Music from the unrealized film script, Dusk at Cubist Castle
Released: 1997; Flydaddy
Re-issued: 2004; Cloud Recordings
The Olivia Tremor Control is:
Bill Doss - W. Cullen Hart - Eric "The Exploding Nosh" Harris - John Fernandes
The Elephant Six Orchestra
There’s a fine difference between admiration, emulation and ambition. The old adage often applied to the conflict is “it’s been done,” there are no new frontiers, only the art of the rehash; there is only the reinterpretation. I suppose that’s one, rather pessimistic view. Another way of looking at it is the reinterpretation can be infinitesimally unique; no matter one’s influence, the originality of the next generation will always shine through simply because no two sets of human experiences are equal, no matter how similar. Enter The Olivia Tremor Control.
When one encounters the front page of the Elephant Six Recording Company’s website, they are greeted by a Brian Wilson anecdote:
“I asked if he knew that he'd inspired a whole new generation of bands (the Elephant 6 Collective specifically.) He said, ‘Who? I only listen to oldies but goodies.’”
This quote is evocative of the situation of the E6 Recording Company, what was essentially a fellowship of artists influenced heavily by the works of psychedelic pop artists, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, and other names connected with paisley, melodic hooks and LSD. As one of the founding members of the collective, The Olivia Tremor Control embodied this misplaced group of musicians, fundamentally established on a 60's aesthetic but arriving after the loving embrace of feedback and the birth of the lo-fi artist. The Olivias, along with the other two founding E6 bands, Jeff Mangum’s Neutral Milk Hotel and The Apples in Stereo began the march of the Elephant Six banner; where you saw the small insignia, there loomed theremins, fuzz guitars, singing saws and tunes that were, shockingly enough for the time, mostly angst free. It was a return to Wilson’s oldies but goodies, but with a proper spattering of the 90's. So come 1996, following a pair of defunct aliases and EPs, The Olivia Tremor Control prepared their debut album, Music from the unrealized film script, Dusk at Cubist Castle
Of course, giving an album a title like Music from the unrealized film script, Dusk at Cubist Castle
winks at the idea of a concept album, a musical singularity equally worthy of praise and chagrin, sometimes at the same time. However, The Olivias aim at the concept of concepts with a broad view. Bill Doss explains their perception of the album best as “an abstract dream play that exists in an abstract place or time that anybody can go to.” As W. Cullen Hart has admitted in the past, this indeed, is the soundtrack for a film never come to pass. It is complete with a strain of thought that, given enough introspection, may be a storyline following from the early EPs, that of a great disaster referred to as the California Demise, a phrase that reappeared throughout the band’s abbreviated career. Of particular focus are two female characters named Jacqueline and Olivia and dreams which were manifested by a second disk that came with the first 2,000 original Flydaddy pressings. As far as making any other leeway into the “storyline” from the lyrics, well, good luck.
The album runs 27 tracks, divided by the “Green Typewriters” suite of 10 songs. The first half has all the power of any of the aforementioned 60's bands’ finest works. Primary songwriters Hart and Doss not only manage to keep pace with their forebears but perhaps equal their heroes when at peak. “The Opera House” steps out the gate with a heavy rhythm as found sounds, clinks, clacks, tweaked squeals and distant voices echo in the background. The unique, often ubiquitous, use of found sounds is a Olivias trademark, a distinctive feature that separates them from indie-pop contemporaries as well as the classic pop they build their foundation on. Such techniques date back as far as the 40's with the advent of magnetic tape media and the tape splicing found in early electronica, Miles Davis’ “Pharaoh’s Dance,” and John Lennon’s “Revolution 9," sometimes called musique concrète. The Olivia Tremor Control make much more clever use of musique concrète on their second album, Black Foliage
, which is heavily concentrated on the method of splicing sounds and further incorporates street sounds, recordings of people’s dreams and anything and everything else the band can get on their 4-tracks. On Dusk at Cubist Castle
, though, this experimentation is mostly relegated to the “Green Typewriters” package, although it is deftly added to the more structured songs, adding an element of creativity to their precise pop attack.
Following the pleasing “Frosted Ambassador” segue, “Jumping Fences” winds up and absolutely soars, one of the albums finest moments. Clocking in at 1 minute and 52 seconds, “Jumping Fences” is no-frills pop brilliance. “Lazy man who can’t find his words all caught up inside his head,” Doss sings over another steady-handed rhythm provided by John Fernandes and Eric Harris. While clearly Doss and Hart are the masterminds, Harris, Fernandes as well as every other E6 contributor are the true heroes of the album, each providing subtle nuances that make the album what it is. From former Olivia Jeff Mangum’s keys on various tracks, Julian Koster's multi-instrumentalist approach, Robert Schneider's more-than-capable production to horns provided by Steve Jacobek and Rick Benjamin which allude to the pseudo-free jazz moments of Black Foliage
, it’s the small things that make The Olivias and sebsequently, make their albums so remarkable.
Where the subtleties make each listen worthwhile, it is the ingenious song writing that lures the listener in. Lyrics and tunes both by Doss and Hart are catchy, yet slyly literate, warm and inviting enough to draw even the most callous. The tight hooks of “Define a Transparent Dream” are what may come to the top but settled below are Hart’s nods to cubist writer Gertrude Stein amongst the innocent continuation of the vague narrative that trickles down about Cubist Castle. Top onto that gorgeous vocal harmonies and twinkling guitar lines, “Define a Transparent Dream” is simply another great example of the pop nature of The Olivias’ tunes. The first half of Dusk at Cubist Castle is chocked with these gems, one after another. “Holiday Surprise” starts of with a twang, nearly predictably at first, only to mellow out then whip the tempo up and blow itself out in a cathartic rush. Each song on the first half of the album brings a unique pop sensibility only to throw it right out the window in the closing moments, such as the splice-fest breakdown at the end of “Memories of Jacqueline 1904,” one of the few tracks the implicitly further the storyline, or what I believe is a melodica collapse on “Can You Come Down With Us?”
Tracks 12 to 21 make up the “Green Typewriters” suite of songs. I suppose the drugs are starting to set in now? Either way, the suite opens up with “Green Typewriters,” a loping number that aptly closes with the clank of typewriter keys. It blends into “Green Typewriters” effortlessly, which slips right on into “Green Typewriters,” a swift 0:59 pop vignette which rumbles up “Green Typewriters,” featuring Doss’ vocals on another innocuous pop number. “Green Typewriters” jumps to “Green Typewriters” (ok, I think you get the point) a melding of an eerie groan and moaning feedback, which stumbles into Fernandes’ wild clarinet squeals. A spoken word piece and then, ambience. Dank hallway, dripping liquids, the sound of cavernous surreal, cubist drawings, brightly colored glyphic looking faces, non-faces, shapes, non-shapes; giant crown encrusted with suns, a tiny mountain range, and a green swan. W. Cullen Hart revives us, asking, “How much longer/Can I wait?” and a brilliant solo is pulled out of the emptiness.
Once back on more stable ground, the album closes with the pop savant of the first half. “I Can Smell the Leaves” weaves metropolitan imagery with the changing of the seasons, “Autumn is here/I can smell the leaves/Color of fire now look at the trees grow older.”Even as one of the more minimal sounding of the executed pop songs, noises leak from every which way. It’s a wonder that this album was recorded on a 4-track and still managed to exude such depth. As the album hits its last stride, “The Gravity Car” trips on a waltzing beat with unabashedly psychedelic themes and the song, while ripe with a pleasant melody, comes off perhaps too child-like. Even so, it is this innocent that rekindles an atmosphere that would be followed by their E6 compatriots until absolutely crushed to death, a sound that is a welcome departure from post-modern sarcasm and irony. One can actually feel that the Olivias, the Apples and their contemporaries not only believe in this aesthetic naivety but revel in it and want everyone in listening distance to leave their troubles behind and just hum along. “N.Y.C. -25" pulls out all the stops to close the album, a sobering track where the band reminds their audience “Pleasant dreams but please don’t sleep too long...” The track makes no great divergences and is just a rock solid piece of musicianship, down to the final gasps of Julian Koster’s singing saw and a discernable, “That’s it.”
Every fully realized song on Dusk at Cubist Castle is gold; the hooks are more hooky, the harmonies are more harmonious, the catches are more catchy than any of their peers. The “Green Typewriters” collection does drive into the realm of sluggish, and track 19 of the set does not stave off the ‘next track’ button on continued listens. However, as a collection and when in the mood, even these tracks are amiable and give the album a special, epic feeling. This is the type of album that is best listened to all the way through, headphones on, in a comfortable situation. Headphones also afford the added advantage of allowing the listener to pick up stray sounds they may have missed in past listens; as with all Olivias related works, the album is brimming with sounds big and small, all equally deserving to be heard.
The Olivia Tremor Control’s sound is uniquely their own. While reference points to the Beatles are readily apparent, never should the Olivias be charged of mere aping of the Fab Four or any other tinge of psychedelia. Indeed, this is a reinterpretation of the old from a modern standpoint with the collected knowledge of musical innovations between two decades. To limit Dusk at Cubist Castle to the title of a reanimation of the Beatles or Brian Wilson’s psychosis is ignoring the unique set of human experiences of each contributor. The sound of the old psychedelic masters was never the Olivia Tremor Control’s crutch. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find any semblance of a crutch on either Music from the unrealized film script, Dusk at Cubist Castle or Black Foliage: Animation Music, except that of audio mischief and unbridled creativity.