Album review: Of Montreal - False Priest (Polyvinyl)

All you need to make an inspired album is an unhinged middle-aged black transgender funkateer at the helm

Transsexual alter-egos say the darnedest things. Georgie Fruit made his debut on Of Montreal’s breakout eighth LP ‘Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?’ In 2007, though, he found a way to upstage his creator Kevin Barnes with the R-rated surrealism of the following year’s ‘Skeletal Lamping’.

A black 40-something funk veteran with a penchant for freaky sex and trans-gender ops in both directions, Fruit is the psychotraumatic offspring of Barnes, main man of this art-freak troupe with origins in Athens, Georgia’s Elephant 6 collective. He’s the Jekyll to Barnes’ thoughtful Hyde, a slavering cross between Prince at his ’80s filthiest and transgressive philosopher Georges Bataille.

‘Hissing Fauna…’ made a cult figure of Barnes, with its alarmingly frank portrait of a man in the throes of a vicious depressive bout. It was their ‘The Holy Bible’ in lurid Technicolor, and it had taken its toll. What Fruit provided was a chance to survey the wreckage at a handy remove, masking Barnes’ psychic pain in terms only a sex pest could love: "Lover-face, wanna make you ejaculate/Until it’s no longer fun”.

It was a neat trick, but if ‘…Fauna…’ was a psychedelic masterwork that felt like tracing the rainbow’s arc into Dante’s last circle of Hell, its follow-up was something of a disappointment; the music was a car-crash of ideas rarely given room to breathe.

Barnes’ response? To produce a “trunk-rattling” record which doesn’t so much can Fruit as keep him on a tighter leash. ‘False Priest’ also comes billed as doffing its cap to Miami bass, Philip K Dick, Dr Dre and William S Burroughs, among others. Could anyone conjure such a mad picnic of characters and not wind up a few sandwiches short? Nope, but ‘False Priest’ has fun trying.

“There’s an invisible suture that keeps me in my seat next to you ‘til the end”, drawls Barnes on opener ‘I Feel Ya’ Strutter’, perhaps by way of apology to his wife, Nina, for pain caused by his autobiographical outbursts. He sounds at once unhinged and lucid, like Sly Stone in his armchair blasting at clocks with a sawn-off shotgun. There’s a reason for that – Barnes laid down a bunch of vocal takes half-cut at 4am.

‘False Priest’ is also Of Montreal’s first and only adventure in hi-fi, a co-production job with Kanye West consort Jon Brion. It’s an approach that works wonders on ‘Our Riotous Defects’’ delirious synth-pop, and especially on single ‘Coquet Coquette’, which sees the battle of the sexes redrawn as an apocalyptic spaghetti western soundtracked by The White Stripes.

Solange Knowles gets likened to a playground in ‘Sex Karma’, while Janelle Monáe brings a touch of her coveted interstellar whimsy to the rather fab ‘Enemy Gene’, whose lyric echoes the anti-clerical sentiments of the album’s title: “How can we ever evolve when our Gods are so primitive?” Barnes has been effusive about Monáe of late, and certainly the ties that bind them are stronger than first glance would suggest.

Meanwhile, Barnes’ talents as a latter-day funkateer improve with age, as on the ‘Computer Blue’ strangeness of ‘Around The Way’ or ‘Do You Mutilate?’’s downhome piano and rolling, Curtis Mayfield percussion. That song’s typical of their tangential brilliance, rhyming “kindness” and “Busta Rhyme-ness” before segueing into a ‘Ruby Tuesday’-ish coda, finally concluding that, “If you think God is more important than your neighbour/You’re capable of terrible evil”. Cheers fella!

It’s no disgrace that, after two head-spinning, star-making turns, ‘False Priest’ is simply the sound of Kevin Barnes relocating the rudder and applying a steady hand. And though it’s Janelle Monáe who’s made the record closest to Kevin Barnes’ heart in 2010, MGMT would kill to cut discs as eccentric and nakedly expressive as this.

Alex Denney

Click here to get your copy of Of Montreal's 'False Priest' from Rough Trade Shops.
7 / 10

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