Monday, September 19th, 2011
The Olivia Tremor Control and The Music Tapes at Lee’s Palace in Toronto
Frank YangIt’s not especially unusual for bands active in the ’90s to be doing the reunion thing these days – it’s more unusual when a band who had any kind of following 15 to 20 years ago to NOT at least feel out the market for a comeback – but an extra degree of excitement is warranted when you’re talking about the Elephant 6 collective. Now granted, when you’re talking about a scene as broad and loose as E6 was/is, it can be argued that it never went away and sure, Of Montreal and Elf Power and myriad side-projects and less high-profile acts with ties to the scene continue on – albeit without the curly “E6” logo on their releases – but most of the first wave of bands who emerged from that generation of Athens, Georgia bands faded into myth before the end of the last century with really, only Robert Schneider’s Apples In Stereo continuing to plug along.
And while most of the attention in 2011 has surrounded the return of Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum from the wilderness to the stage, by rights there should be a comparable amount of buzz around The Olivia Tremor Control’s return to touring. The melding of experimental found soundscapes and indelible pop classicism of their two albums Dusk At Cubist Castle and Black Foliage are basically a clinic on creating a unique and vivid world out of just sound and how to bend one’s mind with melodic hooks. It’s unequivocally great stuff and on Friday night, it came to Toronto for the first time in who knows how long (six months if you count the OTC-heavy Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise tour that came through in March, but for argument’s sake let’s not).
Opening up was Elephant 6 stalwart Julian Koster, who since the disbandment of Neutral Milk Hotel has been operating as The Music Tapes. I’d never seen him before, but reports of his highly-developed sense of whimsy were widespread and happily accurate. His stage setup involved as much thrift store trinkets and gewgaws as musical instruments, and between he and his two bandmates, there were a lot of instruments with Koster focusing on the singing saw and bowed banjo. Songs were offered in about equal quantity as stories and skits and sometimes the two were one and the same, as with their marching band expedition into the audience. It was all wholly entertaining – you didn’t notice the hour go by – and it was nice to realize that for all the stuff going on around the songs, the band were talented musicians and arrangers. And as for the stories about the carnival performers pulling cities out of their mouths or the great uncle who turned his shadow into an elephant – I don’t expect that there was any truth to them but oh I wish there was.
Much of The Music Tapes stage clutter was cleared out before The Olivia Tremor Control took over, but it seemed that every piece of set dressing that was removed was replaced by a musician. Though it’s Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart who are the key figures in that band, they numbered eight and sometimes nine, including two-thirds of The Music Tapes and Scott Spillane of The Gerbils (which also made for half of Neutral Milk Hotel, but the E6 family tree is really more of a wreath and not worth dwelling on).
As implied earlier, listening to Olivia Tremor Control records is an immersive and occasionally disorienting experience, though generally in a good way. I can now say with first-hand knowledge that the live show does a pretty good job of reproducing this. It probably would have been relatively easy to extract the proper songs from their recordings and perform them as such without complaint from their fans, but it wouldn’t really be Olivia Tremor Control without that anarchy, would it? Accordingly, their 100-minute set was like a primordial soup of sound created by a pawnshop orchestra – guitars, keys, samples, clarinets, saw, percussion – from which they would pull out both beauty and chaos – sometimes at the same time – with only occasional breaks for tuning, drinks or chatter. It wasn’t always tight or pretty but if they wobbled a bit on the straightaways, they took the corners like a pro and nailed every key hook and those Doss-Hart harmonies – when not occasionally lost in the mix – sounded glorious.
It’s funny, as happy as I was to see and hear OTC live, they weren’t one of the bands that I’d always held out hope would get back together and take it on the road. I attribute that to the fact that their records were such fully-formed worlds unto themselves that the idea that these songs might exist in the real world, outside of the context of those albums, was like trying to imagine cartoon characters as flesh and blood. Yet here they were, sounding great and playing with a sort of chemistry that made the fact that they hadn’t performed regularly as a unit in so many years hard to believe. That the band is working on new material – NPR premiered the first new OTC song in over a decade a little while back – is good news for all, and maybe we’ll start seeing that E6 logo on some records again.
Exclaim also has a review of the show.
Photos: The Olivia Tremor Control, The Music Tapes @ Lee’s Palace – September 16, 2011
MP3: The Olivia Tremor Control – “Hideaway” (live in Athens, GA – April 15, 2005)
MP3: The Olivia Tremor Control – “NYC-25” (live in Athens, GA – April 15, 2005)
MP3: The Olivia Tremor Contro – “Jumping Fences” (live in Athens, GA – April 15, 2005)
MP3: The Music Tapes – “Majesty”
Video: The Music Tapes – “Majesty”
Video: The Music Tapes – “For The Planet Pluto”
Video: The Music Tapes – “The Minister Of Longitude”
Sigur Ros have finalized details on the release of their live Inni film/album; it’ll be out on November 8 and be available in either double-CD or triple-LP formats, the former coming with the option of DVD or Blu-Ray and the latter only with DVD, or digitally-only if that’s your thing. There’s also a super-fancy limited edition box set which you can read about at Exclaim. One of the live tracks is available to download and Toronto screenings of the film begin October 28 at the TIFF Lightbox.
The Von Pip Musical Express reviews Ladytron’s latest Gravity The Seducer and talks to vocalist/keyboardist Helen Marnie about it while The San Francisco Chronicle talks to Reuben Wu. They’re at The Phoenix on November 5.