The sad, but entirely foreseeable demise of the Apples in Stereo has raised some questions as of late, primarily regarding whether there is any life left in the trademark psychedelic pop of the Elephant 6 Collective and its offshoots. Hell, these guys spent years slaving in the southern heat of Athens, GA, mining the '60s treasure troves of their heroes, the Beach Boys and the Beatles. They certainly had their moment to shine, producing the Olivia Tremor Control's Dusk at Cubist Castle and Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, two of indie rock's most treasured gems, within nearly a year of one another. But now Jeff Mangum has disappeared, OTC have disseminated, and Elf Power have formed their own label. With Robert Schneider departing, one has to ask if it's finally time for us to let go of this pleasing psychedelic wonderland and return to the present, as scary as that may sound.
I don't know the answer to this question, but I can tell you one thing: Brian Poole sure as hell doesn't think so, and he's out to prove it to you. Since we last saw him rocking the bass for his Elephant 6 compatriots Elf Power and Of Montreal, Poole (aka The Late BP Helium) has apparently reinvented himself as a kind of mad scientist, soldering together the best and worst parts from all his former label mates and zapping it with a thousand volts of electricity. The result, appropriately titled Amok, is an ambitious, if entirely unfocused amalgamation of everything that made Elephant 6 both great and annoying.
Amok opens with "Belief System Derailment Scenario", a sugar-high sound bomb that promptly lets you know exactly what you're in for. Within five seconds, punchy guitars, a funky bass line, buzzing keyboards and a jazzy saxophone (courtesy of multi-horn instrumentalist and frequent Elephant 6 collaborator Scott Spillane), are all coming at you from different angles. The effect is jarring, but also lays the groundwork for what will be a thoroughly crazed journey into an eclectic musical mind.
Poole proceeds to rocket through 11 tracks of finely crafted pop music, fueled entirely by his own manic energy. "The Ballad of Johnny Rad" is anything but a ballad, somehow melding fuzz bass and poppy keyboards while copping a Chuck Berry guitar solo, complete with handclaps, all while telling the amusing tale of a young lad learning to drag race. "Rabbit's Ear" is the album's most conventional track, an elegant waltz in the vein of Elf Power that manages to evoke Dan Bejar's work with the New Pornographers. Of course, Bejar also writes brilliant lyrics, whereas it's pretty damn hard to figure out what the hell Poole is talking about ("They couldn't wait for the rabbit's ear / No they couldn't wait for Adam's tear / Cause it's gone, gone, gone"). But Poole's lyrical shortfalls are entirely forgivable with music this endearing, and in many cases add to the album's scatterbrained charm.
Not all of Poole's experiments turn out so charming, of course. "Candy for Everyone" is a particularly cagey example of how the man's ambition can get the better of him. The song opens with a simple enough guitar/keyboard harmony, coupled with one of Poole's signature funky bass lines and his goofball lyrics ("Aw yeah, uh-huh / I've got candy for everyone"). Soon, though, he pulls the rug out, as about 50 kazoos swell up behind the guitars, leading the track into circus territory while entirely derailing any focus it may have once had. By the time he starts looping backwards vocals and drum beats, you'll want to break into his studio and shoot him full of horse tranquilizers to calm him down.
Yet somehow, the biggest surprise is still saved for last, with the album's epic closer "Raisa Raisa". Opening with a swooning orchestral introduction, the song immediately morphs into a rollicking post-punk jam, as Poole sings, "Oh Raisa Raisa, meet your Vietnam star / You'll never know how lucky you are / He's got a house and a brand new car." The frantic keyboards and drums behind him accentuate his disturbing lyrics while gradually escalating into a mesmerizing chaos. And as this chaos abruptly ends, replaced by an entirely out-of-place Gregorian chant, a revelation occurs: Yes, there most certainly is life left in the ghost of the Elephant 6 Collective. But if you want to find it, it helps to be completely and utterly insane.