OLIVIA TREMOR CONTROL
In Dreams You Hear
by Jeff Penczak (May 1999)
David Lynch once suggested that his films were reflections of images from his dreams. If filmmakers dream in terms of cinematic "takes," perhaps musicians dream in song fragments. In this MTVideo generation, it seems plausible that artists would be cognizant of the cinematic applications of their work. Sheer economics alone dictates that one successful music video and/or the inclusion of your latest tune on a hit movie’s soundtrack can do more than an entire record company’s marketing department in transitioning a new artist from local cult heroes to national prominence. What better way, therefore, to maximize your potential than "write" and score your own film? As more and more artists explore these possibilities, an entire new genre of music has risen, that of the cinematic soundscapist. Working, as expected, primarily in the instrumental mode, bands such as Stars of the Lid (who’ve even recorded a song entitled "Theme for Twin Peaks Episode 30"), The Azusa Plane, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Alphane Moon/Our Glassie Azoth, Windy & Carl, Autodidact and many more have recently issued disks that transcend the "rock and roll" idiom and measure up quite favorably to the more traditional "soundtrack" efforts of Morricone, Theodorakis, Herrmann, et. al. And it seems everyone wants to work with Angelo Badalamenti these days!
One of the most popular of these artists is the enigmatic bunch of Merry Pranksters calling themselves Olivia Tremor Control. Based around the nucleus of Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart, OTC emerged from the small northern Louisiana town of Ruston (pop. 20,000), home of Louisiana Tech University and birthplace of The Elephant 6 Recording Company, a sort of musical commune/collective that also includes Neutral Milk Hotel and Apples in Stereo.
The first track I ever heard by these curiously monikered Southerners was "The Ships," which appeared on the seminal 2 CD set, Succour (1996), a benefit compilation for the highly influential English music journal Ptolemaic Terrascope. Intrigued by the warped time signatures, distorto voices, loopy electronics, sounds of beaches, seagulls and the ghost of Brian Wilson, I started uncovering new releases under various pseudonyms for the better part of the last 3 years. This article will introduce you to one of the hottest commodities in the underground (i.e., non-commercial) music community via interpretations of their two major works for Flydaddy, Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk At Cubist Castle (1996) and Black Foliage: Animation Music (1999). Anyone who has ever spent time analyzing their own dreams, will appreciate the care with which Doss, Hart, Eric Harris, John Fernandes and Peter Erchick have assembled a myriad of musical references throughout these releases. It’s almost as if they were all equipped with antennae, randomly accessing distant radio waves from hundreds of stations, past and present. Of course, LaMonte Young was perfecting this sort of thing over 30 years ago with his Dream Music and The KLF set the standard with their Chill Out release in 1990, but the OTC have seemingly made a career out of sharing their dreams and musical inspirations with us, to the point of even inviting listeners to contribute their own dreams for future endeavors.
Ready for My Close-up- "Dusk At Cubist Castle"
Dusk - Fade in on the Hawkwind-like "Opera House." Pan over to the bachelor pad where we hear the lads sipping cocktails mixed in the Stereolab with the "Frosted Ambassador." "Jumping Fences," we’re off to the beach for a dip in Brian Wilson’s gene pool.
Jump-cut to the Twilight Zone-ish opening of "Define A Transparent Dream," a perfect 90s update of The Beatles’ "Rain" and the first of several killer hit singles lurking within. The "exegesis" that is "No Growing" harkens back to warm waves, cruising around in the convertible with your arm draped around the soft tan skin of your sweetheart, 70s style oldies blasting from the AM radio. We’re off to look for America (the group?)
En route, a few "Holiday Surprise"s await, 3 to be exact. The first multi part track cautions us to beware of the Jellyfish, although I’m sure I’ve also heard that riff in Part 3 from some otherwise long-forgotten Who tune, the saxes replaced with some fine guitar picking here. Time check: it’s 5:15, ready to dolly across the "Courtyard," chasing our heroes while the player piano tinkles on the soundtrack, reminiscent of one of those Morricone motifs so prevalent in many of Sergio Leone’s spag westerns.
A pause in the action for "Memories of Jacqueline 1906." Unfortunately, she must’ve done our hero wrong, for halfway through this cacophony, the band decides to break the set and head off to ponder "Tropical Bells." Punctuated by drowning whales, misguided guitar tunings and reeling from the effects from some bad vibes, the lads ask, "Can You Come Down With Us?" Fortunately, before we can respond, (songs do come and go so quickly around here), we’re greeted with the second killer should-a-been-a-hit, "Marking Time."
Intermission gives us pause, as the boys head back to their "Green Typewriters" to try and come up with an ending for this opus. This 10 (!) part, 22 minute track has enough ideas for several "films," unfortunately, they’re just that - incomplete ideas. This obligatory acid flashback wouldn’t be out of place in one of Lynch’s recent nightmares. Too bad this segment is too much DUNE, not enough ERASERHEAD. Friends of mine consider this the disk’s centerpiece. Personally, I think Ann Magnuson has done this all before to much better effect. Throwing everything into the mix (including the proverbial kitchen sink - literally: part 8, track 19) is fun the first time around if you’re playing that old parlor game: "Spot the Influence," but it’s not something I want to revisit after the disk’s been safely tucked away in its family jewel case. Time to change the Bongwater, guys. Before the dream fades, we’ve been whisked up in the elevator to Have A Cigar with Neil Young and ponder the eternal drip... drip... drip... of that kitchen sink at 10:15 on a Saturday Night.
Next, we’re assured that "Spring Succeeds." Perfect segue: time has come to emerge from our cocoons and get on with the matter at hand. But first: lunch break and the "Theme for A Very Delicious Grand Piano."
"I Can Smell the Leaves" follows and I’m reminded of mornings in the country, mom’s hot apple pie coaxing me out of bed. This one could almost fit into the next Kellogg’s morning commercial.
We’ve nearly reached the end of our trip, so the "title" track’s appearance seems appropriate. "Dusk at Cubist Castle" is a worthy candidate for the soundtrack to the remake of CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. Anything to get it off this record would be welcome. Barely discernible "noises" and more studio trickery may work in Hollywood (or Louisiana), but they’re lost on this listener. And there’s that Lynchian connection again with the "backwards talking" man arriving to explain everything. (Hey, has anyone figured out how to play a CD backwards? I’d sure like to know what’s going on here.)
Roll credits: as the band hops into "The Gravity Car" and heads off to "NYC - 25," the typical happy ending music floats across the darkness. Lyrically, it’s a bit of "Wake up, sleepy head. Get outta bed" and face another day. Beautiful harmonies trickle down the canvas and the audience files out. But wait - is that a theremin I hear? Was this all just a science fiction dream? And what’s this other disc all about?
Why, it’s the Cliff Notes, "Explanation II: Instrumental Themes and Dream Sequences." Figures! Looks like I missed the first explanation. Hopefully this one clears everything up. Let us proceed, shall we?
Bill Doss has explained this bonus ambient disc as the perfect antidote to a Hard Day’s Night. Taken together in one mega dosage, the whole enchilada was intended to provide the listener with a soundtrack for a typical "Day in the Life." Fill your head with "pop"pies all day to make you sleep, then drop in the second disc and mellow out, catch a sunset and let your mind float downstream to the relaxing strains of barking dogs, crickets, train signals, a few minimalist piano/violin/guitar drones, thunderous rainstorms, etc. Nine cycles in over an hour flash by featuring everything that happened to stroll by the band’s old house in Athens, Ga. (140 Peter Street for you R&R travelers.) Apparently recorded by hanging a microphone out the window, this is the perfect soundtrack for your next environmental jaunt in the country.
The Dream Continues..."Black Foliage"
O.K., now the secret's out: Doss is McCartney to Hart's Lennon, Spaceman to his Boom, Kelly to his Ross, Waters to his Barrett, 45 to his 33 1/3. Bill writes all the beautiful, structured songs that should be blaring from every beatbox this summer whilst Will toils over just the right nuance to rearrange our synapses without losing total control of our senses.
Very reminiscent of Piper if Brian Wilson had been manning the knobs instead of Hurricane Smith. As with that most flawed of masterpieces, one has to wade through a lot of filler to get to the Holy Grail, but the journey to the center of your mind is well worth the trip.
The "Opening," various "Combinations" and assorted "animations" are annoying speedbumps on this autobahn, but once one peers through this "Black Foliage" one can only echo Arte Johnson's steppinfetchit Kraut utterances: there's something "verrry interestink" going on here. Hidden away behind all the studio tomfoolery, "Hideaway," "A Sleepy Company" and "A New Day" achieve all Mr. O'Hagan has been striving
for for about a half dozen releases now. Unfortunately, it's about this point that the deficiencies of the vinyl release surface. Apparently intended as a mini opera, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so having to pause midstream to switch platters destroys the continuity and vibe that has started to settle in. Kind of like being discovered en flagrante with your childhood sweetheart in the bathroom at that class reunion or interrupted mid-"high" by the local sheriff selling raffle tickets door to door, the Can
("Paranormal Echoes") meets Todd ("A Place We Have Been") bongload quickly disperses in a cloud of smoke.
Your brain quickly recalls a line from some well loved classic, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." "Black Foliage (Itself)" kicks off LP #2 and everything is starting to settle back to the Halcyon daze of Revolver, Pet Sounds, et. al. with that resident "Loony on the Bus" dropping by to see what condition your condition is in. Unfortunately, Doss & Co. interrupt this transatlantic high for a class trip to the forest to uncover "The Bark and Below It." Seemingly half of side 3 is spent popping the clutch, turning Syd's Interstellar into King's Maximum Overdrive. O.K., so perhaps this is the calm before the storm - the "hold onto your gray matter, folks, there's a light at the end of this here "Endless Tunnel." However, it's merely the train coming in the opposite direction and the ensuing headcrash deteriorates into a poor man's Soft Machine (Volume 1, side 1). The "Mystery" is solved: it's all the result of "Another set of Bees in the Museum." As our lads head off in a "Hilltop Procession," the uninitiated is left pondering his proverbial navel, wondering "Who were those masqued marauders?"
In short, not exactly a '90's Smile, but a damn sight closer than the myriad boots strung together have heretofore envisioned in that fantasy box set follow up to Pet Sounds. If this is only part of what Joe Byrd's field hippies were polishing off on those Green Typewriters all those many years ago (see above), we can all look forward to many more hours/CDs of Late night Music interpreting Olivia’s dream sequences, instrumental themes, and other flights of fancy that go bump in the night.
Caveat emptor: Buy the CD version and listen with headphones for maximum enjoyment.
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