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Concert Review: The Olivia Tremor Control at the Fun-O-Mat, 8-8-93, Ruston, Louisiana

August 19, 2010

I’ve got some interviews lined up for this afternoon, but I’m spending my morning listening to a recording Will Hart just gave me. It’s from a cassette recording of the first ever Olivia Tremor Control show,* from August of 1993 at the Fun-O-Mat, a combination bar/music venue/launderette in Ruston. The band lineup at the time is Will, Bill Doss, and Jeff Mangum, and Will Westbrook joins for a few songs at the end. I would be a month shy of my seventh birthday at the time of this concert, but the nascent E6ers were 22 and 23.

Prior to this show, the band was known as Synthetic Flying Machine (a name familiar to anyone who’s listened to the Neutral Milk Hotel song “King of Carrot Flowers pt. 3″**), but decided to change the name because a) it was too obvious a drug reference and b) it was too similar to James Taylor’s band the Original Flying Machine. Soon after the show, Jeff would move to the west coast and get his Neutral Milk Hotel project going as a solo endeavor, and Will and Bill would go back to Athens (having spent a few months there earlier) and find Kelly Noonan to replace Jeff as the Olivia Tremor Control’s drummer until eventually settling on the classic lineup of Will and Bill on guitar, Eric Harris on drums, Pete Erchick on keys and John Fernandes on clarinet, violin, bass and whatever else he can get his hands on.

But while this is a very early incarnation of a band I would (much) later come to adore, I recognize almost all of the songs. Some, like “Opera House” and “Define a Transparent Dream” would appear on later Olivia records. “Shaving Spiders” is on the Singles and Beyond record of b-sides and rarities the band put out a few years ago, and the songs “Monsters” and “Do You Know the Time?” were reconstituted for the Once Upon a Time record they put out with Japanese pop singer Kahimi Karie. I know “Umbrella” from some other bootlegs I’ve heard and “Neon Globe” because Circulatory System has played it a few times and whatever you want to call the lineup at the Holiday Surprise tour a few years ago played it, too. Of the 14 actual songs in the roughly 40 minute set, I’ve heard 10 of them before, and a couple of the others (one called “The Pressure” and another that isn’t really a song but rather Will asking the audience if they want some “avant-garde-ness” followed by a about 20 seconds of cacophony) are things Will has told me about before.

What’s peculiar about this set — at least to me, as someone who has only heard these songs in the widely available formats I’ve heard them in — is that Jeff sings lead on every song. It’s not the life-altering vocal performance he could deliver a few years later as Neutral Milk Hotel hit its stride, though it should be mentioned he’s playing drums Mo Tucker-style at the same time. Still, the hallmarks of his legendary voice — the elongated notes, the superhuman volume, the severity he puts behind every word — are all there, and it’s obvious he’s got skills. The two girls who are presumably recording the show (and adding some commentary throughout) were certainly impressed.

There’s not much continuity throughout the Olivia Tremor Control’s years as a band, but they’d eventually gain a reputation for being pretty quirky, handing out grapefruit at one show, playing a sitar drone for 40 minutes at another, and often making use of Stuck On 10, a boombox whose volume was stuck at the maximum volume that they’d use to play The Sounds of Purple Martins. In that regard, this show is quite different. There are flourishes of the idiosyncrasies that would define the band down the road, but mostly it’s a set of garage-y, straightforward rockers. And I mean that in the best way possible: while it would a stretch to call these songs unconventional, they’re still pretty great. Stripped of (most of) their aesthetic deviance, the Olivia Tremor Control’s songs still stand up, even 17 years later.

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*A girl’s voice at the beginning of the cassette introduces the band as “Ophelia Tremor Control,” but she also spends the next minute complaining of being hungover and explaining that “cherry limeade cures all ills.”

**The E6 guys were fond of including past band names in lyrics or drawing future band names from their lyrics. The OTC song “Define a Transparent Dream” includes the lyric “The Always Red Society comes to visit me,” and Will would name his solo recording project The Always Red Society. The name “Neutral Milk Hotel” came from a song Will wrote, and the name “The Olivia Tremor Control” was the name of a song Jeff wrote (later renamed “Biscuit”).

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