Olivia Tremor Control
Black Foliage--Volume One
If John Cage and Paul McCartney had ever collaborated on a musical project, the result might have been something like Olivia Tremor Control.
The Athens, Georgia, band--part of the much-hyped Elephant 6 collective that includes such groups as Apples in Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel--plays it fairly straight live. But in its home-studio environs, this band sets bouncy popcraft on a collision course with demented tape manipulations and found-sound artifacts. The latest result, the group's ultra-ambitious sophomore release, Black Foliage, is a kind of schizophrenic head music for the 21st century: raw yet sophisticated, lo-fi yet lush, unwieldy but held together by its sheer delight in aural trippiness.
As indulgent as the results can be, it's hard not to get caught up in the childlike sense of freedom that accompanies the kitchen-sink approach of this 69-minute opus. One moment the group dashes off a four-second sound splash called "The Sky Is a Harpsichord Canvas," purely because they like the title, and the next moment they're unleashing a harmony-rich power-pop gem like "A New Day" or "A Place We Have Been To."
Linking the album's disparate components are five distinct "animation" pieces, in which the group samples its own sounds, disassembles the parts and densely reconfigures them again. They bring this same penchant for brain salad surgery to something as linear as "California Demise," a dead ringer for Elliott Smith's brand of mopey Northwestern pop. Here and elsewhere, the group's fondness for spacey beeps and squiggles, distant horns, phoned-in glockenspiels and intentionally jarring edits creates a collage that does what psychedelic music was always meant to do: rip you a new earhole.
The group's friend and sometime producer Robert Schneider has called Black Foliage the most truly psychedelic album since Pink Floyd's 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but that only begins to convey the madness. Next to Olivia Tremor Control, Syd Barrett is Dan Fogelberg.
Nobody Can Dance
A new release from legendary Memphis power-pop pioneers Big Star is generally considered a major event--or at very least a cause for celebration by a whole segment of music fans. Unfortunately, those occasions only seem to come every 20 years. The last time it happened, the result was a wave of hype and hysteria so great that it actually got the band to reunite for a tour and an album.
That's why this new live release from New York's Norton Records--which came with hardly any fanfare at all--is such a pleasant and welcome surprise.
As a major influence on acts from the dB's to R.E.M. to the Replacements, Big Star rightfully stands among the greatest and most influential groups of the post-Beatles era--even if a mention of them would only bring puzzled looks from most people.
If there's been a knock against Big Star, it's been their legacy as live performers. The group's limited discography includes two live albums, one from the re-formed 1994 version (with two members of the Posies) and another from the original group's 1974 lineup, neither of which did much to dispel that notion.
Big Star's shortcomings as a live band had little to do with any lack of skill on the part of the group members themselves--Alex Chilton in particular has often been overlooked as a guitarist. The group's hit-or-miss reputation as a live act has more to do with the fact that they were never really a touring outfit. Moreover, the group's sporadic performances were often marred by their inability to keep a steady lineup intact.
Nobody Can Dance, however, captures the band during the period immediately after the release of its sophomore album, Radio City. With original members Chris Bell and Andy Hummel gone (Hummel was replaced on bass by John Lightman), this recording finds Big Star performing as a trio, at the peak of its powers as a performing group.
The first eight tracks come from a sound check recorded at Ultra-Sonic studios in Hempstead, New York. The studio rehearsals were scheduled to gear the band up for a radio appearance on Long Island's WLIR. The recording of that broadcast circulated as a bootleg for many years before being issued in 1992 on Rykodisc as Big Star Live.
By the time Radio City was released, the diverse sensibilities of Chilton and Bell, which had combined to create the uniquely crafted hybrid that was #1 Record, were gone. In their place was a record that still held firmly to a pop aesthetic, but one that also paid homage to Chilton's roots in R&B and soul. Tracks like "Mod Lang" and "O My Soul" have a funky quality imbued by Chilton's blue-eyed rasp. The snarling guitar attack of "Don't Lie to Me" and the furious bounce of "In the Street" (which receives a heavily funky treatment due in part to Lightman's bass) are the only holdovers from the group's debut.
The second set, recorded in May of '74 at Memphis' Overton Park Shell for a local radio station benefit, is even more revealing. Opening with a cover of T. Rex's "Baby Strange," the set reprises most of the same songs featured in the first half of the disc, although the presence of the crowd seems to bring out a significantly livelier performance from the band, inducing Chilton to exclaim, "Let us boogie!" at numerous points.
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If for no other reason, the CD is worth owning for Chilton's skewed rendering of his 1967 Box Tops chart-topper "The Letter." Obliging a request from his hometown audience, Chilton was by this time already bitter about the popular indifference to Big Star, which he clearly viewed as a more artistically rewarding experience than his teen-pop tenure in the Box Tops.
On Nobody Can Dance, Chilton takes his revenge by reworking "The Letter" into a plodding blues-influenced stomp. This deconstruction is especially insightful as it at once anticipates the frightening darkness of Sister Lovers and foreshadows the sloppy contempt he would bring to his mid-'70s solo work (e.g., Bach's Bottom).
Live albums generally don't have the effect of bringing a listener closer to an artist. More often than not, the opposite is true. But Nobody Can Dance is a clear exception. Without the pristine Ardent studio production, the subtle nuances of Chilton's voice are front and center--the jagged phrasing, the unpolished wistfulness. It would be generous to say that Chilton's career has been uneven, but hearing his angelic tenor turn caustic within a short breath on this recording helps to explain why he and Big Star remain so compelling 25 years after the fact.