Once upon a time there was a movement called chillwave and it mostly sucked. But estranged indie vagrants found it suited their junky laptop speakers, or the other way around, so slotting sleepy dollar-store “bands” into Best New Music became more and more of a thing. This is/was, to some extent, okay. I like Washed Out and Small Black. Occasionally though it’s nice to hear music you can tell cost a lot, or at least sounds expensive. This is the Jon Brion effect on False Priest. Pianos, organs, drums, and esoteric analog bric-a-brac bring sundry R&B effects to the foreground and make them shimmer like majorettes. It’s all funky and danceable and quirky and sounds like a million bucks. High bitrates won’t really cut it; if you’re able to get it on vinyl don’t be surprised if your baseboards start to look flood-damaged.
For a performance-type artist who’s basically made a malformed career out of looking for an encore, Kevin Barnes’ jones for pop and R&B has always been pretty accessible (say hi to “Gronlandic Edit” at least.) On False Priest it bursts into the foreground with more love for actual R&B songs than most of the producers oversampling their way through the future of garage. A subtle reminder of this kind of fidelity was, of course, “Stillness Is The Move.” That it came from the unlikeliest of sources, an off-the-grid conceptual band, either influenced Barnes a lot or was a fun coincidence; Solange Knowles, who startled the tastemakers by covering “Stillness,” appears on a False Priest track called “Sex Karma.” If a drum kit can be said to noodle, it does so here. Barnes yells brilliant stuff like “you took me centuries to master/ in the next life I will have to learn you faster” and “you are my only luxury item/ anyone tries to steal you I’ll fight ’em” and it’s all the most inspired kind of expert silliness. I’d give three-fourths of the oM catalog including all ninety-something covers just to hear “Sex Karma” one more time.
All the other references are impeccable. “I Feel Ya’ Strutter” is a pert Elton John fist-bump. “Like A Tourist” is the second best-produced Prince track of the year after “Yamaha”; Barnes totally has Love King on his iPod. While “Famine Affair” works almost as the reverse of “Gallery Piece” off Skeletal Lamping, groovy rocker “Coquet Coquette” almost fully repudiates all the former Midi fixation. “Hydra Fancies,” with its multi-tracked choo-choo vocals and bass like a snakeskin belt, sounds the most like old Of Montreal. Everywhere else Brion takes the oM knick-knacky DIY and adapts it for more expensive clientele.
As usual, bizarre imagery abounds. “Our Riotous Effects” buries under banks of keyboards a puzzled monologue about a murdered beta fish and a bought Bowflex. On the sexcellent “Enemy Gene” which guest-stars Janelle Monáe and is all kinds of dulcet, a zombie licks a window for black body radiation. There’s also “some other guy’s face under your eyelids” from “Coquet Coquette” which, I dunno, but it’s terrifying.
If nothing on False Priest can be mistaken for being completely earnest, it’s not fake either. You might be reminded a little of Aziz Ansari’s preoccupation with R. Kelly: or even Travis Morrison’s Travistan, which I was the only fan of I think (ed: me too!). Again, credit Barnes for not just speaking to the base. Getting him off his laptop was apparently the hard part.
Video: “Coquet Coquette”