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Happy birthday, Dusk at Cubist Castle

August 10, 2016

Twenty years ago this month, the Olivia Tremor Control released its debut record, a comically ambitious double album that meanders between airtight pop songs and experimental sound collages for nearly 75 minutes of psychedelic exploration. For a blog about an Elephant 6 book, I don’t write very much about the Elephant 6, but this seems like a worthwhile opportunity to talk about one of my favorite albums of all-time (especially since I won’t really be spoiling anything I’m saving for the book).

Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle sounds phenomenal today but even more so in the context of when it was created. The mid-’90s was a time period characterized (at least in indie music but certainly throughout mainstream culture in plenty of other places) by slacker disillusionment, Gen X jadedness, and reflexive irony and sarcasm, embodied by contemporary icons like Pavement, Radiohead, Nirvana, Beck and plenty of others. Earnestness and positivity were anathema at this time, a clear signal of squareness, but while Dusk is never cloyingly twee, its unapologetic whimsy and complete lack of self-consciousness helped swing the pendulum back to where authenticity has again become a key axis on which art in general is measured. The Olivias were unique among legitimate artists of the time for their radical sincerity.

Dusk at Cubist Castle is also a triumph of analog production. I can’t get too deep into explaining this without cannibalizing some of my favorite passages from the book, but suffice it to say that the Olivia Tremor Control (with plenty of help and guidance from producer Robert Schneider, who also plays on the record) did things on tape that musicians today can’t pull off with a digital setup. It’s important to note here that Dusk wasn’t just recorded on four- and eight-track recorders but mixed on tape, as well. It takes a truly remarkable amount of vision, patience and (when you’re dealing with a band as opposed to an individual artist) unity to pull off something like this.

Today, Neutral Milk Hotel is far and away the flagship band of the Elephant 6, with its magnum opus In the Aeroplane Over the Sea standing as the collective’s most enduring album. When the Olivia Tremor Control reunited most recently, in 2011, they were still playing rock clubs. When Neutral Milk Hotel reunited a couple years later, they were playing massive theaters with ten times the capacity. But in 1997, after both Neutral Milk and the Olivias had each released only their debut albums, most people in the know would have told you that the Olivia Tremor Control was far more likely to emerge as the Elephant 6’s iconic band.

Those people were wrong, but it could have easily gone differently. I go into greater detail about why in the book, but the story of the Olivia Tremor Control is definitely one of unfulfilled potential. It would not have taken more than a few changes of heart and a couple lucky bounces for the Olivias to be regarded in much different terms today.

Neutral Milk Hotel is the reason I got into the Elephant 6 in the first place, but the Olivia Tremor Control is the reason I wanted to write a book about it. Dusk is a record so sprawling and so layered that it sounds different every time you listen to it. It gives you the thrill of listening to it for the first time, every time, but with a guarantee it will be worth it, which no new record can ever offer. Twenty years after its release, Dusk is my favorite album to listen to through a nice pair of headphones. It’s probably the main reason I ever decided it was worth it to own a nice pair of headphones in the first place.


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