A manifold neo-psychedelic gem outside of time and ripe for rediscovery.
As a teenager in the mid-to-late ‘90s, I was uniquely prepared to embrace the Olivia Tremor Control. Thanks to a preteen Beatles obsession, most of my formative musical tastes were ‘60s psychedelic rock. The Olivias—along with the rest of the Elephant 6 collective co-founded by members Bill Doss, Will Cullen Hart and Jeff Mangum—felt perfectly calibrated to my interests: music that picked up where the ’60s bands I loved had left off, but without the baggage of belonging to my parents’ generation.
My dalliance with the group turned out to be brief, however. During college in the mid-2000s, I checked out (and loved) their 1996 debut, Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle, but I never got around to its 1999 sequel, Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One. The reviews I’d read had given me the impression that it didn’t live up to its predecessor; and in any case, the band had broken up, so I moved on to other things. Now, revisiting Black Foliage shortly after the 20th anniversary of its release, I wish I’d have given it a chance sooner.
There is at least one thing my initial judgment got right: Black Foliage is a more opaque and challenging album than its predecessor. It lacks a track as immediately catchy as Cubist Castle’s “Holiday Surprise 1, 2, 3,” or as hard-rocking as “The Opera House”; and where Cubist had quarantined most of its overt experimentations into its 10 consecutive “Green Typewriters” tracks, Foliage distributes them more or less evenly—at least until “The Bark and Below It,” an 11-and-a-half-minute slab merging ambient music with musique concrète. Critics, especially at the time, compared the album to the Beach Boys’ unfinished Smile: an apt comparison both for its sense of fragmentary grandiosity and for its touches of loopy Americana, with singing saws and wheezing accordions played by Julian Koster of the Olivias’ Elephant 6 co-conspirators Neutral Milk Hotel.
For all that Black Foliage is a departure from the group’s earlier work, though, it’s also a natural extension: sometimes—as on “California Demise (3),” a reprisal/reimagining of the songs from their 1994 California Demise EP—in the most literal sense. Like Cubist Castle, Black Foliage sprawls across a total of 27 tracks, ranging from the five-, 10- and 15-second “Combinations” to the aforementioned, monolithic “The Bark and Below It.” Tying it all together, however loosely, are five titular interludes: a recurring melody, played alternately on electric bass, woodwinds, xylophone, accordion, piano and banjo, with whimsical tape loops providing a homegrown approximation of cartoon sound effects. The result is a concept album at once more thematically diffuse and more formally structured than the imaginary film score of Cubist Castle. While the previous album may have namechecked cubism in its title, Black Foliage approximates it in practice: from the abstracted shapes of the cover art to the songs’ prismatic structure.
Amidst all the sonic debris are some of Doss’ and Hart’s prettiest melodies—albeit often obscured by still more sonic debris. The album’s first proper song, “A Peculiar Noise Called ‘Train Director’,” bubbles over with “Yellow Submarine”-like background noise and deliberately distorted vocals before giving way to a woozily atonal trombone solo. Later, “A Sleepy Company” follows a soaring Lennonesque chorus with a stuttering effect like a radio being tuned in and out. “I Have Been Floated” fades from an overdriven keyboard intro to a wistful singalong with the group’s erstwhile co-founder turned Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum. These fleeting snatches of pop majesty stick out so many like shards of broken glass in the album’s dense, multilayered decoupage: not so much alternating songcraft with noise as fully permeating each through the other.
“Volume One” subtitle notwithstanding, Black Foliage ended up being the last album by the Olivia Tremor Control, who folded later in 1999. The group would reunite in 2005 for that prolific rehabilitator of defunct indie acts, the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, and continued to play together into the next decade. In 2011, they released a five-minute suite, “The Game You Play Is in Your Head, Pts. 1, 2, & 3,” as a digital single; any hopes that a new album was forthcoming, however, were dashed by Doss’ sudden death from an aneurysm the following year. Currently, the band’s fate is unclear: Wikipedia, for what it’s worth, lists them as still active from “2009-present,” but the eight-year gap since their last release doesn’t engender much confidence.
Yet if Black Foliage is to be the Olivias’ epitaph, it’s an intriguingly open-ended one. The album closes with “Hilltop Procession (Momentum Gaining),” a rousing slice of campfire acid-folk punctuated with snatches of monologues collected from the band’s fans, who were asked to record themselves describing their dreams and send in the tapes. It fades out on a wordless refrain, the song itself echoing away like a half-remembered dream. Black Foliage is 20 years old this year, but it never really belonged to 1999; it’s just as anachronistic now as it ever was, which means it’s just as relevant, too. For those who missed it like I did, it remains perfectly preserved: a manifold neo-psychedelic gem outside of time and ripe for rediscovery.