The Olivia Tremor Control

Review: King Tuff – Black Moon Spell

King Tuff wrote the best T. Rex song you’ve heard in decades with “Black Moon Spell”, the title track off of their recent album, and for five minutes the listener is transported back to the early-70’s and the heyday of glam rock.  It was one of the best singles of 2014, and while the rest of Black Moon Spell doesn’t quite reach the heights of its opener, the record still has its charms.  Kyle Thomas (aka King Tuff himself) shows a knack for writing fun and infectious melodies that are quick and to the point, and knocks out dozens of memorable fuzzed-out guitar lines that will rattle around in your mind long after the record has finished playing.

I first heard King Tuff when they opened for Wavves on their Afraid of Heights tour, and one can easily see how those two groups could find common ground, as they share an irreverent attitude and a commitment to stoned-out rock.  King Tuff ingratiated themselves with the crowd that night with displays of both their humor and musicianship, and I made a note to keep an eye on them for the future.  “Black Moon Spell” made the effort worthwhile, as I quickly fell into the spell of its captivating groove, with its memorably hypnotic riff that brilliantly plays around the contours of its chord progression.  It may not be high art, but goddammit does it ever rock, and most of the album follows that template.

Most will point to the obvious inspirations of Diamond Dogs-era Bowie and the aforementioned T. Rex, but it is the unexpected influence of another generation that helps make Black Moon Spell sound fresh enough for modern audiences, that of mid-90’s indie rock.  King Tuff filters the touchstones of glam-rock through the lens of the Elephant 6 sound, namely the psychedelic pop experimentation of The Apples In Stereo and the Olivia Tremor Control.  The bright and sunny attitude that is prevalent throughout the album immediately recalls Robert Schneider and his group, while elements as diverse as the lo-fi “I Love You Ugly” and the quick sound collage from the mesmerizing ballad “Staircase of Diamonds” bring to mind memories of the latter band, with King Tuff’s vocals emphasizing the melodic sides of both bands.

King Tuff’s approach of glam-via-the-garage makes helps make Black Moon Spell an intriguing and often-exciting album, but it does drag a bit in spots, even with most songs racing by at around two minutes apiece.  The album sags a bit toward the end, which is why this recommendation is being published months after its initial release; though many of the songs are not intended to leave much of a lasting impression, a lot of the songs after the mid-way point end up being rather disposable and probably should have been excised.  However, even these tracks grow on you after multiple listens, so even this minor caveat should not discourage you from throwing on some face paint rocking some platform shoes with King Tuff, at least for forty minutes or so.

Feats of Strength: Alvvays

Unlike a lot of listeners, lyrics have usually been at most a secondary concern for me.  That’s not to say that lyrics are completely irrelevant or unimportant, but that they are normally rather low on my priorities list when assessing the merits of a particular song or evaluating the work of an artist.  It’s only after the first few listens that I pay attention to the lyrics; melody, rhythm, instrumentation, and interaction between all the parts are all more pressing concerns in my mind.  If a band succeeds with those elements, I tend to view good lyrics as a bonus.  It also helps to have really low expectations for lyrics in general–there’s way too much information to convey in a restricted manner, so if everything doesn’t work out perfectly on the page, it’s probably best to let it slide.

Despite this predisposition, sometimes lyrics can make an immediate impression even on the first listen.  It’s not a big deal if a chorus gets stuck in my head or that I remember an opening line, but the more noteworthy cases are when it’s a throwaway lyric in a middle verse that catches my attention.  Probably the best personal example I can think of is the line “My old portrait heads of Gertrude Stein” from the Olivia Tremor Control’s “Define A Transparent Dream”–it’s a phrase that stuck out immediately the first time I heard it, and after numerous subsequent listens to Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle I was still able to pick out and enjoy that particular lyric, even without full knowledge of its context.  It was a long time before I even knew the name of the song or where it appeared on the album, but sure enough every single time the song played I could jump in and sing along at that moment.

This phenomenon occurred when I listen to the self-titled debut from Alvvays, and something that was briefly mentioned in our review.  In an otherwise rather weak year for newcomers, Alvvays stood out from most with its bouncy melodies and sun-soaked atmosphere, with sugar-sweet hooks that never dipped into saccharine territory.  The album created a compelling marriage between the retro-revival of 60’s garage pop with the gorgeous arpeggiated guitar melodies of contemporaries like Beach House, and was successful in conveying a soothing sense of calm throughout.

But within the general good vibes, there was one lyric that poked through, and it successfully stuck in my mind precisely because of the way it was set up by the previous songs.  The album begins with the playful “Adult Diversion” before smoothly transitioning to the soaring “Archie, Marry Me”, which sets the mood for the rest of the album.  “Ones Who Love You” seems to follow in much the same manner, delivering a slight variation of the breezy summer music that we previously heard.  Then the third verse comes, and it shocks you with the final line “You can’t feel your fucking face.”  This sudden use of profanity from out of nowhere immediately makes the listener reconsider the meaning of the rest of the song, inspiring wonder as to what had been hidden under the surface this whole time.

The rest of the album more or less follows the template of the first two songs, with their wistful nostalgic tones, which makes the “you can’t feel your fucking face” lyric stick out even more and gives the line even more power.  It’s strange to praise a writer merely for using the f-word, but this is proof that when it is strategically deployed that it can have a powerful effect on the listener.  It knocks listeners out of their comfort zones and forces them to reassess their take on the material, even if this wasn’t the intention of the band.

That said, even after going back and searching for meaning in the lyrics of “Ones Who Love You,” I have no idea what the song is about, but rest assured every time I hear it I’ll be singing along with that line.

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.