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Olivia Tremor Control
Black Foliage: Animation Music

Picking a song out of an Olivia Tremor Control disc for critical examination and singular praise is like choosing your favorite spot of color in a Seurat painting. To narrow your focus is to lose sight of the bigger picture. You can't take much out of context when it comes to OTC, either sonically or philosophically. With this bunch it's all or nothing.

Olivia Tremor Control is the pinnacle band concept that helps to frame the Elephant 6 sound, a psychedelic pop confection that arose when William Cullen Hart and Bill Doss of OTC formed the Elephant 6 record label with Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum and the Apples in Stereo's Robert Schneider. OTC's debut, 1996's impossibly titled Music From the Unrealized Film Script "Dusk at Cubist Castle", was a delight of fractured sonic collage and pop music invention, and Black Foliage follows along the same course with slightly more depth but little more in the way of focus.

The depth may well have come with the addition of semipermanent members to accompany Hart and Doss on their trippy, postmodern, gates-of-dawn journey to the incense-and-peppermints center of the mind. The lack of focus is in no way a liability and is in fact a planned and arranged facet of OTC's method and charm. Imagine a piece of work that draws equally from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's, Pink Floyd's Ummagumma, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, the Mothers of Invention's We're Only in It For the Money, Brian Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets and Discreet Music, and Game Theory's Lolita Nation, and you might find yourself close but with still much more imagining to be done.

The Olivias delight in couching the purest, most effervescent pop in the murkiest of arty experimentalism, mixing odd snatches of sonic effects with a dense musical palette that sounds purposefully random. Although they would probably deny it, there is a conceptual thread that is just begging to be pulled throughout the band's catalog, whether there by design or accident. The quality that the Olivia's output shares with the aforementioned works of historical brilliance is a playfulness that informs the listener that he or she is about to be transformed, not in any serious or profound manner but in an artistically evocative and logically unpredictable fashion.

The other thing that the Olivias do well is utilize every bit of recordable space on the disc, packing Black Foliage with more than 70 minutes of pop weirdness. But make no mistake, this is not some lame attempt to string together a handful of songs with bits of sonic patchwork for glue. This is an extremely adroit and passionate attempt to string together a handful of songs with bits of sonic patchwork for glue. Olivia Tremor Control may never break any further than the niche that Hart and Doss have invented and chosen to inhabit, but it has already found immeasurable success by creating work that stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the greatest recordings of this generation. That accomplishment is made all the more impressive with the realization that Olivia Tremor Control finds itself at this point after just two albums and twice as many years as a band. OTC's potential for further growth and development and influence, given a normal band timeline and rising learning curve, is almost frightening in its limitless possibilities.

-- Brian Baker

Frank Black and the Catholics

Frank Black has made a career of being a geek. He unapologetically broadcasts his obsession with sci-fi (The Cult of Ray, the title of his 1996 album, refers to Ray Bradbury) and outer space, not to mention his slightly pedantic movie fetish. ("Debaser," anyone?) Somehow, however, the artist formerly known as Black Francis managed to maintain an edge with his pop-culture references by saluting Iggy Pop in "Ten Percenter" and vintage geekdom in "Whatever Happened to Pong?"

What keeps Black from sliding down the slippery slope of novelty is his condensed rock energy and adrenaline-driven guitar work. In his second release with backing band the Catholics, Pistolero, Black revels in the guitar rock that spawned him. From the start Pistolero overflows with relentless guitar hooks and Black's signature howl.

The opening track, "Bad Harmony," aptly showcases Black's underrated harmonies as he switches between throat-splitting crackles and Elvisesque crooning. Perhaps more than any other song on the album, this cut highlights Black's deft songwriting and crafty way with a metaphor: "We got drowned in the sea of love, and I know it's gonna get wetter."

"I Switched You" and "Tiny Heart" continue Black's swagger while pouring his heart out, but before Pistolero lapses into the anger stage of mourning heartbreak, Black fantasizes about his lover's cerebellum in "I Love Your Brain," and comes back to earth, so to speak, with "Billy Radcliffe," a ballad about a boy born in space.

To further inculcate his skewed point of view, the sleep-loss fable "Eighty Five Weeks" narrates the trauma of an "unsomnambulent." Black's crystalline cleverness surfaces in "I Think I'm Starting to Lose It," a track that relates the difficulty of being a tragic hero, and the reverential "I Want Rock & Roll." These songs show he's equally comfortable with Greek literary concepts and making alliterations of the names of rock legends. To prove where he comes from, the last two songs reflect Black's influences -- incorporating everything from Delta blues and the Rolling Stones to heavy metal.

While all his songs offer the amplifier equivalent of a flash flood, complete with thundering bass and lightning guitar, Black shows, yet again, that he's the thinking man's guitar god -- even if he takes a listen or two to appreciate.

-- Liesa Goins

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Brian Baker
Liesa Goins