Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Olivia Tremor Control - Dusk at Cubist Castle

The Olivia Tremor Control
Dusk at Cubist Castle

Released 1996 on Flydaddy
Reviewed by Robin Tripp, 24/06/2006ce

Side One
1. The Opera House
2. Frosted Ambassador
3. Jumping Fences
4. Define A Transparent Dream
5. No Growing

Side Two
6. Holiday Surprise 1, 2, 3
7. Courtyard
8. Memories Of Jacqueline 1906
9. Tropical Bells
10. Can You Come Down With Us?
11. Marking Time

Side Three
12 - 21. Green Typewriters

Side Four
22. Spring Succeeds
23. Theme For A Very Delicious Grand Piano
24. I Can Smell The Leaves
25. Dusk At Cubist Castle
26. The Gravity Car
27. Nyc-25

As evident from the bizarre subtitle, 'Music from the Unrealized Film Script', Dusk at Cubist Castle includes songs written for an un-produced film that was penned by The Olivia Tremor Control's co-founding member, Will Cullen Hart. Hart, alongside childhood friend Bill Doss, formed the band from the ashes of the late 80's/early 90's psyche-pop project The Synthetic Flying Machines - a band that also included Robert Schneider from the Apples In Stereo and Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel - before the quartet formed the highly influential Elephant 6 Collective, and eventually resurfaced with their respective "solo" projects, Circulatory System and The Sunshine Fix.

In keeping with the style and ideology of those projects, Dusk at Cubist Castle is a strange and disorientating album that is pitched somewhere between 60's influenced neo-psychedelia, 70's progressive rock and the more recognisable sound of mid-90's indie. It's certainly the most adventurous album released by any of the various Elephant 6 offshoots, with The Olivia Tremor Control writing and recording 'Dusk...' over a period of three years, with a rolling line up of collaborators including Eric Harris, John Fernandes, Steve Jacobek, Nick Benjamin and Julian Koster, as well as old friends like Jeff Mangum on piano, slide-guitar and backing vocals, and Robert Schneider, who adds bass guitar, melodica and backing vocals, as well as acting as the engineer and co-producer of the album as a whole. The nucleus of the band was always the duo of Heart and Doss, who here write, perform and produce the majority of the album, as well as adding the bizarre sketches and collages that make up the album's beguilingly beautiful art work.

The album sounds fantastic and features an endlessly fascinating combination of different styles, tempos, ideas and atmospherics, with the band taking on certain elements of early Pink Floyd, The Beach Boys and The Beatles to form the core backing of 60's trip-pop... all working alongside the lingering traces of folk, Krautrock, avant-garde expressionism, ambient noise, field recordings and the early hallmarks of a sound that would later become known as post-rock. As a result, every stylistic diversion seems perfectly judged, with the album creating that dreamy quality where songs distort and metamorphose into completely different songs, whilst repeated exposure eventually gives way to all manner of hidden sounds, voices, noises and motifs. Along with Neutral Milk Hotel's masterpiece In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, I'd cite Dusk at Cubist Castle as a more alternative take on the territory of Radiohead's celebrated OK Computer, with both albums sharing the same loose conceptual edge, bizarre and varied approach to musicianship, and a stark and jarring combination of dissonant noise blurring seamlessly with traditional rock and pop structures.

Like their follow up album, Black Foliage, as well as related records like On Avery Island, Black Swan Network and Circulatory System, the songs on Dusk at Cubist Castle (as well as the album's subtitle, 'Music from the Unrealised Film Script') seem to suggest the idea of a concept... though what it is remains vague and fragmented by the stretches of surreal, dreamlike lyrics, and the wild switches in style? The album even has a ten-song mini song cycle positioned in the middle of the album (called Green Typewriters), which runs throughout tracks 12 to 22 and merges a variety of wild influences (including the "White Album" era Beatles, Ivor Cutler, Brian Eno, and various BBC-style field recording techniques) into one seamless sonic dreamscape. What it all means remains a mystery, though the All Music Guide suggests a story involving "a pair of women named Olivia and Jacqueline, and a massive earthquake dubbed the California Demise...", which makes sense, I suppose.

The more you listen to the album, the more it takes a hold of you. At least half of the songs work as great examples of pop, with the opening track The Opera House having a very modern style that is far removed from the mock-60's referentialism of acts like the Apples in Stereo, The Dukes of Stratosphere and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Jumping Fences, Define a Transparent Dream, No Growing (Exegesis), Holiday Surprise 1-3 and Memories of Jacqueline 1906 are all fine pop songs that have a touch of the Dukes (circa 25 O' Clock) about them... whilst also managing to present remnants of a sound that is more interesting and unique. The sound collages also work well, adding a depth to the songs that surround them, whilst further highlighting the bizarre concept at hand. Unlike "real" progressive acts of the 60's and 70's, the Olivia Tremor Control never seem to be adding noise or bizarre instrumentation simply because they can... in fact, it mostly seems like the songs were written and envisioned this way to begin with.

They also don't let the concept get in the way of the album as something to listen to for entertainment and enjoyment, with most of the songs possessing strong melodies, interesting lyrics and a great performance (or as great as you can get when recording on a four-track in someone's living room!!). The lo-fi aesthetic works great here (as it did for Neutral Milk Hotel, who recorded in a similar fashion at roughly the same time), with the songs benefiting from the warm fuzz of the instruments and the slightly muffled vocals, which to me, gives the songs a sense of intimacy that jars wonderfully against the exotic sounds and the expansive concept. After four or five listens, the album makes sense, and flows seamlessly from beginning to end (Hart and Doss clearly taking a lot of care in the way the songs and the overall album have been sequenced), with the diverse and disorientating sound of each song eventually creating a bizarre and dreamlike mood that flows brilliantly from beginning to end.

Dusk at Cubist Castle, along with the follow up album Black Foliage (subtitled; "Animation Music Vol. 1"), remains a great and continually interesting album from a greatly underrated band. It should be cited alongside similar 90's "alternative" masterworks such as Loveless, Tilt, Laughing Stock, Clouds Taste Metallic, Promenade and the aforementioned OK Computer (to name but a few), and should definitely be filed alongside gems such as In the Aeroplane over the Sea, On Avery Island and Circulatory System, as the very best of the Elephant 6.

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