By John Lane
It’s hard to believe that a year has passed since the death of Bill Doss, the co-captain of the late-’90s band, The Olivia Tremor Control. He died at age 43 (terribly young), and if you believe the rumor, with a guitar in his hand. Cause of death was not revealed to the public, which was probably for the best as The Olivia Tremor Control (and their cohorts in The Elephant 6 Collective, Athens’ own musical and larger equivalent of the Algonquin Round Table) possessed a certain absurdist magic that would be too sad to spoil with grim reality.
I discovered The Olivia Tremor Control in the late ’90s, when a fellow Beach Boys enthusiast wholeheartedly recommended them to me—the usual drill: “If you like harmonies and . . . ” then you’ll love OTC. Their two albums (which included the then-just-released Black Foliage) accompanied me on a long journey from the center of Iowa to Minneapolis, and it can be safely said that these two albums were game changers in every sense of the word for me.
It was as if I discovered that I had long-lost friends across the country who had been steeped in the same arcane (and popular) things that had influenced my life: Beatles, Beach Boys, surrealism, sound collages, four-track DIY experimentation, childhood reverie mixed with grown-up ponderings, and hooks galore. More remarkable was the fact that these guys, my contemporaries, had unfashionably picked up the ball of melody/tunes/hooks again as the dying embers of Grunge still smoldered in the distance.
Their first album, Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle, was released in 1996. This was a shock for me, in 1999, to know that somebody, three years before (unbeknownst to me), had been musically shaking things up in the same way that Picasso showed up at the (in)famous 1913 Armory Show.
Just the album art, painted by the other co-captain William Cullen Hart, was enough to stop one in their tracks. The homemade, pioneering feel of the art made The Pixies’ iconoclastic cover art look downright conventional. Even the sleeve art of Cubist Castle seemed to indicate some sort of absurdist manifesto and an implicit promise that the gambling record buyer would indeed be rewarded with an entirely new musical experience.
The album didn’t have a one-two punch; it had a one-two-three-four punch, with the songs “Jumping Fences,” “Define a Transparent Dream,” “No Growing (Exegesis),” and “Holiday Surprise 1, 2, 3.” At first blush, one would say “Beatles-influenced” (circa Magical Mystery Tour at times, with the quasi-psychedelic layers of non-instrumental sound), but I dare say that those four songs, which appeared all in a row, are more exciting than, say, the whole of The Beatles’ Let It Be album.
And then the 1913 Armory Show ethos applies here, as the bulk of the album was taken up with a series of sound/song collages (for lack of a better word) titled “Green Typewriters.” The OTC knew they’d lose a bunch of folks after the brilliance of the “catchy” songs, but damned if they didn’t dig their heels in and pick up a patient audience in return. All of the songs and “songs” in quotes (if you will) are the equivalent of dreams and of our awakened minds trying to make sense of those dreams while functioning in daily life. One could even go so far as to say that it’s sometimes a hassle trying to figure out what the subconscious TV-mind has wrought the night before, but the OTC acts as a serene guide, conveying the message that basically everything works out all right in the end, regardless.
Their second and last full studio album was Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One, and I regard this album as the more challenging (and fulfilling) big brother of the two records. This time, the listener is metaphorically walking through the black foliage, peppered with color; it’s a musical forest/wonderland of surrealistic sound/music collages, wherein there’s a clearing every few yards with a hooky song, such as “Hideway” or “Grass Cannons.”
At this juncture, I have to say that, even though I used this word before, the word psychedelic is too limiting here, for this music isn’t beads/incense/flower-children/staring-at-the-vibrating-walls hokum. There’s a gentle demand—yes, oxymoronic—on the listener, much in the way that Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is compelled to keep moving forward and deal with a variety of benevolent or creepy or amusing characters along the way. I like my albums epic and messy at times, and “messy” doesn’t necessarily mean “not well thought out.” In this case, it just means “honest.” Honestly weird. Electric and acoustic guitars, glockenspiel, drums—all fairly conventional instruments—mutate into something else, such that you can’t believe these are the same common tools that other musicians use.
So, a year on, Bill Doss is a warm memory and a footnote in the overarching musical book that smiles more favorably on the U2s and Stings of the world. But I like to think that Doss wouldn’t mind either way, for he sang, “I have an ideal/and I’m gonna reach for it.” He got there, I believe, and it had nothing to do with anything else going on. Lesson learned and being painstakingly applied every day in this waking life. Thank you, Bill.