Olivia Tremor Control: Dusk at the Cubist Castle by Travis Nichols and Paul Killebrew (with Maggie Jackson and Monica Fambrough)
Being from Nashville, I accepted that music could be conceptual. I didn’t try out for high school football (not on principle, more of a foregone conclusion kind of situation), but I could believe that if someone did try out and didn’t make the team, the absolutely best response would be to start a band. A marching band of one’s own.
The creation story of Olivia Tremor Control, though set in the north Louisiana town of Ruston, could easily have taken place where I grew up in Ames, Iowa. Or not. Point being, I was in high school, my body was a terrifying disappointment, the bodies of everyone I knew were terrifying disappointments (with occasional miraculous exceptions), and it seemed likely that this would be permanent.
If I had known about them then (I didn’t; I liked Counting Crows), I would have been heartened because Olivia Tremor Control make happy psychedelic pop music that is, according to Robert Christgau, “full of shit,” a description that sounds damning but given that being full of shit is one of the primary daily disappointments (with no miraculous exceptions I know of), there’s a way in which such an insult is a compliment: full of shit music suggests that disappointment, permanence, and foregone conclusions can be ignored in favor of listening to one’s body, and, if one has such a thing, soul.
Listening to the shit of the soul: that about sums up Athens, Georgia in the late ’90s. Not to brag, but we had Neutral Milk Hotel, Drive-By-Truckers, Vic Chesnutt, Of Montreal, Danger Mouse, Macha, Hayride, The Glands, The Possibilities, Elf Power, Azure Ray, Jack Logan, Japancakes, Music Tapes, and, of course, Olivia Tremor Control, all fighting over the same Salvation Army cardigan.
Some of these bands were better than the others, but the most vexing were the Olivias. I wanted them to be something slightly other than they were, and I wanted their music to be slightly different than it is. The dippy psychedelia, the unapologetic derivativeness, the sugary and the twee—this was never going to be my favorite record or my favorite band. And yet I found pleasure and creative permission in the space between what I wanted the music to be and what it was.
[Interlude: When the baby howls, the microchip howls. When the parallel microchip becomes fussy and more, fussy static ruins the parallel baby and so then fields. When the fields fuss. Throughout intervals of static the wind fusses in fits of solemn fuchsia. I always feel milky. You always are staring. Why don’t I feel. Vinegar now, in my hands everything seems tender. Baby and me and Olivia mouths parallel. Fits and fits and fuck fits. Everything will mouth what I spray. Don’t touch my mouth unless you use me four times. Mouth my mind. Mouth my mouth. How else could we be understood so like our words should? Not by my grainy speakers. Revenue isn’t what is speaking now. Revenant is not what is. Cars combust. Combustion composes particles into fits.]
In the last third of Dusk at Cubist Castle, in a track titled “Green Typewriters VIII,” all of the hazy pop and toy piano blinkerings that make up much of the album shed away for a ten-minute interlude of low, reverby fuzz and dull notes that you come to realize are underpainted by recordings of dripping water and what seems to be a field near a highway where cars pass just often enough to be totally meditative; in the last minute and a half, all the sounds drop out except the field, and when a car and a helicopter pass, the sound travels from the left speaker to the right and then gradually fades as the vocals of Bill Doss and/or Will Cullen Hart remarkably reappear, singing, “How much longer can I wait?”, ushering in a resolution in drums and a guitar solo straight from Apple Studios, none of which ever felt so refreshing.
In an as-yet-unpublished interview I did back in the Athens ’90s with Jeff Mangum—who is better known as the gaping wound at the center of Neutral Milk Hotel but also served as a drummer for Olivia Tremor Control (which a friend once compared to watching John Lennon play drums in Ringo’s All Starr Band)—Mangum told me that when the earth becomes uninhabitable, chances are that the authorities will only allow the beautiful and the popular onto the escaping spaceships. So I guess it will just be us left here with all the other broken, imperfect things. Not the worst outcome, and anyway my guess is that it was the popular and the beautiful that made the planet uninhabitable in the first place, and that without them, everything will be ugly and will last forever.
Travis Nichols is the author of See Me Improving (Copper Canyon Press), Iowa (Letter Machine Editions), and Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (Coffee House Press). He lives in Chicago.
on the wall,
in my body
with the empty
of the wall
that the wall
a lack of
Paul Killebrew is the author of Inspector vs. Evader (Ugly Duckling Presse), and Flowers (Canarium Books). He lives in New Orleans.
Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints? Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.