Diving into the Deep End
You can’t throw a rock without hitting a hipster well-versed in the history of the Elephant Six Collective. The first two words of that term reference an Athens, Georgia record label, while the final word addresses the network of musicians and like-minded associates who remained and spread after the label was shuttered in 2002. The wheels driving the collective’s engine include The Apples in Stereo, of Montreal, and Neutral Milk Hotel, yet most of its founders appeared in an early E6 group called The Olivia Tremor Control. Reissues of OTC’s two proper albums form a lengthy, sometimes mesmerizing discourse on their place in the landscape of psych-folk and spastic indie rock.
Already massive when the albums were first released, newly remastered and restored vinyl of 1996’s Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle and 1999’s Black Foliage: Animation Music now includes download cards for many hard-to-find OTC supplements, b-sides, live performances, and compilation tracks. Legend has it that both albums taken together formed a loose storyline—a Black Foliage song and, apparently, the Cubist Castle script both reference a large fictional earthquake called the California Demise. Where once there were just over two hours of music, however, now there are almost six, so good luck deciphering the narrative. Like a great friend who can’t tell a good joke, you can appreciate The Olivia Tremor Control while acknowledging they can devolve into a babbling mess.
The albums’ and players’ occasional comparisons to Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds fit only on the level that singer-songwriters Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, with help from their friends, paint with broad psychedelic strokes. The Olivia Tremor Control’s music is a strange latticework that blows up and blows out convention. There are the listing melodies, incorporating everything from strained Laurel Canyon arrangements and Elliot Smith’s quiet six-string punk to smoothed-out takes on glam rock. Then there are the electroacoustics and field recordings—some of these moments suggest Orb-like pastoral settings, other brooding ones sound lifted from Greater Than One’s reissues from this year.
With these disparate interests, OTC’s work is easier to enjoy when they split or alternate them. Songs like “Define a Transparent Dream” from Cubist Castle and “California Demise 3” from Black Foliage rest comfortably in the folk arena even with their experimental flourishes. On Cubist Castle especially, the “Green Typewriters” suite (smartly contained on an entire vinyl side) and Explanations II (a bonus album reunited with the original via the download card) prove the group adept at structured ambience and found sound.
It’s when they tried to make every song sound like “I Am the Walrus” that they could have used some self-editing. The “Animation” interludes alone give Black Foliage a very schizophrenic feeling, hopping between noise and more traditional songcraft seemingly track by track. Work like “Paranormal Echoes” holds the DNA of the kind of rock-opera-in-three-minutes we’re used to hearing from of Montreal, but much of Black Foliage and the downloadable extras for both releases seem like curiosities at best, curiously directionless at worst.
This isn’t to say that these Olivia Tremor Control reissues are bad; they’re challenging, and an acquired taste. They’re certainly historical musical documents, and they contain many beautiful and eye-opening moments—Cubist Castle more so than Black Foliage, all things considered. The issue is, these releases are just difficult to wade through, surveying the work of a band that was almost too full of ideas for their own good. On Black Foliage track “A Peculiar Noise Called Train Director” Hart and Doss sing the line “Where we are / In the blink of an eye / You get several meanings.” It’s not quite the same as “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” but if you’re not already an OTC fan, consider yourself warned.