Kevin Barnes is the sort of lavishly creative, hyper-narcissistic eccentric who pumps you up and wears you out when he’s in your proximity.
Barnes, the heart, soul and 14-carat mood ring of the Athens, Ga., group of Montreal (the preposition is uncapitalized), has most recently demonstrated a fetish for Prince-styled falsetto funk to go with his Glee-oriented faux-amateur theatrics, with a hint of bawdy vaudeville thrown in for good measure. That’s a partial rundown of the flavors on “False Priest,” of Montreal’s 14th record since 1997. It also boasts a pair of squirrelly r&b divas in Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles (the latter Beyonce’s sister), and leavening production from Jon Brion (who upped the soulful quotient in early Fiona Apple albums and helmed Kanye West’s “Late Registration”).
Listening to “False Priest,” it is hard to imagine that Barnes first emerged as something of a shy naif, part of the Elephant 6 Collective, with the first few oM records sounding a bit like both the Collective’s signature band, Apples in Stereo, and older Athens lo-fi pop groups such as The dBs. Amid the psychedelic ornamentation, vaudevillian flourishes and stream-of-consciousness character studies that continued to swell during oM’s middle period, Barnes still came off as a twee pop auteur.
Then events began to tumble and roil in a hurry. On 2004’s “Satanic Panic in the Attic,” Barnes dumped most of his bandmates and turned in a leaner pop-rock effort that attempted to move of Montreal from cult band status into the mainstream while retaining his weird-and-cool lyrical verbosity for longtime fans. In the wake of “Satanic,” his personal life exploded, with marriage, a child, a move to Norway, and dissolution of that marriage flipping him from good-natured sonic dabbler and cultural observer into depressive obsessive on the narcissistic “Hissing Fauna: Are You the Destroyer?” from 2007.
Fans who had stayed with him through the changes from the Elephant 6 days suddenly had another thematically disjunctive gap in his traditional style to absorb. But Barnes further upped the ante the following year on “Skeletal Lamping,” making the effeminate alter ego Georgie Fruit (introduced on “Hissing”) into the full blown co-star of a more sexually explicit and flamboyant narrative.
“False Priest” is a welcome retrenchment. The infatuation with Prince, and with Bowie during the latter’s heyday of hedonism and androgyny, has been folded into his typical swirl, and neatly streamlined by producer Brion, who hired crackerjack pros such as drummer Matt Chamberlain and put a Curtis Mayfield-like warm gloss on the shiny, glammy r&b.
The result is a success story. Barnes has honored himself by reflecting his art as honestly as possible, going through changes without worrying about the potential consequences of commercial alienation. Now he comes with a decent band and the up-and-coming soul thrush Monae as opening act and guest vocalist, primed to showcase “Priest” and no doubt other disparate elements of his back catalogue, and First Avenue is sold out for the occasion. He’ll pump up that crowd and then wear them out.
Here is “Famine Affair” (an inferential pun for Sly Stone, no doubt) from an oM show in Missouri this May.
Here is a long encore from this year’s tour that includes a mediocre cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Want You Back” at the five-minute mark.
Here is oM’s MySpace page, chock full of songs past and present.
of Montreal at First Avenue, Thursday, Sept. 23, all ages, doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $25, but sold out.