The Olivia Tremor Control Reissues 'Dusk at Cubist Castle' and 'Black Foliage'
Overall, there is much to admire and frown upon in equal measure when it comes to Dusk at Cubist Castle and, more especially, Black Foliage.
There are a lot of question marks surrounding the reissue of both of the Olivia Tremor Control’s lauded mid-to-late ‘90s albums: Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One. For starters, both albums are being released solely on double vinyl – while the format is certainly undergoing a renaissance, this is hardly a way to get albums that have been out-of-print for the better part of a decade back into the hands of music lovers who have embraced the digital age. Point two is that both albums are being kept to a scant 1,000 available physical copies, with 200 available on green vinyl via mail-order with a T-shirt thrown into the mix, which again seems to be a means to keep the records away from an adoring public. Is this meant to be a way for the band to tease out if there’s any interest in these records, possibly leading the way to a full-on CD reissue campaign if the vinyl (as it probably will) sells out? Who knows? Finally, the band – which had been largely inactive since the year 2000, though its members had reformed by 2009 and have been said to be working on new material in the studio – is actually touring behind these reissues this fall. Does this lead any credence to new material or bona-fide reissues released to the digital market being on the way for good? Hard to say.
What fans and those interested in the neo-psychedelic indie rock of the ‘90s are left with are these two documents, which both come with all sorts of hard-to-find and unreleased tracks as high-quality MP3s added to the albums via download cards. Black Foliage has even been cleaned up by being mastered from the original source tapes for the first time since its original release. While their scarcity might mean that those interested in finding and rediscovering these records all over again (or, perhaps, for the very first time) will have to fight their way through the hipster hordes at their local independent record store, their re-release (no matter how limited) is a mostly welcome sight for both 1996’s Dusk at Cubist Castle and 1999’s Black Foliage are considered something of classics of the retro-psychedelic form. However, before anyone starts issuing superlatives of the highest order at both of these albums, you have to realize that both have their share of imperfections and are just a tad smidge overhyped when it comes to their stature in the indie rock community. Not only that, but the extra bonus material culled for these recordings – totalling up to about three extra hours of “music” (and I use that term loosely) – is largely made up of unlistenable noise and sonic collage experiments. However, the effect of these albums on their peers is unprecedented and noted, and, for those looking for a road map of how indie rock evolved throughout the ‘90s, both records are interesting curios and, perhaps for a select few, indispensable.
The Athens, Georgia-based Olivia Tremor Control, as an entity, is considered to be among the Big Three of the Denver, Colorado-based Elephant 6 collective and recording label, which was formed in 1991. (The other two members of the so-called Big Three are the Apples in Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel.) The group is mainly the brainchild of singers/songwriters/multi-instrumentalists Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, and before they settled on the Olivia Tremor Control moniker, they were members of various other bands, which happened to include Jeff Mangum, who would go on to find great success, of course, in Neutral Milk Hotel. While the band released EPs and singles as early as 1994, the story arguably really begins with the release of the sprawling Dusk at Cubist Castle in 1996, which was co-produced by the Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider. At an expansive 27 tracks long, running a total of roughly 74 minutes in length, the double album was the result of about three years spent in the recording studio, committing songs and ideas to four-track. It featured not only psychedelic and power pop gems, but tape loops culled from some 200 unreleased songs. The first half of the record is nearly impeccable with its Beach Boys meets late-period Beatles in its take on psychedelica, while the second half – bolstered by the 10-track “Green Typewriters” suite – is much more experimental in nature. It’s like two very different and distinct records that are attempting to leap out at the listener, and, as a whole, it vacillates between winning and lovable, and cold and calculated. It is also something of a concept LP: it is the soundtrack to an unmade (and potentially unfilmable, at least on an indie budget) movie about a duo of women named Olivia and Jacqueline living through a massive earthquake called the “California Demise”.
Concept or no, the album is certainly ambitious and something of a challenge to listen to in one whole sitting. At first, Dusk at Cubist Castle is a sterling example of the neo-psychedelic form, with the first 11 songs being utterly indispensible for the true collector of both indie rock and druggy, trippy music. The opening track “The Opera House” breathlessly merges folksy country, eardrum-punishing rock and tape trickery. And it only gets better from there. The less than two minute “Jumping Fences” sounds perfectly John Lennon-esque filtered through the sensibility of ‘70s power pop: the track is almost a lost Badfinger song with its soaring harmonies and bracing guitars and pianos. It’s utterly grandiose in execution despite its truncated running length. “Define a Transparent Dream” is remarkably glam, and even echoes Bowie’s “Changes”. The six-minute “Holiday Surprise 1, 2, 3” is a country meets folk rock number that bridges the gap between 1965 and 1968-era Byrds with a smidge of Beatles-esque harmonies during its chorus. If Dusk at Cubist Castle was issued with just these first 11 songs, it would be all killer and no filler.
Alas, the band clearly didn’t have someone with editing sheers in the studio with them, as the album gets much more punishing from thereon in. The aforementioned “Green Typewriters” suite offers some great ideas and melodies during the first two-thirds of its run, but then stops cold in a nearly 10-minute section that consists of a repetitive floaty keyboard line against the backdrop of cars travelling along a stretch of highway. It goes on forever. It should come as no surprise that the first words uttered after this extended piece go “How much longer can I wait?”, before a heavy drum riff and fuzzed out guitars kick in. Clearly, the Olivia Tremor Control was toying with the listener’s patience, and they knew it. Similarly, the seven-and-a-half-minute title track is loaded with all sorts of garish keyboard sounds and tape manipulation, the sort of thing you’d find in a bad Halloween haunted house. That all said, if you can overlook the overly sonic adventurousness of this section of the record, there are still some good songs to be had. “I Can Smell the Leaves” is a giddy and twee two minute pop song. “NYC-25”, which closes the record, is a jaunty country rock number that leaves an aftertaste of the Beatles yet again. All in all, the band probably had three out of four sides of really astounding material on Dusk at Cubist Castle, and it remains an excellent distillation of power pop with psychedelica if you can overlook some of its more overt flirtations with the extreme.
Dusk at Cubist Castle was initially released with a bonus disk of material called Explanation II: Instrumental Themes and Dream Sequences (which was briefly released as its own album on the Flydaddy label in either 1997 or 1998 – sources on the Web disagree to the actual year), which is included here on the download card and is said should be played in synch with its parent album to create a quadraphonic sonic effect. However, Explanation II runs about five minutes shorter than Dusk at Cubist Castle, which throws a bit of cold water on that notion. As a whole, it is very Brian Eno-like in ambient atmospheric effect with its alternately icy and inviting keyboards, forlorn fiddles and background sounds of dogs barking, crickets chirping and a thunderstorm rolling in from the distance. For all of its obscure overtones, it’s actually a soothing and calming listen, the sort of thing you can throw on at bedtime and have a pleasant nocturnal experience to.
That cannot be said of the remainder of Dusk at Cubist Castle’s bonus material. There are two tracks included called “Black Swan Network”, which both run 15 minutes, and are both meant to be played simultaneously in true Zaireeka form. The “songs”, if they can be called that, sound as though aliens got ahold of a transistor radio, and flipped through various stations with unabashed glee. As that would suggest, “Black Swan Network” is wholly a mess, and is 15 minutes (or 30 minutes, if you don’t play the tracks side-by-side) that you’ll never get back. The rest of the stuff in the bonus material is largely in the same vein: instrumental twaddle that never really goes anywhere, and strains all credibility on the part of the listener. Essentially, much of the bonus material to be found on the Dusk at Cubist Castle download card is for absolute die-hard fans who want to take a long, deep journey down the rabbit hole of Hart and Doss’ subconscious into ultimate abstraction.
On the other hand, Black Foliage is a bit of a different beast than Dusk at Cubist Castle. Rather than separating the sublime with the musique concrète underpinnings of Dusk’s second half, the band tried to fuse both tendencies as one on another ambitious 27-track double LP to often abrasive effect. That said, there are some great songs that attempt to rise above the murk and the silliness of the overlaid special effects. “A Peculiar Noise Called Train Director” starts the album and more or less picks off from where Dusk at Cubist Castle left off, with the exception that the song becomes much more brusque as it concludes with all sorts of tape effects and the inclusion of an off-kilter saxophone. “Hideaway” is one of two of the best songs that George Harrison never wrote – “I Saw the Light” by Todd Rundgren would be the other – and is punctuated by a big and brash brass section. “Grass Canons” sounds remarkably like a song that got left on the chopping room floor of Pet Sounds. “A New Day” is a fuzzed-out country rock song that gradually builds into an agreeable groove that you can nod your head to.
However, the album has the same overarching weakness of Dusk in sonic ambitiousness and inconsistency, this time only magnified to the nth extreme. There are fewer actual songs on Black Foliage, and much of the album’s runtime is eaten up by tape loops and tricks that range in length from the agreeable five seconds (the first track entitled “Combinations” on the album) to the bum discomforting (the 11-and-a-half minute “The Bark and Below It”). If the intended effect was to create the soundtrack to a demented, way out there Warner Bros. cartoon, well, the band succeeded. However, just as in the case of Dusk at Cubist Castle, the band could have benefited from an editor to parse the good stuff from the outright horrible – and perhaps even more so here as the sounds just build up and build up, and the Olivia Tremor Control lose, at least partially, their grip on utter songcraft.
There is less bonus material to be had here than on Dusk at Cubist Castle, and it generally ranges from, again, the outright uncomfortable and hard to take to variations on songs that appeared both on Dusk and Black Foliage. The retread of material from both of their albums are generally flat in both sound and execution, and largely suffer from the fact that they are culled from radio sessions – meaning the sound fidelity is not quite where you’d expect it to be. That said, there are two versions of “Can You Come Down With Us” from Dusk that are interesting: the first is a 12-minute take on the song with discordant keyboard noises opening the track for a good eight-and-a-half minutes, before the proper song kicks in. Again, this is a little discomforting for the listener, but it does show the band willing to transmute its own material. Secondly, the six-and-a-half minute version of the song recorded for NPR is rough and utterly rocking with its fuzzy guitars, breathing new life and vitality into the piece. Overall, the bonus material – with the exception of Explanation II contained in Dusk – is a little more bearable on Black Foliage, but only just.
The recording of both of these double albums probably had a karmic and physic effect on the band, as it went on indefinite hiatus in the year 2000, only to get back together, as noted above, a scant two years ago. This has, so far, left the overarching narratives of both records standing as a bit on the incomplete side, unless, of course, a new Olivia Tremor Control album is indeed truly on the horizon. Still, as far as artistic statements go, Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage, despite their flaws, are monumental and colossal achievements in the genre of both lo-fi indie rock and neo-psychedelica. They’re both interesting to listen to in 2011, in the way that one is wearing nostalgic rose-coated glasses in hearing both of these albums anew: it’s like viewing, in 2011, what was cool and hip during the better part of the 1990s, which meant looking backwards towards the sounds of the ‘60s era. It’s also easy to hear now the effect that these albums had on their immediate peers and brethren. When I first heard the Apples in Stereo’s 1999 album Her Wallpaper Reverie, which is comprised of actual songs and musical interludes that play the same theme back in the day (without having heard the Olivia Tremor Control), I was confounded and confused. Now, I can look back at that record, having now heard Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage, and conclude that the Apples in Stereo were really meaning to recreate the same sense of whimsy and outré abandon as an Olivia Tremor Control album, just on a much smaller scale. (That Apples in Stereo album is more like an EP, as it is only 27 minutes long.) Historically, the impact that the Olivia Tremor Control has might of not left wide footprints in the detritus of pop culture, but they are there nonetheless.
Overall, there is much to admire and frown upon in equal measure when it comes to Dusk at Cubist Castle and, more especially, Black Foliage. Both albums have an immediate and refreshing run of retro-infused psychedelic pop numbers that are worthy of inclusion on a mix CD that contain classics from the artists the band truly and clearly admired, from the aforementioned Beach Boys and Beatles all the way to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. However, both albums run overlong and miss the mark by trying to insert wilful attempts at broadening their palette through overindulgence and gleeful woolgathering. Both albums are without their share of focus, and had they been single disk releases, their impact might have been much more crucial overall, and beneficial on the tired ears of their poor listeners. There may be question marks surrounding the re-release of both Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage, but the biggest ones might be actually found in the impenetrability and expansiveness of the music contained within both of these albums, which are both ripe for rediscovery to figure out the broader mysteries that the Olivia Tremor Control was bringing to the table.