The Olivia Tremor Control – Dusk at Cubist Castle
I waited so long for this album to be re-released so I could get hold of it in the UK. Id got some real-media samples of it from Amazon.com, and I thought it sounded good but nothing prepared me for the album proper. It fries my brain. Anyone familiar with the bands associated with Elephant 6 records will also be familiar with the formula. Sweet pop hooks with American underground lo-fi credentials, odd bedroom style space-rock and psychedelia from bands like Apples in Stereo and Essex Green. What all of these bands have in common is the DIY approach to song-writing; the “everything but the kitchen sink” and some of that too if it sounds good approach that has characterised the American underground scene for the past 15 years or so. Dusk at Cubist Castle represents the zenith of this approach.
The Olivia Tremor control and its various offshoots notably ‘Pipes you see, Pipes You don’t’, have the Beatles ‘thing’ going on. And yet, unlike the sorry British creations like Oasis they do not bastardise it and rip it off. The Olivia Tremor Control use this influence creatively. The songs are embalmed with the same playful use of strange sounds that characterise Lennon and McCartney’s white album phase. They infuse their songs with the same warped sense of humour and playfulness which made Beatles Classics like ‘Hey Prudence’ so enjoyable to listen to. They do not however just steal; everything sounds very contemporary and very American underground. The loose edges are never cleaned up; the songs drift in and out like glimpses of workings out in an artist’s sketch-pad. If it has a sonic blueprint it would probably be Pavements ‘slanted and enchanted’ but to limit it to that would only do it a disservice.
The album begins with an eleven song popfest.
‘Opera House’ kicks off the album. It’s like a lo-fi nightmare of detuned guitars, wailing droning keyboards and slack kneed drums; which collide with cranks, levers and pulleys; dogs barking and glocks tinkling. I’m sure if you listened hard enough you’d here someone banging on that kitchen sink. It’s pure Brian Eno era ‘Roxy Music’. Its sounds like a manifesto of intent, leaving the listener with no false assurances that this is going to be an easy listening experience.
‘Jumping fences’ is prime time 2 minutes of power pop, yet ever present are those strange sounds (like that kooky rattle in the chorus) just in the background that can pop up at any minute just to remind you that this could disintegrate at any minute.
‘Define a Transparent Dream’ is where the ‘Beatles rip off’ police start rubbing their hands poised for the kill. It all sounds suitably ‘White Album’ before the chorus comes in takes us off in another tangent and messes it all up again.
The start of the album throws up pop gem after pop gem, ‘No Growing (Exegesis)’ is just such a gorgeous melody, and comes complete with complimentary car horns in the chorus. ‘Can you come down with us’ sounds like 1968 era Pink Floyd, all icy psychedelic detachment with elongated trippy outro. ‘Marking Time’ and its ‘I get high’ coda, heralds the end of the pop bit and the start of the ten song cycle which is ’21 Green Typewriters’.
By most artists standards ’21 Green Typewriters’ would make an albums worth of material itself. It has most in common with the more experimental side projects like ‘Pipes you see and Pipes you don’t’ due to its sudden loss of sheen. There’s no getting away from the sudden launch into absolute lo-fi wickedness that ’21 Green Typewriters’ represents. Its challenging and disconcerting and seems like an intentional attempt to dislodge the listener fro the cosy world created with the first eleven songs. Movement ‘8’ is just nine minutes of ambient noise. Movement ‘9’ begins with the line “how much longer can I wait”. It’s an elaborate joke at the audiences expense – and the punch-line is that its followed by another seven songs with absolute classic pop credentials.
These last seven tracks are less focussed than the first eleven songs and are particularly downbeat, but they are still great pop songs. 'N-Y-C 25' is the standout track, with its eerie string sections and catchy pop “pleasant dreams don’t sleep to long” chorus and psyched out Lennon-esque backing vocal. ‘Cant explain’ is pure Austin Powers wig-out material.
Its a brilliant and highly rewarding journey through the American undergrounds lo-fi obsessions and classic pop song-writing. Should you buy it? Well, its great value for money as you get over an hour and twenty minutes of music and the sheer scope of the 27 tracks is incredible. Is it a concept album?… well erm, yes I think it loosely portrays the stages of a psychedelic high, with the first eleven tracks being the ‘coming up’ stage ; the ’21 Green Typewriters’ section being the ‘High’ and the seven more downbeat songs that follow as a ‘come down’ stage. All I know is that its been stuck on my stereo for a month, and Im still finding new things to listen to in it. I make all my friends endure it. I love it. Dusk at Cubist Castle is a classic.
Now if only I could get the ‘Pipes you see, Pipes you don’t’ CD over here in England.