by Eric Broome for Mean Street magazine, April 1999
The Olivia Tremor Control
No one's exactly sure who first quipped that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." The line achieved instant immortality, the attribution didn't. Was it Frank Zappa? Elvis Costello? Laurie Anderson? Thelonious Monk? The list of candidates goes on. One thing's for certain, however -- few albums illustrate that old adage as vividly as the Olivia Tremor Control's second disc, Black Foliage: Animation Music.
More than any release in recent memory, Black Foliage makes one acutely aware of the limits of the written word. It simply defies all attempts at capsule description. Sure, we can talk about the band's twin set of influences: the chiming pop harmonies of the Byrds and Beatles, the assaultive experimentation of Zappa (there's that name again), Pierre Henry and Stockhausen. We can talk about the astonishingly dense arrangements, which include guitar, piano, banjo, organ, xylophone, accordion, trombone, trumpet, euphonium, saw, cello, percussion and even theramin. We can point out the extravagant tape-loop manipulations which rumble through the album, often in direct conflict with the melodies. Yet none of these details truly capture the ambience and scope of this 70-minute epic, which is ambitious almost to a fault. Is it a pop album with avant-garde undertones, or an avant-garde album with pop undertones? Even this isn't clear.
"It's really not very complicated, once you get an idea of what you're listening for," says Bill Doss, the group's cheerful co-leader. "It's like listening to a John Cage piece or something -- not that I'm comparing us to John Cage in any way. I could never do that. But if you listen to 'Sonatas and Interludes,' it's like 'OK, well, there's a lot of percussion stuff going on, a lot of rhythmic stuff. Sounds like a bunch of African drums. Whatever.' Soon, you find out it's actually piano, and it's prepared piano. That's kinda what this album is like. Once you realize what you're listening for, it makes a lot more sense."
The disc's many conceptual layers are a treat to unravel. Certainly, the immediate highlights are breezy pop songs like "A New Day," "Hideaway," "California Demise" and "A Peculiar Noise Called 'Train Director,'" with their charming '60s nostalgia and seamless vocal harmonies. There's much more to the album, however. Instrumentals -- sometimes brilliant, sometimes indulgent -- account for almost a third of the disc, including the 11-minute "The Bark and Below It" and the five variations (or "animations," to use the group's terminology) on the title song. And be warned: The wordless sections are conceived quite differently from those on the OTC's debut, Dusk at Cubist Castle. Whereas before the instrumentals were based in improvisation or linear melodies, here, they're far more about studio wizardry and tape splices. Doss credits this bold development to bandmate Will Hart.
"Will was working on a lot of musique concrète stuff, and he liked the idea of sampling," Doss explains. "He wanted to sample for this album, but only sample from us -- you know, so as not to cause any legal battles. So what he did was, he would take like a horn line from one song and a string line from another song, and a drum from another song and the clarinet from another song, and then go home and morph those sounds by running them through different effects. Then he would throw those backwards or turn them inside out, chop them up into digestible chunks and pit them together with each other. So it might be six different instruments from six different songs, chopped up so that they're unrecognizable and put into a little piece of their own. It was a different way of looking at a horn section or a string section."
A heady approach, to be sure. Then again, freewheeling exploration has always been a trademark of this Athens, GA-based ensemble, not to mention the much-hyped Elephant 6 scene in general, which the OTC symbolically leads along with Neutral Milk Hotel and the Apples in Stereo (typical of this incestuous bunch, both of these groups also contribute personnel to Black Foliage). Yet despite its formidable competition, the new OTC disc may be the most daring release of the entire Elephant 6 catalog, even surpassing Dusk at Cubist Castle.
"We've got the pop thing that we really enjoy doing, and we've got the avant-garde thing that we really enjoy doing," Doss notes. "And on the first record, it was more like 'Here are some pop songs, and here is some weirdness.' But on this record, we made an attempt to make it more cohesive, to blend all the sound effects and all the musique concrète right into the pop songs. I hate to say this because it sounds like we're above everything, but we're really trying to come up with something new. To come up with a new type of song. To restructure things in a way where we don't even know if they work or not, and just see what happens."
Given his enthusiasm about this new direction, is he frustrated with reactionary fans who beg the group to drop the highbrow experiments and stick with user-friendly pop?
"Well, yeah," he laughs. "But as many people who tell us that, there are also a lot of people who tell us to ditch the la-la's and stick to the musique concrète. So you can't really think about what people want you to do -- you just have to do what you want to do with your music. If people dig it, they dig it. If they don't, well, as long as we're happy doing it, that's the most important thing. That's something we always thought, and something that has been really hammered down our throats in the last couple of years, while making this album. You gotta be happy doing what you're doing, because in the end, that's what's going to count."
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