Feats of Strength: The Olivia Tremor Control

Now that summer has officially arrived, I’ve been in the mood for some bright and happy music, driving me to root through my collection for something that could be considered along the lines of the “aural equivalent to sunshine”.  One of the first songs that comes to my mind that fits this exacting criteria is “Hideway” from The Olivia Tremor Control.  And with the upcoming release from the side project Circulatory System, now is the perfect time to explore their style in greater detail.  Like many of their Elephant 6 compatriots, The Olivia Tremor Control were experts mining all the possibilities of lo-fi production, proving that a limited recording budget shouldn’t limit a band’s ambition and scope.  However, the band was in a class of its own in creating a full symphonic sound from a bare-bones orchestra.

On the surface, “Hideway” is a really uplifting and pleasant song, filled with tons of catchy hooks and memorable melodies (for example, I find myself singing those delightful horn parts days later).  The band is really able to sell what in less delicate hands could be a corny message; “I know some kind of rain will fall, but it can’t rain everyday” would fit perfectly on a motivational poster, but the band is able to overcome any possible cynical response due to their sincere conviction that comes through in their singing.  Even the darker imagery in some of the other lines take on a more positive glow, due to the overall message of triumph over adversity.  So when I say “on the surface”, I’m not claiming there’s a subtle, sinister current lurking beneath in the subtext; instead, I’m referring to the many layers of the music itself.

It’s on this track that you can really feel the influence of The Beach Boys on the band’s sound, specifically the careful orchestration of songs like “Good Vibrations”.  On the first few listens, you pick up on the easy-going guitar, the perfectly accented horn lines, and the gorgeous vocal harmonies.  With additional listens though, you can find dozens of layers of instrumental tracks.  There are multiple guitar, keyboard, glockenspiel, horn, and percussion tracks filtering in and out, and the band makes perfect use of the stereo setup by placing specific lines in different speakers.  On one listen, you may notice that in the chorus, there’s a backing guitar line that plays a quickly-repeating-single-note figure that provides a slight push to the beat, in contrast to the easygoing verses before.  On another, you may notice that in the bridge there’s two separate keyboard parts, one running up and down an arpeggiated scale figure, and the other providing short staccato bursts.  Listen again, and you’ll notice wood percussion and bells that mirror melody lines from the vocals and horns.

Each listen brings out dozens of new details, but that alone isn’t what’s commendable about the music.  It’s the fact that at no point does the abundance of instruments and melodies feel overbearing in any way.  At its heart, there is still a great summer song that’s appreciable even on a superficial level, and diving deeper into the nooks and crannies of the music doesn’t overwhelm this basic fact.  Even when identifying specific trees, you never feel as if you’re losing sight of the forest.

The I had the privilege of seeing the band live during its short reunion tour, and it gave me a new-found appreciation of the collaborative nature of the group.  While the group is driven by its two leads Bill Doss and Will Hart, you could sense the joy of each other musician who would join in and play their small part, knowing that while it may seem minor from a distance, each part was a key component to the song.  This goes to the other subtle strength of the song, that the band was able to convey the same intricacy and detail that would be found in a 100 piece orchestra with just a few friends joining along on whatever instruments they found handy.  It’s this quality that made The Olivia Tremor Control one of the most significant bands of the 90’s, and how their music still seems fresh today.

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