From this point on, Kevin Barnes needs a studio. Period. Up to now, he’s recorded all the Of Montreal records virtually alone at home, which worked well when he was making folk-pop records (perfected on 2002’s Aldhils Arboretum). But as he’s moved toward electro-funk-pop, it’s gotten harder and harder to capture the spectacle of his sound in home recordings. That fact became pretty evident on 2008’s Skeletal Lamping, where Barnes channeled his inner-Prince on some sexed-up pop, but the songs felt a little thin on record, and following the brilliantly dark Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, it was clear Barnes had outgrew home recording.
Enter big-time producer Jon Brion (he worked with this guy Kanye West once) for False Priest, and suddenly all is right with the Of Montreal world. Sonically, this record comes closest to capturing the energy and extravagance of the band’s live show, and in many ways sounds like a solid revision of the funk-jam ideas Barnes explored on Skeletal Lamping.
With Brion on the controls (and half the instruments), and with a proper studio, Barnes’s sound blossoms, particularly on the first half of the record. Songs like “I Feel Ya Strutter” and the hilarious ex-girlfriend-from-hell number “Our Riotous Defects” are built on deep, rich bass lines that provide an anchor for the sunburst shimmer of keys and guitar. “Coquet Coquette” is the leanest, most straight-on rocker here, and in it you can hear a newfound confidence in Barnes. He is as oddball as ever on this record, but with Brion around, it feels like he has an audience for his act, and there’s an effective cocksure strut to it as a result.
Barnes also taps his two new favorite muses — Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles — and his work with the two of them make for the album’s brightest highlights. Monae absolutely shines on the apocalyptic dance number “Enemy Gene.” Her voice in the chorus is the cool seductress to Barnes’s paranoid lover, and the interplay works beautifully. Knowles and Barnes, on the other hand, cut loose on the tight boogie of “Sex Karma.” Barnes is in nonsensical lust here (“When you hit me, I’m a cloud, baby”; huh?), but when Knowles comes in, snapping off lines with a quick charm, it’s clear why Barnes is having so much trouble with his words.
That purposeful inability to articulate features often in False Priest, an album that vacillates between clinging to love and searching for it. But it is in those charged pop songs early in the record (really the first eight songs are excellent) that the stammering dynamic works. As False Priest beds down in its second half, the album still has a sonic charge, but the frenetic sense of discovery from the first half drifts away.
So though Barnes trips over his words cleverly on “Famine Affair,” the song sounds a little too mid-tempo to hold up. In fact, it isn’t until the album’s off-the-wall closer “You Do Mutilate?” that Barnes recaptures the thread. The song is a six-plus-minute mash-up of all the album’s disparate ideas. Brion, who beefs up sound but also acts as a shrewd editor, smartly let’s Barnes go off here. It’s a chaotic but fitting way to end the record after the control of late songs like “Casualty of You” makes it feel too settled.
Because in the end, Barnes needs to bounce off the walls, and the studio space (and Brion as a production foil) produces some spacious and fruitful bouncing. And while you might applaud him for exploring different textures with that space on the record’s second half, it’s hard to argue with the unpredictable results of the goofy, funked-out first half of False Priest. In the end, what’s great about this album is it marks a smart new direction for Kevin Barnes and Of Montreal, one that opens up possibilities that weren’t there when Barnes stayed home on record.