Live: Olivia Tremor Control Keep Hope Alive


Olivia Tremor Control w/the Music Tapes
(le) poisson rouge
Wednesday, September 21

Better than: Poring over photos from May 1997 on Flickr.

In the ’90s—that increasingly storied decade that everyone under 30 is probably sick of hearing about the way I was tired of listening to yarns about the ’60s and ’70s back then—the Elephant 6 Collective was, by the pre-blog standards of indie, a big deal. The loosely knit group of bands, which were somewhat imprecisely filed as a single entity under the “psych-pop” umbrella and counted among their ranks titans of indie like Neutral Milk Hotel and the Apples in Stereo, played on each others’ albums and toured together and had breathless trend pieces written about them.

The third flagship band of the group was the Olivia Tremor Control, a group of guys from Athens who used feedback and found instruments and on-a-budget studio wizardry and gorgeously crafted melodies to create two fantastic albums (1996’s Dusk At Cubist Castle and 1999’s Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One) and a series of sonic side experiments (that, it should be said, were most successful when shot through with those hooky attributes). Their songs unspooled tales of having dreams both big and little, of breaking through the clutter with “themes of liberation,” of spending afternoons lazing about outside with not much else to do except squint at the people and buildings across the way while sorting out the remnants of the night before—heady and idealistic, full of hope for the future. These messages were delivered with winsome melodies and vocal harmonies straight out of the powerpop playbook, although they were all coated in enough noise—layers of feedback, tape loops of people talking about their dreams, the occasional singing saw—to force listeners to actually listen, to dig through the sonics in order to see the big picture. And there was a fearless “let’s put on a show and do this” charge that defined their very best performances.

But time passes and experiences accrue, some of which (too many of which?) can dim that youthful optimism, if not blot it out entirely. (Especially in 2011, when the din of online commentary and the just plain flat-out horrifically lousy goings-on all over the place can make the world seem much crueler, much more ready to cut its losses on anyone who wants to take a second to appreciate a dream or a quieter moment.) The Olivias’ members were not immune, either; in an interview with NPR Will Cullen Hart, one of the band’s primary songwriters and the man responsible for the dreamy paintings on his band’s album covers, talked about his multiple sclerosis diagnosis and heavy drinking that marked the years of the band’s hiatus.

That said, we’re talking about a band that used the mantra “there is no growing in knowing where you’re going” as the centerpiece for one of its most plainly pretty songs (“No Growing (Exegesis)”). And the accompaniment for the aforementioned interview, “The Game You Play Is In Your Head, Parts 1, 2, And 3,” was the band’s first new song in 10 years, and instead of being an inscrutable “experimental” track like some of the one-offs they released right before their hiatus it’s a poppy delight, a three-jam 7-inch scrunched into about six minutes. Last night it came about midway through the band’s set, and unlike some shows where new material can stop a crowd cold it inspired the same joie de vivre as the old stuff, causing people to keep dancing and singing and swaying along with their arms stretched out.

That joy was kickstarted the moment the pitch-bent feedback opening the bouncy Black Foliage track “A Peculiar Noise Called ‘Train Director'” kicked off the set, and it lingered long after guitarist/vocalist Bill Doss’ outpouring of gratitude at the show’s end. In between, the crowd sang along, smiled, jumped, bounced, and cast off the worries that plagued their individual existences outside of (le) poisson rouge’s subterranean room as the band tore into its back catalog.

The warm reception for “Game,” though, made me wonder if perhaps in its most useful form nostalgia can actually be a manifestation of optimism, a wish to return to a time rife with the possibility of even the most sublime moments being improved with the right song. Singing along with the Olivias’ wide-eyed lyrics, and retracing the outlines of hope that they left imprinted on my brain all those years ago, didn’t so much bring me back to my younger days as it made me remember the simple, small wonders I felt with what seems now to be much less effort. The key, I daresay, isn’t to simply look backward and sigh while wishing that events that have already passed could somehow Xerox themselves onto next week’s calendar, but to take those more naïve ideals from the past and apply them to the coming days—even if the end result isn’t completely mapped from the outset.

Critical bias: As anyone who’s been within shouting distance of me in the past couple of weeks knows, the Olivias were the first band I ever crossed state lines to see. (I did it twice in a week, three times in a six-month span. Oh, 1997.) If I wasn’t otherwise occupied tomorrow night I’d probably be plotting my trip to Philadelphia right now.

Overheard: “People were swaying!”

Random notebook dump: Can someone please reissue the Secret Square album, a.k.a. the most underrated Elephant 6 release, sometime soon? Thanks.

Set list:
A Peculiar Noise Called “Train Director”
I’m Not Feeling Human
Memories Of Jacqueline 1906/The Giant Day (Dusk)
Define A Transparent Dream
A Place We Have Been To
The Game You Play Is In Your Head, Parts 1, 2, 3
Jumping Fences
Grass Canons
California Demise
Green Typewriters (suite)
Paranormal Echoes
I Have Been Floated
No Growing (Exegesis)
A Sleepy Company
The Sylvan Screen

Holiday Surprise 1, 2, 3
The Opera House