For a band with only two proper albums to its credit, Olivia Tremor Control has a discography that is among the most difficult to navigate in all of ’90s indie rock. The Athens-based quintet, one-third of the original hierarchy of the Elephant 6 Recording Company (co-leader Will Cullen Hart designed the collective’s distinctive logo), was seemingly incapable of completing a single project without a multitude of digressions, alternate versions, musique concrète experiments and assorted oddities.
The Olivias debuted with a pair of six-song EPs originally issued in minuscule pressings. Their 12 songs (collected, along with all of the group’s compilation appearances from 1992 to 1996, on the essential Presents: Singles and Beyond) are sketches for the group’s first album, presenting early drafts of songs, concepts and musical tricks explored in full on the ravishing Music From the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle. This bewilderingly complex album has an actual plot, if one works to uncover it (something about a pair of sisters, a massive earthquake and the Gormenghast-like edifice of the title), but it’s most effective as a good old-fashioned head trip, with occasional nuggets of catchy psych-pop (“The Opera House,” the Beach Boys-influenced “Jumping Fences”) amid the quirky sound-for-sound’s-sake program music. These 27 brief songs, including the 10-part “Green Typewriters” suite, sound like they could all fall apart at any second due to the overstuffed arrangements; that the album manages to sound really cool instead of unbearably pretentious is a small miracle.
A hasty second pressing of the CD included a bonus disc of four extended ambient improvisations supposedly recorded one night on the back porch of the group’s communal home, incorporating animal and rain sounds along with some genuinely lovely organ and percussion parts; this disc was later issued on its own as Explanation II: Instrumental Themes and Dream Sequences. The Opera House and Jumping Fences EPs augment songs from the album with extended new tracks that rework previously explored ideas; the latter includes an entirely new ten-minute version of “Green Typewriters” that subjects the musical theme of the original to a completely different set of variations. Those Sessions (also known as John Peel Session 1997; no title is given on the disc) presents the entirety of the group’s early 1997 BBC appearance — an almost punky run-through of “I’m Not Feeling Human” and two eight-minute suites condensing and reworking the major melodic themes of the album — plus an otherwise unavailable ambient improv in the style of Explanation II.
The liner notes for Dusk at Cubist Castle invited listeners to send tapes describing their dreams to the band’s Athens PO box. Besides appearing in future OTC projects, these tapes — usually mutated beyond comprehension and accompanied by largely improvised music that veers from Eno-like ambient tranquility to Zappaesque freakouts and back to some inscrutable blueprint — formed the basis of the group’s most experimental work, the two releases by the Black Swan Network.
Having finally exhausted the whole Dusk at Cubist Castle concept, the Olivia Tremor Control reappeared with the all-new Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One, on which the group’s obsessive cut-n-paste aesthetic finally implodes. A single musical fragment, from the bass part of the album’s title track, is the basis of five separate “animations,” which themselves are chopped up and reconstituted in the four tracks called “Combinations,” all of which also appear in some form in the 12-minute noise collage “The Bark and Below It.” Where the repeated elements of Dusk at Cubist Castle made individual songs sound like parts of a meticulously designed whole, Black Foliage sounds like a thin batch of ideas stretched out to album length, diluting the impact of brilliant pure pop like the sunny “Hideaway” and the mysterious “I Have Been Floated.” The Hideaway EP reprises that track, adding yet another reworking of “Combinations” and the somewhat more successful 12-minute jam “Can You Come Down With Us,” which recalls the Bevis Frond’s spacier moments.
Apparently finding itself low on ideas, the Olivia Tremor Control (temporarily?) disbanded in 2000. Singer-songwriter Bill Doss started releasing one-man-band psych-pop albums as the Sunshine Fix; Hart formed the Circulatory System with help from Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum and the other three former Olivias.