In Search of the Lost Vocal Loop
I don’t want to get into a whole discussion about the brilliance of Olivia Tremor Control here, for two reasons: first, because you’re supposed to know already; and second, because everyone involved has moved on to new projects and doesn’t really want to dwell in the past anymore. But it boils down to this: yes, OTC was a brilliant pop band; yes, OTC was a brilliant experimental band; and no, you can’t find OTC albums anywhere anymore. It’s almost like OTC was created to be a cult band; they visited our weird little earth for a few years and then disappeared . . . only to return again some day. . . .
Okay, that’s a bunch of crap, because the group’s two founding members, Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, are back in their several ways. Hart’s psychfolkpopprogrock project, Circulatory System, was first off the mark last summer with a self-titled album that many influential rock critics thought was the best album of 2001. (Okay, just me. But still.) It was relentlessly avant-garde and contained more hooks than a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar highlight reel. Most impressively, it wasn’t afraid to be emotional in a cosmic—and non-emo—sort of way, with its calm fuzzy lyrics that dared to ask things like “Did we never say hi or say goodbye?” Brilliantly bonkers, out there but right here, soothing and unsettling. Beautiful stuff.
So it falls to me (or, rather, I jumped at the chance) to review the first solo album by The Sunshine Fix, the solo project from Bill Doss. Oh, wait: The Bill Doss. That’s how he bills himself on the liner notes, anyway—hell, he even abbreviates himself “tbd” in the liner notes. So don’t forget that “The”, people. Got that? Anyway, his/their first EP, A Future History of the Sunshine Fix, came out in 2000; our own Eden Miller called it “an impressive debut, revealing talent and ambition”. But tbd is an album guy, and Age of the Sun is where he makes his first statement as a solo auteur.
It’s a strong damned statement, too. The first thing you hear is a multi-tracked falsetto chorus singing one word: “Suuuuuu-uuuuuun”. A descending jangly Dave Davies/Peter Buck guitar figure cuts through it, a definitive “whomp whomp” from the rhythm section cuts off the chorus, and the title track is off and running. It’s a slice of Nuggets-era spacy grunge with nothing left out: Farfisa organ stabs, vocal speaker badminton, weird backward-effect sounds from nowhere, and a freaky tweaky guitar break that you have to hear a few times to believe, whereupon it will become lodged in your memory for all time. And I can’t recall the last song that had a tambourine so high in the mix. The lyrics? Well, we’re not really sure. It mostly consists of the chorus, which consists entirely of “Age of the sun / It’s the age of the sun”. Yeah, there are verses and a bridge, and you can hear the words just fine (“Endless days go on and on / Closin’ in on the age”, for example), but they just don’t matter—it’s about momentum, it’s about riffs from the gods, it’s a slice of heaven. Especially when that opening vocal loop comes back at the end and underpins the guitar noodling by forming a minute-long drone. What a way to start a record!
There are 16 tracks on Age of the Sun: of those, ten and a half are actually songs, while the others are linking snippets or replays of riffs from earlier songs or 45-second orchestral slices. But more about those later, my friends. First: the damned songs, which are extremely convincing. All of the singles on this album are perfect, no matter what they are trying to do. From the flat-out ballsy 3/4-time psychedelia of “Hide in the Light” to the ELO- and Association-flavored “Mr. Summer Day” all the way to the folksy strumfest of “Sail Beyond the Sunset” and the Sesame Street bounce of “Digging to China”, they’re all completely on point and perfect. Sure, there is perhaps too heavy a debt to the Beatles all over the place, but it’s Abbey Road-era Beatles, so it’s okay, because that’s the only Beatles album that hasn’t been ripped off enough.
The most surprising track here is “See Yourself”. This is superhuman cantilevering of the highest order: it’s British Invasion meets heavy ‘70s funk, dammit, and don’t try to talk me out of it. Derek Almstead (of Of Montreal) manages to thump out a bass line that is simultaneously Paul McCartney and Bootsy Collins; there is some savage guitar work by tbd that manages to kick it like Pete Cosey and Pete Townshend; and the funky drums are Clyde Stubblefield wrapped in Hugh Grundy. It’s a big wet kiss to two perfect musical genres, and it works all the way down to tbd’s spacy lyrics: “If you look around, you’re bound to find / See yourself: nowhere else”. It charges hard, it drops down for an extended jazz odessey [sic, look it up], it builds up again—and then, just when you think it’s over, they do a whole heavy Chi-Lites/Zeppelin breakdown at the end. Damn: this one’s going on some mixtapes.
But here’s the dilemma I’m faced with: it’s not just a singles album. These interstitial pieces refer to each other enough that the album has to be considered a coherent whole; this is reinforced by the conceptual attack. All the songs refer in some way to the sun or space or light—it’s a loose sort of concept, but it’s there. He even brings in Louis XIV, “the Sun King”, for the titles of two songs: “72 Years” (the length of Louis XIV’s reign), and the closing piece, “Le Roi-Soleil”. Not only does this tie Age of the Sun to Abbey Road again, but it also suggests a shadow narrative that just isn’t borne out by any content. So this is a cohesive album statement without a real storyline; y’know, which is cool. Making sense is overrated.
But here’s my big problem with Age of the Sun: the ending. Early versions of this record went out without the closing track, “Le Roi-Soleil”. I interviewed tbd for another magazine prior to this album being released, and he said it was 20 minutes long, and that Kindercore was afraid that it would scare people away if record stores played it. I couldn’t wait to hear it—I thought it must be some kind of epic freak-out jam with burning clean guitar lines and incomprehensible subliminal chanting and the whole thing, right? Wrong. It consists entirely of the echoed vocal loop of “Suuuuuu-uuuuun” from the first track. That’s right: 20 minutes’ worth. I read somewhere that tbd meant this to be like how we think of the sun: we know when it’s beginning, but we don’t know when it’s going to end. After listening to it in its entirety exactly once and realizing he wasn’t throwing in any sneaky little sounds anywhere, I can say that that’s just not good enough.
It kind of sounds to me like tbd just ran out of ideas or something. And I hate to say that: tbd is one of pop’s genuinely nice people, and the rest of the album (39 minutes, which isn’t bad but seems short in these CD days) is pretty damned great I don’t know: maybe “Le Roi-Soleil” is some kind of Zen exercise, in which case it’s cool in a way. But damn, I’m sorry, the thing is unlistenable. It’s a good party-ender, perhaps, or useful if you’re trying to hypnotize someone, but it’s not musical and it’s not fun and it’s not a satisfying ending to what had seemed to be a grand pop statement. It effectively turns “Cycles of Time”, a gentle acoustic lullaby, into the album closer, a weight that “Cycles of Time” just isn’t prepared to carry. So, ultimately, as an album, for me, Age of the Sun gets close to the mountaintop, but fails to plant the flag on the summit.
But those songs are sweet, baby, sweet and shiny like God’s freshly-scrubbed face. Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about how the album—and the universe—is gonna end. Maybe I should just enjoy the ride. Maybe that’s the point.