The people in dorm rooms, or study halls, or even sand boxes right now who have yet to discover the Athens, GA band of Montreal are in an enviable position in terms of the amount of recorded work that awaits their attention, the ease in which they are able to access it, and, well, the revelation that comes when one first enters Kevin Barnes’ kaleidoscopic universe, where laughter, sexuality, absurdity, isolation, and despair are virtually interchangeable, where conventions of genre and song structure are widely disregarded. They just shouldn’t start off with their new b-sides and rarities release, Daughter of Cloud.
As with most odds and sods offerings, this is upper division of Montreal, best appreciated by the band’s core audience of teenage free spirits and aging indie rock lifers. Those fans should (and will) attach themselves indiscriminately to this 17-song set of unreleased or hard to find tunes from the band’s recent series of albums. Barnes has earned these devoted ears, and gifts like this and a recent cassette box set are signs of a mutually beneficial relationship.
But, for the rest of us and our varying degrees of appreciation for of Montreal’s diverse catalog, Daughter of Cloud is likely what it is expected to be, which is strange considering the band’s love of surprises and left turns, and a little worrisome when we consider their career arc. Sure, we could argue about how many of their 11 LPs are essential listening (six seems like a pretty reasonable answer). We could debate whether the band has lost its creative vigor since Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (not really seems like a pretty reasonable answer). And, here, we could question whether Daughter of Cloud is a further example of the overexposure that would seem to be lessening the casual fan’s appetite .
Not debatable is the fact that the two albums since 2008’s Skeletal Lamping have seen their popularity recede, their concerts shrink in size (though they are still plenty wild), and the perfect storm of critical acclaim and commercial viability that characterized the band’s middle period now replaced with uneven material released in enough volume that critics and fans are both beginning to take the band for granted.
Not that Daughter of Cloud doesn’t serve a purpose beyond rewarding fan appreciation. As a compilation, it does not require the kind of continuity or pacing that LPs usually receive. of Montreal’s mutability is showcased freely, song after song having little in common besides Barnes’ familiar vocal tics and endless lines of lyrical easter eggs. It is remarkable to think that Kevin Barnes hasn’t settled into a comfortable niche in his songwriting and, though that desire to push boundaries has taken listeners into collages of sound with seizure-inducing capability, to say that this commitment to creativity is admirable is a colossal understatement.
There are even some gems to be found here. Mid-collection track “Psychotic Feeling” unnerves in its lack of chaos. Much more conventional than anything Barnes has released lately, it also achieves an emotional resonance that usually isn’t associated with the band, Barnes singing with hardly a wink, harmonies veering remarkably close to beauty. Not surprisingly, it was originally released in 2006. Later, on “Noir Blues to Tinnitus”, Barnes takes his time in painting a full landscape of nostalgia, winding up with a hushed gem that could just as easily inspire a slow dance as it could create a Lynchian sense of the macabre lurking within the ordinary. And, yep, it is also from 2006.
Some more freshly written cuts manage to find their mark as well. The slow-burning “Feminine Effects” is ambitious (and successful), guest vocalist Rebecca Cash walking the tightrope of capturing Barnes’ vocal characteristics without becoming parody. On “Our Love Is Senile”, of Montreal offer up a signature-sounding funhouse that is enjoyable in the ease from which the song seems to come. We even get a line on “Sails, Hermaphroditic” that can be added to of the lengthy list Barnes’ classics: “if I could Dr. Frankenstein the world, start this bitch anew, I would change the shit out of you.” But, aside from these, the remainder of the collection is predictably unnecessary, revealing that the unreleased tracks from functional-but-flawed albums are, well, equally flawed.
Considering how Kevin Barnes has changed of Montreal’s sound over what is approaching 20 years, history would indicate that the glam and funk that recent albums have explored will shift into something else, and this purging of the back catalog might be a freeing process. At its worst, Daughter of Cloud displays moments where this particular incarnation of the band faded. Tracks like “Jan Doesn’t Like It” and “Steppin’ Out” nearly reach the level of self-parody, every drastic tempo shift and key change living in predictable unpredictability, essentially becoming boring. For such a long time, of Montreal seemed to thrive on defying expectations, the necessity of which has become almost counterintuitive, this collection revealing the conundrum. Where one hopes that of Montreal maintain the artistic restlessness that has defined them, it is hard for that to coexist with the truth that they would also best be served reigning in some aspects to showcase their strengths (the lyrics! the melodies! the fun!) and reconnecting their straying flock.
Still, Daughter of Cloud knows exactly what it is, who it is trying to serve, and can hardly be criticized too sharply for having b-sides that sound like b-sides. For the die-hards, there will be plenty to love. And for everyone else, there is the reminder that Kevin Barnes has a history of reinvention and will probably always have a few more great songs left in him.
Essential Tracks: “Psychotic Feeling” “Noir Blues to Tinnitus”