Of Montreal – Aldhils Arboretum

Of Montreal
Aldhils Arboretum

Although it’s a fact that can easily be lost when considering indie rock bands, as the great majority never receive any significant radio play and, therefore, rely on the album format as the main vehicle for their music, there is still a distinction to be made between the indie rock bands who excel at writing an album of individual songs and those whose skill is in crafting an album. Obviously, being an album-oriented band isn’t dependent on something as overt as making concept albums, as the true masters of the craft of album making, the Beatles, proved time and again. Their run of albums had the special dual feature of producing outstanding singles that both served as moments of genuine brilliance and still fit together into the fabric of the larger mood of the album. Revolver was as hazy and pensive as Sgt. Pepper’s was psychedelic and exotic. The White Album was as moody and contradictory as Abbey Road was wistful and slick. The mood and aesthetic of the album run through all the songs, uniting them as one bigger statement. On the other extreme are artists like the White Stripes or Guided by Voices, churning out albums featuring songs that are undeniably great but that could fit just about anywhere in the band’s catalogue of albums, as the songs seem to hang together as individual entries more than interconnecting pieces. Some bands, like Weezer, start out more focused on albums and then transition to focusing more on singles. To this point, Of Montreal has been solidly in the album-oriented band category. With Aldhil’s Arboretum, we see their first departure from that ethic.
Charting the artistic growth of the Athens popsters has yielded an irrefutably meteoric rise, with four increasingly ambitious full-length albums (as well as EPs and rarities compilations) arriving in roughly the same amount of time it took Weezer to produce their follow-up to Pinkerton. From the wonderfully effervescent lo-fi guitar rock of Cherry Peel to the heady carnival of sounds in The Gay Parade and the complexly constructed narratives of last year’s Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse, their profoundly enjoyable sense of melody and the childlike awe with which they approach their work has clearly placed them at the fore of the great modern psychedelic pop bands. That they’ve decided to now release a less conceptually ambitious album of individual song units is somewhat surprising. As such, there are no tracks devoted solely to spoken word or surreally rendered story lines, just a group of decidedly giddy songs that are stamped with all of the usual Of Montreal trademarks – barbershop band-on-acid melodies, sharp instrumentation, and bizarre songwriting.
The swirling giddy Beatles circa-1965 guitar hooks, warm keyboards, and loopy melodies of the opening “Doing Nothing” are matched by the strange mid-tempo vignette depicting old people waiting to die in cemeteries while visiting friends’ graves. “Isn’t It Nice?” seems to be a tribute to a rural home, recounting tales of alcoholic neighbors and deer darting in front of vehicles all tied together with wistfully naïve charm. Throughout, the gorgeous arrangements and unstoppable melodies hit in rapid succession, with tracks like transcendentally saccharine “Jennifer Louise,” a song about being united with an estranged cousin, and the intensely joyful “Kid Without Claws” reaching for the heights attained by their previous standards of excellence.
Of course, the lack of an overhanging thematic arc doesn’t keep Kevin Barnes from writing some truly strange narratives, whether tracing the travails of a disgruntled uncle and scheming aunt in “The Blank Husband Epidemic” or the courting of an imaginary girl in “A Question for Emily Foreman.” Further, tracks like “We Are Destroying the Song” or the show tune-ish piano pop of “Natalie and Effie in the Park,” although not landmarks in either songcraft or lyricism, show the band at their absolute tightest, maneuvering through various tempo changes and never missing a gear change. Still, as Kevin Barnes truly excels in crafting dourly elegant balladry, it’s somewhat disappointing that the band seems to be pulled a little more strongly toward driving rock arrangements, with the exquisite “Predictably Sulking Sara” ranking as the only true ballad on the album.
In all likelihood, Of Montreal will again return to the album-oriented format that had worked so well for them with their next release, as it isn’t likely that Kevin Barnes and his comrades aren’t going to need another concept album to track down and account for all of their muses. With only 14 tracks and less than 40 minutes of music, this almost feels more like a B-sides and rarities set than a fully conceived album, although the slimmer more streamlined approach ensures that everything included is first-rate. For everyone who thought the conceptual excesses of the previous releases went a bit too far or simply didn’t have the patience to tie together all the musical loose ends, this may be the Of Montreal album they’ve been waiting for. No doubt, even for those who prefer the sprawling chaos of their former work, this album has a place within the Of Montreal canon, as it certainly ranks as their most immediately accessible and carefree release. All in all, it may not be their hallmark statement, but if Aldhils Arboretum‘s greatest fault is being a set of fantastically conceived and blissfully executed songs, then more bands should be so guilty.