J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Return Trip:
The Olivia Tremor Control
Black Foliage: Animation Music - Vol. 1


The Olivia Tremor Control
Black Foliage: Animation Music - Vol. 1
(Flydaddy ; 1999)

It's a peculiar thing about reviewing music. Sometimes the hardest reviews to write are of the bands and albums you love the most. It's even more difficult when you're relatively new to the music. Despite my knowledge of the Elephant 6 collective and the near ubiquitous adoration of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, I hadn't spent any time with fellow founding 6'ers the Olivia Tremor Control until two years ago. That's when I picked up their 1996 LP, Music From the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle. A menagerie of pure pop mixed with musique concrete and soundscapes, it was not like much anything else I had ever heard. So when I got around to ordering their second (and last) album, I found myself even more amazed.

Where does Black Foliage go that ..Cubist Castle didn't? Let's look. First, there's the production. While there has always been a purposeful lo-fi haze to OTC's work, here there are tracks that sound (and I mean this as a complete, worshipful compliment) positively A.M. radio. There's a distance to the sheer pop that comes pouring out in "Hideaway" and "A Peculiar Noise Called 'Train Director'." And yet this music transcends that separation. "Hideaway"'s horns and endless background harmonies are one of the most relentlessly infectious things the band ever put to tape. The album is full of these moments.

But a quick math problem. There are 27 tracks on this album, only 16 of which would be considered "songs." So wither the 11 others? There are two answers. First, there is a series of sound collage pieces, each titled "Black Foliage" with a parenthetical subtitle to set them off from one another. These are spread intermittently throughout the record and comprise six of the eleven. These are themes, much in the way that classical music has themes that are repeated and altered throughout the course of the piece. Each part of the "Black Foliage" set revisits the titular musical theme and it helps the album keeps its togetherness. Second, there are small chunks of the aforementioned musique concrete both within tracks and separate. These small tracks, annoying if you're either paying per track or have your CD player on random, are the connective tissue. On their own, OTC's pop compositions wouldn't hold up as an album, merely as individual set pieces. Immersed within the context of the themes and connective pieces, it unites it into what is unmistakably an album. There is no stopping from beginning to end - all of the small set pieces (some tracks only four seconds long) help make this an album in every sense of the term. You can pull individual songs loose, but Black Foliage is best enjoyed from beginning to end.

Planted in the late middle of the album is an eleven minute ambient concrete piece that may be the true head scratching moment of the album. Up until this point (track 19), the moments of noise and ambiance have been short lived. Now comes a piece that erases almost any concept of the album that came before it. It dashes back out, much later, with "California Demise 3" (another extension of a pair of songs from their debut EP), but by this point the album has entered a murkier place. The closing songs stick largely to the pop, but the album ends in a more mystifying place than it began. And honestly, that's not a bad thing. It's kept me coming back for more. Again. And again. And again.

Rating: A(udiophilic)

(Rating scale: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y)

Judge for Yourself:

The Olivia Tremor Control - "Hideaway"

The Olivia Tremor Control - "Grass Canons"

Download Black Foliage: Animation Music - Volume One from eMusic.

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