The Elephant in the Room
As far as the world-at-large is concerned, the Elephant 6 collective begins and ends with Neutral Milk Hotel. The collective was a large, associative group of bands that were connected to a commune in Athens, Georgia, the actual Elephant 6 record label, or a greater circle of friends who felt out-of-place and out-of-time in grunge-era America. There were countless bands and intermingled projects, with players hopping from one combo to another. For indie-pop fans in the mid-to-late-'90s, the joy was in digging deep, teasing out the strange and the obscure. Every E6 band was, by its very nature, obscure.
But, as time has persisted, the legend of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has grown and grown, tto the point where it's generally in the discussion for greatest indie album of all time. Which means those looking at the Elephant 6 though history's lens are doing so with a tilted perspective: every combo now catalogued for their relationship and proximity to Neutral Milk Hotel.
This has been both benefit and deficit to the Olivia Tremor Control and their musical legacy. A help in that Jeff Mangum himself plays on OTC LPs, a hindrance in that, back in the day, Olivia Tremor Control were thought every bit the equal of Neutral Milk Hotel; 1996's Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle their own crazed concept-record, their own slab of fuzzed-out bombast, old-timey imagery, Beatles harmonies, nightmarish dream sequences, rampant experimentation, and unchecked ambition.
Dusk at Cubist Castle is nothing less than an attempt to create its own world. That's a familiar trick of cinema or literature, but one less common musically. The fact that the album's very title summons cinema is no coincidence; creating a whole new world is, after all, an audio-visual phenomenon, and maybe this resulting record is only part of the intended experience; the soundtrack to a psychedelic dreamscape or some Yellow Submarine-styled animation. "Here we are in candyland/one million dreams are realizing everyday," co-leader Bill Doss sings, with only a mild hint of irony, on closer "NYC-25." OTC are wearing their hearts on their sleeves: this is a sweet soundtrack to daydreams and imagination.
The reference-points for the record are almost all from 30 years prior: the Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys, Syd Barrett. The fact that they're old is only in how it shows the Olivia Tremor Control's alienation from the era of grunge, gangster rap, and CD jewel-cases. It was that sense of alienation that had them retreating into the past, and into their own audio world. The fact that Dusk at Cubist Castle was recorded on a four-track in a veritable commune can't be undersold as simple quirks: it was this independence, this artistic leisure-time, that allowed Doss and co-leader Will Cullen Hart to spend three years recording the album.
It was that time that allowed Dusk at Cubist Castle its greatness. Because, whilst listeners come for the harmonies, the major-keys, and the two-minute pop-songs, they stay for the strangeness, the noise, the tape experiments, the arrangements stacked on thick and confusing. In direct proportion to its long gestation, it's a record that rewards repeat listens; return visits to its psychedelic fantasia best made on headphones, in beanbag, eyes closed, alive to every note, imagination firing.
Record Label: Flydaddy
Release Date: 1996