Kevin Barnes’s tradition of crafting enjoyable songs but also emphasizes an oft occurring flaw he’s only recently struck from his talents: a terrible habit of sounding boring. The songs on Aldhils are well described by the opener “Doing Nothing,” in which both Barnes’s voice and lyrics succeed in conveying a sense of utter stagnancy. Followed by similar pieces like “Old People in the Cemetery” (which makes simple observations about the stunning revelation that, yes, death is sad) and “Isn’t It Nice” (about quiet country life), the first half of the LP works as a concept album about the monotony and dullness of life, which unfortunately shoots itself in the foot by using dull music to convey its sentiment.
But if Barnes has one very distinctive songwriting characteristic, it’s his love of tangled chord progressions, sudden key changes and awkward structures. How can this be boring? The downfall of this entire album (and a few others preceding it) is that the listener is not given any chance to feel a good hook or enjoy the groove of a song. Rather, with constant structural change comes the musical disaster of there being nothing to hold onto. All we get is a slew of chord changes and the occasional entertaining lyric.
Aldhils Arboretum isn’t terrible; it just isn’t special. A few songs like “Isn’t It Nice,” “Jennifer Louise” and “We Are Destroying the Song” all have their merits, but this album functions best as a reminder of how far Barnes has come in the past few years. We can shelve semi-failures like Aldhils and set the repeat button for our favorite well-sculpted, better textured and, most important, more exciting hooks from his newest works. I just wish one of those new songs had been playing in my car when I almost died.