Finding Elephant 6 (Or How I Learned To Love Olivia Tremor Control)

Last week, WNYC’s music show Soundcheck — where I work, obviously — asked listeners and guests and staff about music they missed the first time around but now adore. Friday’s show aired a special centered around this Missed It Then, Love It Now idea; I show up (around the 22-minute mark into the episode) to talk about my love of Elephant 6 Recording Company and spin “Love Athena,” a song by The Olivia Tremor Control.

Now for the three people who may not know of Elephant 6, this is the collective comprised of beloved bands first from Denver, but later became synonymous with the Athens, Ga. music scene in the mid-to-late ’90s. These bands include: Neutral Milk Hotel, Circulatory System, The Apples In Stereo, Elf Power, of Montreal, Beulah, The Minders, The Music Tapes, and of course The Olivia Tremor Control — a band centered around Will Cullen Hart, Bill Doss, John Fernandes, and for a time, NMH’s Jeff Mangum.

Now I knew of Neutral Milk Hotel and Of Montreal and Apples in Stereo in early college: I think I first heard In The Aeroplane Over The Sea as a college freshman around 2000, though I’m sure it took awhile longer for me to understand that record’s impact. Still, I guess I never really knew until much later that these bands and many others were part of this larger collective, Elephant 6.

It makes sense though. When these bands were making music in that stretch in the ’90s, I was too young. I wasn’t especially a ‘zine person then, and with little access to the Internet until high school, I’m not sure how I would’ve come to know about certain bands under the radar. Back then, music fansjust had to dig a little deeper and work a little harder to find out about “underground” bands, not to mention actually locate the physical albums. And by the time I was starting to find these bands, many of them were broken up or on extended hiatus — like Olivia Tremor Control, or the reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum.

So it wasn’t until 2004 when I was studying abroad in Germany that I finally was introduced to this world. Cliche or no, it was because I met this girl in one of my language classes, and after talking about music it turned out we had very similar tastes. Here’s a gist of one such conversation:

“Do you know Neutral Milk Hotel?” she asked me one night. I did, yeah.

“What about of Montreal?” Kind of.

“Olivia Tremor Control?” I had never even heard of them, nor Circulatory System, nor the five other bands she name dropped.

Soon, she “gifted” me a stack of burned CDs to listen to. (While this was decidedly the iPod era by then, it was still easier to burn a disc than trade music files for some reason.) The rest of that winter semester abroad, I went down the E6 rabbit hole, listening to records from Apples In Stereo, Circulatory System’s self-titled album, and Olivia Tremor Control’s Black Foliage: Animation Music Vol. 1 and odds and ends compilation, Presents: Singles And Beyond.

What I loved about NMH or OTC or Apples in Stereo or of Montreal was each band’s blend of lo-fi production and super dense technicolor psychedelia and soaring Beatles-esqe melodies and arrangements. This music blended 1960’s pop song structures with experimental noises, bizarro musical interludes, and a playful childlike humor and wonder that few bands embrace.

A few years later, I started working at NPR and NPR Music, and thanks to a couple friends/co-workers who’d spent time living in Athens, and both, mega fans of all things E6, I began to delve even deeper. Over the years they would school me on all sorts of ancillary, sorta-related bands and projects from E6 and it was fun to fully immerse myself in this odd world. The three of us even drove to Baltimore together for a weirdo show from the Elephant 6 Orchestra — a circus-like ramble of members of all of these bands each playing on each others songs.

In the years since, I’ve caught concerts from The Apples In Stereo, of Montreal, The Music Tapes, and Jeff Mangum performing solo after years away from the stage. While many groups like of Montreal have gotten bigger and bigger, but some of the other E6 members are reuniting: Circulatory System put out an album in 2011, Neutral Milk Hotel is finally reuniting to everyone’s shock. And even Olivia Tremor Control showed signs of resurfacing — putting out a song or two in 2010. But sadly, with last year’s sudden death of key member Bill Doss, that band’s future is in question.

These days, way more people know of Elephant 6 bands than ever, but still not enough people are all that familiar. I try to remind myself that we come to music when we’re supposed to, and even I came to this music later than a lot of people did. Strangely, all these years later, I have literally no memory of that girl’s name or where she was from — she was American, so we can narrow that down at least. But when I hear songs like OTC’s “A Sleepy Company” or anything from that era, I still think back to that random person introducing me to all this music I now love.

Old Things That Are New To Me: ‘Save It For Later’

I recently watched the oddly nostalgic gross-out comedy Hot Tub Time Machine. The film stars John Cusack (and Clark Duke, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Lizzie Caplan, Chevy Chase) as he and his old pals travel back in time to the late 1980s via a ski resort hot tub. Yup. There they are their same old selves, trapped in their ’80s bodies, reliving a trip they took when life was still full of promise and not made terrible life choices. Antics ensue, as expected.

Also as you might expect, the film employs an array of classic and cliched period hits of the 1980s: the hair, the legwarmers, the jackets, the big hair. But also the music. A lot of it was expected, but buried beneath some of that was this song:

The song is “Save It For Later,” by a band called The Beat, or here in the U.S. were better known as The English Beat. I had never heard of them, nor heard this song. But I sorta fell in love with that very typically British sound: the brightly strummed guitars, the XTC-esque singing, the great chorus. So yeah, who knew that a weird buddy comedy would be a place to discover an ’80s band I probably should’ve known about. Go figure.

Old Things That Are New To Me: ‘O Superman’

We all come to music differently, but it never ceases to amaze me when I discover an artist from an unlikely source. I had been hearing this voice in a television commercial for weeks before I finally decided to check it out. It was just a tiny snippet of a song in some smart phone commercial in frequent rotation during baseball games played on — and if you’ve ever watched live sports on the web, you tend to notice they play the same spots over and over. It has a way of getting inside your head.

That voice was hauntingly cold, filtered through a vocoder, and the robotically looped “ha”‘s sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it.

Finally I pulled out my phone, fired up the ol Shazam app, expecting to discover it was a brand new synth pop band, who licensed its music for this ad. Maybe it was The Books. Or maybe it was a new song from Imogen Heap, the singer best known for employing a similar vocoder sound on her hit “Hide and Seek.”

Instead, it was an old song: Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman (For Massenet),” a minimalist half-sung, half-spoken word 8-minute single from her 1981 record Big Science.

Needless to say, it was a jolt: Here was this groundbreaking, but not-so-user friendly 30-year-old piece of electronic music — based on the aria “Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père” (O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father) from Jules Massenet’s 1885 opera Le Cid — that felt so vibrant and completely of this time. There’s something almost subversive about the ad’s use of this song, especially as the lyrics philosophize about our relationships to technology and on the nature of communication.

It’s a little embarrassing to admit I didn’t know the song, nor Laurie Anderson’s music much at all. I’ve read about her in passing when reading about other artists from the same time, but her exploratory and idiosyncratic music always seemed so daunting. Like so many experimental or challenging artists, it can hard to know where to start, and easy to put off diving in. And yet, here I was connecting to this artist through a phone commercial no less. Still, thanks to that advertisement, I felt encouraged to start addressing a blind spot. That’s sometimes all you can ask for from a commercial.

Old Things That Are New To Me: The Pop Group’s ‘Y’

Sometimes there are bands that I’ve heard of, and read things about, but never actually heard much of. This is the case with The Pop Group, a late 70s, early 80s post punk band that falls in the same wheelhouse as bands I already love like Joy Division, Gang of Four and Talking Heads. I kept seeing their name but strangely, it took another artist covering their work to finally get me to dig in and see what their all about.

On their recent tour, St. Vincent has been playing The Pop Group’s “She Is Beyond Good And Evil,” an all-out assault of guitar noise and seething and sexy, if not disturbing vocals. St. Vincent played this song last night on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, a ballsy move for the talk show crowd who just want to hear something off the new record. But for singer and guitarist Annie Clark, it’s a perfect song to cover.

Clark has perfected this juxtaposition between alluring image, silky voice and stunningly beautiful melodic arrangements with fucked up lyrics of pain, loneliness and violent thoughts. And her guitar work is both skillfully dexterous and intensely loud and explosive. I recently caught St. Vincent on this Strange Mercy tour at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club, where she showed off her sweet, witty side and her under-the-surface boiling turmoil that manifests itself with her bursts of guitar feedback and killer riffs. Mid-show, Clark busted out The Pop Group song and it enveloped the entire room with white hot distortion.

Clark showed early signs of this newer, rawer direction during this year’s Our Concert Could Be Your Life show, Clark and a rotating cast of great indie rock bands paid tribute to the previous generations of indie rock that were depicted in the exceptional Michael Azzerad book Our Band Could Be Your Life. There, Clark pulled out “Kerosene” by Big Black, a song that first made a lot of people rethink how Clark could own the stage.

Seeing St. Vincent cover The Pop Group sold me and made me want to finally dig out that band’s 1978 album, Y, and I’m glad I did. It’s a masterful and weird record mixing post punk and funk grooves with avant jazz and experimental noise. They’re brasher, noisier, more experimental and atonal than many of the bands from this era. And they play with angular melodies and off kilter rhythms that at times feel in the pocket and other times completely sprawl out into washes of noise. It’s great, great stuff, even if it IS over 30 years old.

Old Things That Are New To Me: Sebadoh’s ‘Punk Moon’

Earlier today, my friend and co-worker Lars tweeted:

“Accidentally typed “Punk Moon” instead of “Pink Moon.” Oh, Nick Drake, the world would have been so different.”

Which got me to reply:

How hasn’t there been a punk tribute to Nick Drake yet? We got the title right there! How do we make this happen?

Thanks to another friend, and former intern, I was tipped off to an amazing cover of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” played by early ’90s indie rockers Sebadoh. Though a grainy old performance video from 1995, it was clearly a solid, powerful punk-ed out version of the iconic folk song. “Why didn’t they ever record this?” I wondered. But of course, things being the internet and all, I quickly found that they DID record a studio version of this song:

The song appeared on Sebadoh’s 1992 album Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, a compilation album of songs from their Rocking the Forest EP and their Sebadoh vs. Helmet EP. The record served as the band’s Sub Pop debut. While I’m a big fan of Sebadoh, I’ll freely admit I haven’t heard everything, and mostly know their albums The Freed Man, Sebadoh III and Bubble And Scrape. Looks like I have some more homework to do. It’s always cool to find out something new from a band like this.

Julianna Barwick’s Stunning ‘Reckoner’ Remix

Whoa, how did I manage to miss this one for at least a few years? Awhile back you might recall that Radiohead released “stems” for their song “Reckoner” from In Rainbows. These stems basically are individual tracks from the song, not quite the raw multi-track recordings, but rather they were grouped into different pieces like strings and rhythm guitar or background vocals or lead vocal or lead guitar or drums and percussion. With these stems they allowed you to remix the song and upload it to a cool site where you could vote on your favorites. The results were decidedly mixed as to be expected from such a project. But there were some gems.

Among them was Julianna Barwick’s version:

Now I vaguely remember hearing this one once or twice perhaps. I’ve known of Barwick now for a year or two and always admired her stuff. It simply never clicked with me who created this remix. But with Barwick’s new amazing masterpiece album The Magic Place, I am more than aware of who she is. That record completely sold on her ambient choral music: it’s transcendent, effervescent and absolutely stunning work.

Somehow, I guess I just missed this complete reinvention of one of my favorite Radiohead songs. It totally works and hints at how amazing a collaboration with Yorke could potentially be.

Old Things That Are New To Me: Melody

File this one under “This seems like something I should have known… but didn’t.”

This morning I was listening to the wonderful Seattle radio station KEXP online and heard a moody, grooving song by David Holmes called “Don’t Die Just Yet.”

(Holmes, you might know from being the musician, producer and DJ behind many film soundtracks including notably, Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven.)

As I was listening, I heard these amazing swelling strings and dueling distorted guitar solos that I noted out loud sounded exactly like Beck’s fantastic “Paper Tiger” from Sea Change, one of my favorite albums by Beck.

It was promptly pointed out that this Holmes remix incorporated bits of strings from Serge Gainsbourg’s song “Melody” and that it was a song that Beck and Sea Change producer Nigel Godrich had apparently openly aped for their own song.


I have been only somewhat aware of Serge Gainsbourg’s work on a very general level — I can recognize his musical style when I hear it, and have always enjoyed most of what I’ve heard. But I’ve never owned any albums by him so, up until now, I’ve never been overly familiar. But considering my fondness for Beck’s music, I was naturally a tad shocked that this song had eluded me.

I always love when hearing some random song takes you down this rabbit hole that presents an opportunity to discover new music and to dig into the Gainsbourg-sized gap in my musical knowledge.

“Melody” of course comes from the 1971 concept album, Histoire de Melody Nelson, in which Gainsbourg sleazily sings of a pseudo-autobiographical tale involving a car crash with the aforementioned Melody Nelson, a Lolita-esque teenage nymphet that he eventually seduces.

Histoire de Melody Nelson‘s mixes abrupt guitar, funky bass grooves and Gainsbourg’s distinctly lecherous spoken word vocal delivery all flourished with lush string and choral arrangements by Jean-Claude Vannier who composed almost all the music on the record.

According to the Wikipedia article, the album has “proven to be highly influential amongst later francophone and anglophone musical performers” including the Air, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, Portishead, and Beck.

A music video was made for each song on the incredibly short 28-minute album and eventually packaged together as a musical. Check out the video below for “Melody:”


How did I miss this one? How did I miss that more than obvious connection between Beck’s song and Gainsbourg’s? The world will never know.

Beck’s ‘Planned Obsolescence’ Rethinks Digital Mixtape

Beck has been keeping busy.
Beck has been keeping busy.

All summer Beck has been slowly trickling out tracks from his Record Club as he Nigel Godrich and cast of other friends and musicians have covered The Velvet Underground & Nico in its entirety. He has also been releasing ‘acoustic’ versions of his 2008 album Modern Guilt, interviewing Tom Waits and Will Ferrell and unearthing found music. And just last night he unveiled his second Record Club effort, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, accompanied by MGMT, Devandra Banhart, Binki Shapiro (of Little Joy) and others.

Needless to say, the dude’s prolific.

One of the other main projects on his revamped website is Planned Obsolescence, in which he releases a new mixtape or DJ set of sorts. Perhaps because I was distracted by the other goodies, I overlooked most of these. But the latest effort, “No. 9: Sapphire Metallic And Silicone For Michael Jackson” really blew me away last night.

No. 9: Sapphire Metallic And Silicone For Michael Jackson by planned_obsolescence

Fusing together a mix of dance music, ambient and industrial electronic, hip hop, funk, a bit of indie rock and 60’s psychedelia, these sets are a great way to hear some new music, stuff you’ve heard before and some curios. It’s a great juxtaposition hearing all of this seamlessly mashed up, and truly mimics the feeling of scanning the car radio dial looking for a decent song.

Unlike other single song remixes or Girl Talk-esque uber-mashups with dozens (hundreds?) of cluttered samples that change just as soon as you figure out what song it’s from, Beck’s sets breathe much easier. It’s all a bit less frantic and the songs play out for just the right amount.

These DJ sets are worth hunting down, as they’d make a great playlist for a party, workout mix or even an early morning commute.

Also be sure to check out “No. 7 Summer Tapes,” all devoted to summer songs, including an inspired highlight where Beck segues a cascades through several versions of “Summertime Blues.”

No. 7: Summer Tapes by planned_obsolescence

The Muppets Play The Beatles

So I’ve heard some of The Beatles’ remasters coming out next Wednesday (9/9/09!!!) and all I can say is that they’re stunning. I’ve heard a handful of tracks from all the albums — standouts from what I’ve heard seem to be “I Am The Walrus,” “I’ve Got A Feeling,” “Daytripper,” “She’s Leaving Home” etc — plus all of Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour in their entirety.

I’ll be sure to write up more once I have the full stereo box set in my possession next week. But in anticipation, here is a bit of Beatles-related ephemera.






Best Song I’ve Heard All Day: Unlikely Cover Song Edition

(parts 792 in a 1001 part series)

Lately I feel like this has become some sappy Flaming Lips fan blog, but this one was too good to pass up, and what can I say? I am fan.

Anyone who knows me even a little knows that I love a great cover song. One that’s not only a great performance, but one that makes you hear the original in a new light. One of my favorites from this year so far is The Flaming Lips’ cover of Madonna’s “Borderline.”

I first heard The Lips play this song at that pretty mediocre Earth Day concert earlier this year and it was fun to hear, but much like the rest of the set, underwhelming.

What I didn’t know was that the band not only has incorporated the song into their live set, but recorded it for a Warner compilation, Covered, A Revolution in Sound: Warner Bros Records with members of Stardeath and White Dwarfs. But judging from the rest of the music included, “Borderline” looks to be the standout.

The Flaming Lips’ version starts as a mellower approach to the song, dreamy and full of computerized glitches and chiming tones. But soon that epic noise rock side of the band really explodes, transforming it into a fantastic shoegazey stadium anthem. What I love about it is that it truly reinvents the song, peeling away the sheen and gauzey production of Madonna’s original and finding the nugget of a great pop song. Like most Madonna songs, this one is fully of great melodic hooks and really makes you appreciate the songcraft with fresh ears.

Take a listen here, and watch the great video that they made for it: