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Artist: The Olivia Tremor Control
Label: Cloud Recordings
Genre: Indie Pop
Release: Jan 1996   My Rating: 0
Duration: 53:31
Summary: Music from the Unrealised Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle, is a strange and disorientating album that is pitched halfway between 60's influenced neo-prog-psychedelia, and the more recognisable sound of mid-90's indie. It's certainly the most adventurous album released by any of the various Elephant 6 Collective offshoots, with The Olivia Tremor Control writing and recording 'Dusk...' over a period of three years, with a rolling line up of collaborators including Eric Harris, John Fernandes, Steve Jacobek, Nick Benjamin and Julian Koster, as well Neutral Milk Hotel leader Jeff Mangum on piano, slide-guitar and backing vocals, and the Apples in Stereo's Robert Schneider, who adds bass, melodica, backing vocals, as well as acting as the engineer and co-producer of the album as a whole. The nucleus of the band was Will Cullen Heart and Bill Doss, who here write, perform and produce the majority of the album, as well as adding the bizarre sketches and collages that make up the album's art work.

The album is a fantastic and endlessly fascinating combination of different styles, tempos, ideas and atmospherics, with the band taking on elements of early Pink Floyd, the Beach Boys and The Beatles to form the core backing of 60's trip-pop, alongside lingering traces of folk, krautrock, avant-garde expressionism, ambient noise, field recordings and the early hallmarks of a sound that would later become known as post-rock. As a result, every stylistic diversion seems perfectly judged, with the album creating that dreamy quality where songs distort and metamorphose into completely different songs, whilst repeated exposure eventually gives way to all manner of hidden sounds, voices, noises and motifs. Along with Neutral Milk Hotel's masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, I'd cite Dusk at Cubist Castle as a more alternative take on the territory of Radiohead's celebrated OK Computer, with both albums sharing the same loose conceptual edge, bizarre and varied approach to musicianship, and a stark and jarring combination of dissonant noise blurring seamlessly with traditional rock and pop structures.

Like their follow up album Black Foliage, as well as related records like On Avery Island, Black Swan Network and Circulatory System, the songs on Dusk at Cubist Castle (as well as the album's subtitle, Music from the Unrealised Film Script) seems to suggest the idea of a concept... though what it is remains vague and fragmented by the stretches of surreal dreamlike lyrics, and the wild switches in style. The album even has a ten-song mini song cycle positioned in the middle of the album called Green Typewriters (which runs through tracks 12 to 22), which merges a variety of wild influences, including White Album-era Beatles and BBC field recording techniques, into one seamless sonic dreamscape. What it all means remains a mystery, though the All Music Guide suggests a story involving a pair of women named Olivia and Jacqueline, and a massive earthquake dubbed the California Demise... which makes sense, I suppose!!

The more you listen to the album, the more it takes a hold of you... At least half of the songs work as great pieces of pop, with the opening track The Opera House having a very modern style that is removed from the mock-60's referentialism of acts like the Apples in Stereo, The Dukes of Stratosphere and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Jumping Fences, Define a Transparent Dream, No Growing (Exegesis), Holiday Surprise 1-3 and Memories of Jacqueline 1906 are all fine pop songs that have a touch of the Dukes circa 25 O' Clock about them, whilst also managing to present remnants of a sound that is more interesting and unique. The sound collages work well too, adding a depth to the songs that surround them, whilst further highlighting the bizarre concept at hand. Unlike "real" progressive acts of the 60's and 70's, the Olivia Tremor Control never seem to be adding noise or bizarre instrumentation simply because they can... in fact, it mostly seems like the songs were written and envisioned this way to begin with.

They also don't let the concept get in the way of the album as something to listen to for entertainment and enjoyment, with most of the songs possessing strong melodies, interesting lyrics and a great performance (or as great as you can get when recording on a four-track in someone's living room!!). The lo-fi aesthetic works great here (as it did for Neutral Milk Hotel, who recorded in a similar fashion at roughly the same time), with the songs benefiting from the warm fuzz of the instruments and the slightly muffled vocals, which to me, gives the songs a sense of intimacy that jars against the exotic sounds and the expansive concept. After four or five listens, the album makes sense, and flows seamlessly from beginning to end (Hart and Doss clearly taking a lot of care in the way the songs and the album have been sequenced!!), with the diverse and disorientating sound of each song eventually creating a bizarre and dreamlike mood that flows brilliantly from beginning to end. Dusk at Cubist Castle, along with the follow up Black Foliage, remains a great and continually interesting album from a greatly underrated band, and along with gems like In the Aeroplane over the Sea, On Avery Island and Circulatory System, is a highlight of the esteemed Elephant 6 Collective.