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Jeff Mangum Curated ATP, Minehead (March 9-11, 2012)

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Jeff Mangum Curated ATP, Minehead (March 9-11, 2012)

Posted on 15 March 2012 by Joe

Neonfiller’s last jaunt to a three day All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival, the holiday camp based event with a guest curator, was two years ago.

The curator that time was Pavement and the event sold out swiftly. In marked contrast latest curator Elephant 6 collective founding member and Neutral Milk Hotel man Jeff Mangum has struggled to attract similar crowds, with the ATP website rather forlornly continuing to advertise tickets for sale right up until the event.

The event has also attracted a small amount of controversy for those that did buy tickets, after ATP postponed it from its original December date without any explanation. For some this move has left a bitter taste. Sure, the rescheduled line up has some added crowd pleasers such as Magnetic Fields, but gone are The Mountain Goats, as well as Fleet Foxes, Superchunk and Panda Bear (strangely all mammal based acts). Also for some, transport costs cannot be refunded and a small minority couldn’t make the new dates.

Despite these problems,  a pretty decent line up has been left and one that certainly addresses the lack of variety of Pavement’s guitar rock focused event.

In terms of musical diversity for me it was the best ATP three day event I’d attended, but in terms of organisation it was far from slick, particularly on the Sunday when scheduling problems and ATP’s decision to forego the main pavilion stage for the event left many exasperated.

Friday

With the Pavilion stage gone the Centre Stage becomes the focal point, with the cowboy themed pub Crazy Horse and nightclub Reds taking smaller stage duties.

It’s a change that works well in respect of creating a more intimate live experience, but falls down flat when the bulk of the 4,000 attendees want to see an act. For the likes of Mangum himself long queues formed and there were a minority who were left seething after missing both his sets, but more of that later.

Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise were first up in the Centre stage, with its sticky carpets under foot and smell of hot dogs gently congealing on their stand by the loos. Their set turned out to be one of the highlights of the event, with the orchestra comprising around a dozen of the Elephant 6 Collective’s most notable names including Olivia Tremor Control’s Will Cullen Hart, and John Fernandez, Julian Koster of The Music Tapes and Neutral Milk Hotel, The Gerbils’ Scott Spillane and Andrew Reiger of Elf Power.

Hearing Reiger sing the Elf Power tracks such as Spiral Stairs was one of many highlights for me. Another highlight was the tracks Spillane took the lead on, including the Gerbils’ Glue. This large, beaded man leading the collective from the stage for a set finale into the crowd, complete with equally large bright white sousaphone, was another sight I’ll never forget.

Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise

This movement into the crowd also served to engage the acts with the audience, a key feature of these curated events. It was an ethos Spillane and Koster took to their heart throughout the weekend, cropping up in the audience and on stage with the acts frequently. With Mangum staying behind the scenes they become the public faces of Elephant 6, a task they excelled at.

The only down point was that all did not seem right with Olivia Tremor Control man Will Cullen Hart, who stood at the side nervously banging a tambourine and his guitar with a drum stick, but once again, more of that later.

Over to Crazy Horse next to be greeted by another hot dog stand and its still unpleasant aroma and a living legend of English eccentricity Robyn Hitchcock, here playing his classic 1984 album I Often Dream of Trains. For those unaware of the album its typical Hitchcock full of whimsy and childlike thoughts but with a dark underbelly as he takes the listener across London suburbs, old tram lines, psychological theory, loneliness and growing old. Each track in the set, where he was accompanied by Terry Edwards, Tim Keegan and backing vocals from female duo Something Beginning with L, was performed perfectly, with warmth and humour. With his banter during the first half  in French, the second back to ‘his normal voice,’ his eccentricity credentials remain strong.

Back to the Centre Stage a little before Jeff Mangum was due on stage proved a shrewd move. After we arrived we hear later that a long queue had appeared and many couldn’t even get in. ATP did their best, bless. They provided those in the queue, who must have been seething with priority wristbands to ensure they were first in for his second set on the Sunday evening.

Those that missed out look away now. He was freakin’ awesome. Armed with his powerful distinct voice, an acoustic guitar, and the occasional accompaniment from an Elephant 6 collective he put in a festival rousing set focused around Neutral Milk Hotel’s classic album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. The packed Centre stage crowd was transfixed as Two Headed Boy, King of Carrot Flowers Part I and others rattled by. My highlights due to Mangum’s sheer intensity were Oh Comely, King of Carrot Flowers Part 2-3 and Two Headed Boy Part 2. Powerful stuff from the heart.

His holiness has spoken

We have no pictures. Lord Jeff of Mangum requests none are taken. That’s fair enough, its nice to see a gig without phones waving madly everywhere and made it a better experience. My only gripe was the heavy wording of the posters; a little harsh when the good-natured crowd would have complied anyway and would happily stopped their crappy filming if asked.

Young Marble Giants, back over at Crazy Horse, proved a little disappointing. It wasn’t their fault really. They are cursed by producing one of the most intimate and simple albums of the last half a century with their 1979 album Colassal Youth.  Its not a get up and go album and while warm and beautiful on my headphones while dog walking, its tracks just don’t have the same feel on stage. I still love the album and their performance was still friendly and engaging.

Mark E Smith, looking like the bastard grandfather of Senator Palpatine and Alex Higgins,  was in no mood to play second fiddle to Mangum over at the Centre Stage and conducted The Fall through one of the best performances I’ve seen by this act over the years. I had feared the worst as his band of drones, including his wife Elani on keyboards, has been with him for a few years now and he usually tires of them after a while.

The Fall

The middle aged Fall fans went nuts for it, with Mark E Smith smirking down at the unfortunate crowd surfers helped over the barrier by security like an evil  mill owner watching his workers collapse from exhaustion. Dominated by recent albums highlights included Theme from Sparta FC and Imperial Wax Solvent’s I’ve been duped, which is sung by Elani.

I’d been looking forward to Thurston Moore. His Beck produced latest album Demolished Thoughts beautifully mixed his trademark melodies with low key acoustic guitar and a string section. Tonight, though, he was in a funny old mood, a little grouchy and without Beck to call a halt to his guitar noodling Moore was left to essentially go off on one too many times. The crowd thinned noticeably during his self indulgent performance, in which tracks from his 1995 solo album Psychic Hearts not his recent album proved among rare high points, especially the title track and Patti Smith Math Scratch.

Thurzzzzton Moore

The first day has been a hectic one with most of my favourites coming at me thick and fast. If it was any other act I’d have gone to bed by the time Thurston Moore had finished shortly after 1am but Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are no ordinary act. I first saw them at the first ATP style event, Belle and Sebastian’s Bowlie Weekender in 1999 at Camber Sands so I was keen to see if they’d changed.

They hadn’t, still relentless, still belting it out like the dirty rock and roll outfit they always were. Spencer in tight PVC trousers and occasional Theremin flourish shamed the largely middle agers that remained with their energy. High points included live standards 2kindsalove and Bell bottoms, with its intro sandwiched in among the many cries of “bluuuuzz exploshion.” Marvellous, even if I had to have a little sit down as the clock approached 2am.

Saturday

Ever wanted to stand up for an a hour and a half watching a Russian film, seemingly about goat farming, while two people occasionally play Eastern European music? Well, nor did most of those that witnessed Hawk and a Hacksaw perform along to Russian film maker Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in Crazy Horse early in the afternoon.

The venue was constantly packed, but few seem to stay for more than 15 minutes, before their legs started aching. This was the first of many scheduling blunders. There’s a reason films are shown in cinemas with seats and not cowboy themed pubs, which I hope ATP learn from.

Boredoms

The afternoon in the Centre Stage was dominated by Boredoms the Japanese experimental drumming collective, who at times have had as many as 88 drummers. This time round their leader, called Eye, was surrounded by just the five drummers, a large number of guitarists and a couple of totem poles of welded together electric guitars, which he hit with what looked like an old curtain pole.

It was amazing; with the drumming becoming hypnotic and taking the packed crowd to church to melt their faces. The entire hour and half set was too much for me, my brain was starting to evaporate, but I have to admit they are one mother of a band.

As the afternoon was drawing to a close what proved to be my favourite segment of the weekend was starting at Centre stage, with Elephant 6’s most accessible, mainstream act The Apples in Stereo, followed by harpist Joanna Newsom, then Low, who produced one of my albums of 2011 C’mon.

The Apples in Stereo more than delivered to a crowd that was thinned of the middle aged punks and replaced with some bookish men but mostly women. These are the Apples demographic, something not lost on Robert Schneider as he introduces the final two songs Dance Floor, from 2010’s Travellers in Space and Time, and Ruby as “the first is about physics, the second about a girl.” New Magnetic Wonder’s tracks dominated a set that still managed to span their entire career. I challenge anyone to hear Travellers in Space and Time’s Dignified Dignitaries and not at least tap toes and nod a waifish head.

Apples in Stereo

Joanna Newsom is one hell of a performer, with her cat-like, haunting voice, compelling lyrics, stunning harp playing and occasional piano for the more Tori Amos like numbers.  A spell binding hour with 2010’s Have One on Me almost, just almost bringing a tear to this hardened music reviewers eye.

Low ended up being and remaining my highpoint. Intense doesn’t begin to describe the way lead singer and guitarist Alan Sparhawk approaches a live set. The slow, precise and very American sounding tracks from C’mon proved the best, but I can’t think of a single track that didn’t leave me transfixed, and its worth noting that Sparhawk was one of the rare artists I heard to even mention the outside world, with his lament on the situation in Syria.

One of his few smiles came as he invited the crowd to go jogging with him the next day. Given the way he approaches performing those that attended were in for an intense experience.

Low

Penultimate band for me were hardcore punk veterans Scratch Acid. Formed in 1980s Austin they released only an album and a couple EPs before disbanding. Singer David Yow and guitarist David Wm. Sims are better known for forming cult band The Jesus Lizard. Wm. Sims and drummer Rey Washam also joined Steve Albini’s Rapeman briefly, giving them further legend status. Yow joked that they had been called old men at the airport.

As if to poke two fingers at those who look at their age before enthusiasm he launched into one almighty set of crowd surfing. It was the most energetic show of the night and special praise must go to Headline Security staff for their good natured approach to the granddads on stage and the audience whizzing past their heads. Yow singing (or rather screaming) lovingly into the ear of one smirking but highly professional security guy was another image I’ll never forget. Not bad for a bunch of old geezers.

Last band of the night for me only lasted a song. I decided to pop over to Reds where ATP were curating proceedings. While Mangum has assembled a truly eclectic bunch he had failed to include many young acts. This is where ATP could have stepped in to showcase some new, young talent. Sadly with Demdike Stare they provided neither youth nor talent. Essentially its two blokes on DJ decks making sounds like a vacuum cleaner while crappy video images hurtle by. What a mess and what a waste of a slot where a young talented band could have played.

Sunday

American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), improbably but effectively joined by Julian Koster on saw, kicked off the day at Crazy Horse, performing a few modern classical pieces as a string quartet. The highpoint was Gavin Bryar’s moving Jesus Blood Bever Failed Me Yet where the strings build up around a loop of a homeless old man’s moving, crazy words of hope and despair. I never thought I’d spend my time in a cowboy themed pub listening to classical music for an hour but I’m so glad I did. This was exactly what Mangum’s ATP was about, broadening the musical palette. A fine and different addition to the bill.

American Contemporary Music Ensemble

Sadly during the rest of Sunday afternoon time was spent either swimming, eating, twiddling thumbs and wondering what qualifications the  ATP schedulers had. For some reason they had the bright idea of providing no musical alternatives to a second mind melting set by Boredoms all afternoon. Sure there was a pub quiz and some talks in the cinema, but like many there I came to see music and they could have provided at least one alternative act for those who didn’t want their mind melted twice in one weekend.

It wasn’t until 4.30 that another band got to the stage, in the form of North Carolina indie folk outfit Lost in the Trees. Quite a queue of people had formed for their Crazy Horse set, more than their light and average sound would ordinarily have got. While a little boring, at least they were a band, so I was thankful for small mercies.

Next up over at Reds was another scheduling error, one that is admitted by ATP with hindsight. While the Magic Band were on at Centre Stage some bright spark at ATP decided to put legendary Elephant  6 outfit Olivia Tremor Control on at the smaller Reds stage. We got there early but it soon became packed and many outside were unable to get in throughout their set.

Here’s what Jamie Summers at ATP PR headquarters had to say:

“As you saw with the Olivia Tremor Control show they had a bit of a queue when The Magic Band were playing upstairs to a less full venue – but The Magic Band can sell out venues more than twice the size of the OTC in London so this stuff is very hard to predict but we think on the whole we get it right.”

I may be unfair, but I think they should have realised that for an audience of Mangum and Elephant 6 fans they are of course going to want to see OTC rather than the Magic Band, no hindsight needed with that one.

Ironically though those unable to get in didn’t miss out. Olivia Tremor Control were quite frankly a mess. Ok, so some might argue that’s the point of this experimental outfit. I concede they are little loose on record, but for me the joy of an album such as Dusk at Cubist Castle is the controlled Bealtes-esque pop songs that emerge from the bleeps and whirrs. Live though they were just uncoordinated. Part of the issue was Will Cullen Hart, who a few years back was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

He was clearly not happy with how it was going, getting more nervous and agitated as the songs progressed. I felt for the guy, especially as he left the stage at one point unannounced leaving the rest of the band to shrug and give each other panicked and confused looks. I got the impression it took all his bravery to carry on and we wish him all the best for the undoubted tough times ahead.

Versus

Versus, the 1990s indie rock trio who reformed recently, followed the chaos of Olivia Tremor Control at Reds with a punchy, well-worked set that showed why they are revered by so many bands today. I’ll certainly be looking out for their 2010 album On the Ones and Threes, which featured heavily during their entertaining set.

Magnetic Fields have gone back to synths for their latest album Love at the Bottom of the Sea, but leave them at home when touring. Over at the Centre Stage they instead opted for traditional acoustic instruments, a move that gives a different and in some cases improved take on their latest tracks such as I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies.

Band leader Stephin Merritt, who was dressed more for a day out at the allotment, in coat, scarf and hat than an hour’s set under hot lights, was on good form tonight, even putting his own unique stamp on the type of stage craft Scratch Acid excel at by hurling a tea bag into the audience.

Highpoints included Plant White Roses, from Merritt’s 2011 Obscurities release and No One Will Ever Love You from the band’s never to be bettered 69 Love Songs.

There’s always tough decisions to be made at festivals and while the whimsy of Magnetic Fields was enjoyable I was keen to see Tall Firs as well, so ducked out half way through their set to head over to Crazy Horse.

Tall Firs

Turned out to be a great move with the Tall Firs duo of Dave Mies and Aaron Mullan putting the in the performance I’d hoped to see Thurston Moore do. Their songs sound a little Sonic Youth like, unsurprisingly given they were once on Moore’s Escstatic Peace! label before moving to ATP recently. Just Mies and Mullan and distortion free electric guitars they come across as something like a hungover Kings of Convenience as they showcased tracks from their latest album Out of It and Into It.

I’d hoped to end the festival watching Mangum’s second set. I was left disappointed, but not as much as those that missed him twice. Those with priority wristbands, handed out to those stuck in the queue the first time around, were allowed in first, which was nice, but there was clearly a contingent who hadn’t got these wristbands and once again a queue of people missed out. Solutions could have been to have the pavilion stage available, or at very least to have another act on at the same time over at Crazy Horse. Sadly though with just DJs or the cinema for an alternative I decided against spending my final few hours at the festival queuing and so ended my festival.

The front of the queue half way through Mangum's Sunday set

Here’s how ATP’s PR man Jamie explains the Sunday queuing situation to us:

Everybody who was in the queue by the time the doors opened got in, it was only people who arrived and joined the back of it 5 mins or so before he started playing who may have missed out, and very few at that. Basically everyone who really wanted to see Jeff saw him, and many did twice. If it had been a big problem I’d have been expecting angry people at the production office and lots of angry emails, but the feedback as a whole has been overwhelmingly positive.

The problem is that on twitter there was plenty of criticism and exasperation. @roadtojoie (Alie Brett) for example who said at 11.20pm, a good 50 minutes after Mangum was due on, “Queue for Jeff Mangum has defeated me.” Another was @mikewinship who simply said “Sunday night queues = vibe killer.”

Also Jamie’s response is contradictory; he admits those who joined the queue before he started playing missed out yet says “basically, everyone who really wanted to see Jeff saw him, and many did twice.”

It was a disappointing end to what was on the whole a good festival. I loved staying with friends in a chalet,  watching exciting and unusual bands  including some of my favourite acts. But for me to go to ATP again I’m going to need far more assurances that a) the event will not be postponed b) I’ll not spend time queuing in vain to see the main attraction. I hope ATP learns some lessons from Sunday’s mistakes in particular.

by Joe Lepper

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Top 100 Albums (60-51)

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Top 100 Albums (60-51)

Posted on 29 March 2011 by Joe

We are approaching the half way point  as we compile our Top 100 indie and alternative albums of all time. There are some albums here you will have seen on similar lists before. But we’ve also opted for some obscurities with the aim of highlighting some different music for you to seek out.

We have been releasing this list ten at a time every Friday. We hope you enjoy this fourth instalment. Here’s our previous instalments ( 70-61 , 80 – 7190 -81 , 100-91).  See you next week for 50-41.

Also, for  more great albums visit our  Classic Albums section

60.Modest mouse  – Good news for people who love bad news

Modest Mouse were already one of the more successful US alternative acts around during the early 2000s. With the release of this 2004 album their popularity went through the roof. Thanks to singles like ‘Float On’ and ‘Ocean Breathes Salty’ the album became Platinum selling and gave the band a Grammy nomination. While achieving mainstream success the album also retained the band’s edge and showcases a range of styles to appease the casual listener and hardcore Modest Mouse fan alike. The slow banjo strum of ‘Berkowski’, the beautiful ‘Blame it on the Tetons’ and the frenetic ‘Satin in a Coffin’  are removed enough from the mass appeal of  the killer riff of ‘Float On’ to earn this a justified place in our Top 100 list.

59. Apples in Stereo – The Discovery of a World Inside The Moone

Robert Schneider’s The Apples In Stereo are the best place to start when listening to the Elephant 6 and The Discovery Of A World Inside The Moone is their finest hour. From horn blasting opener ‘Go!’ to the acoustic whimsy of ‘The Afternoon’ it never puts a foot wrong. The album manages to be a great retro homage without ever falling into the trap of being a pointless exercise in nostalgia. Vocal harmony, hand claps and a genius command of melody runs throughout the album. Classic pop, psyche, garage and even white funk (‘The Bird That You Can’t See’) make for a really enjoyable set.

58. Dag Nasty  – Can I Say

Along with Fugazi  Dag Nasty emerged form the ashes of DC punk outfit Minor Threat. While Minor Threat’s lead singer Ian Mackaye took a more experimental approach to music with Fugazi, Dag Nasty took a simpler but no less effective route. While sticking to short songs about everyday  teenage frustrations, of friendships and politics the  focus was on melody, with singer Dave Smalley’s vocals perfectly matching former Minor Threat guitarist Brian Baker’s wondrous technique of picking chords on this their debut album. From the title track through to ‘Thin Line’ and ‘Values Here’ to this day the excitement level hasn’t dropped, with the songs sounding as fresh and relevant now as when we first heard them years ago as teenagers when it was released in  1986. Wig Out At Denkos, the follow up album with vocalist Peter Cortner, who is now in The Gerunds, is also well worth checking out. To read our full review of Can I Say visit here.

57. Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel – Nail

Jim Thirwell (AKA Clint Ruin) has been releasing single syllable four letter titled albums under the varied Foetus banner for 30 years. The best of these as Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel in the mid-1980s. An early exponent of the “industrial” sound he produced albums that had a much more varied sonic sound-scape than many of his contemporaries. Built around metallic percussion and tape loops Nail includes a wide and varied set of instrumental sounds from classical orchestration, fierce guitars, big band jazz, twang guitar and old style rock ‘n’ roll underneath Thirwell’s guttural snarling. The album has an impact and is clearly trying to shock (murder, including the Manson family massacre, features prominently) but it features some fantastic music; ‘Descent Into The Inferno’ and ‘The Throne Of Agony’ belie their titles by being great pop tunes and full of catchy hooks.

56.Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

The story behind this debut album from Justin Vernon recording as Bon Iver is one of the most compelling in our list. After splitting from his band DeYarmond Edison and his girlfriend he holed up in a cabin in the woods for three months with his guitar and some  songs of loss and love he had built up over the years. The end result was this hauntingly beautiful collection. As remote as his isolated cabin the songs are sparse but make full use of a full band feel and even a horn section when necessary. Tracks such as ‘Skinny Love’ and ‘re:Stacks’ stand up on their own, but it as part of this unique project, which made our Top Albums of 2008 list,  that they really come alive.

55. Fatima Mansions – Viva Dead Ponies

Viva Dead Ponies was the second album by former Microdisney singer Cathal Coughlan and stands as his greatest music achievement. Uncompromising, aggressive, abrasive and acerbic yet sugar coated with sweet melodies and pretty synth pop flourishes. Read more about this album in our Classic Albums section.

54. Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque

There are so many good albums from Scottish band Teenage Fanclub to choose from. We could have picked excellent debut Catholic Education, 1993’s Grand Prix or 1994’s Thirteen. But we’ve plumped for third album Bandwagonesque as our choice. More accessible than Catholic Education and coming after the disastrously bad The King, the sound was crisper, full of Big Star style guitar riffs and some fine melodies. It signalled a band with renewed strength from classy singles like ‘What You Do To Me’ to the  melancholy ‘December’.

53. Hüsker Dü – Zen Arcade

Zen Arcade represented a real shift in the hardcore punk landscape on its release in 1984. The first two Hüsker Dü albums were all about short, sharp, noisy, fast blasts, with not a big need for melody. This is a 23 song concept album with a  range of styles and approaches, a kind of indie punk White Album. The punk aesthetic is there, the production is thin and much of the music is loud and brutal; the who record was recorded and mixed in 85 hours and most of the songs captured in a single take. Amongst this are acoustic numbers, piano driven instrumentals and experimental sounds-capes, totally at odds with what their audience would have been expecting. The thing that makes this record really great is the quality of the songwriting, from both the bands singers Grant Hart and Bob Mould. Mould supplies ‘Something I Learned Today’, ‘Broken Heart, Broken Home’ and ‘Chartered Trips’. Hart matches this with ‘Never Talking To You Again’, ‘Pink Turns To Blue’ and ‘Somewhere”. These are all great catchy hardcore punk pop tunes and make this a record that is ambitious and enjoyable.

52. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion Orange

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in their 1990s prime were one of the best live acts around. Like Jerry Lee Lewis mixed with The Cramps their dirty take on rock ‘n’ roll could have come from the devil himself. The fury and energy of their live shows were impossible to truly capture on CD, but this 1994 album by the band was probably as close as they got.  From the first sensational disco stringed intro of ‘Bellbottoms’ onwards this is an album meant to be played loud. From ‘Dang’ to ‘Flavor’ to ‘Blues X Man’ there’s no let up with Spencer like a filthy southern preacher bellowing ‘blooooozze explosion’ at every opportunity. It also heralded a more experimental period for the band, with the 2010 reissue featuring some interesting remixes blending rap, soul and dance music with the best rock ‘n’ roll since the 1950s.

51.Television – Marquee Moon

‘Marquee Moon’ is a near perfect debut album from a band who would go on to release just one more album before taking a 14 year break. If it had been the only thing they released they would still be seen as an important part of the New York punk and new wave scene, it is too good an artifact of that time. The guitar interplay between singer Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd is brilliant, sparse when it needs to be, and is copied heavily to this day. This tight, stripped down musical approach is paired with a set of songs that never put a foot wrong. ‘Venus’ and ‘Prove It’ are highlights, but the album centers on the  title track, a song that never wears out its welcome for any of the 10 minutes and 47 seconds running time.

Compiled by Joe Lepper and Dorian Rogers

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Six Classics From The Elephant Six

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Six Classics From The Elephant Six

Posted on 23 September 2010 by Joe

The Elephant 6 Recording Company was a loose musical collective that formed in the early 90’s in Denver Colorado. The collective was principally headed up by Apples In Stereo front man Robert Schneider. Wikipedia has a goodpotted history of the collective.

To coincide releases in 2010 of new albums by Elephant 6 artists The Apples In Stereo  and Elf Power, Neon Filler presents our favourite 6 albums by Elephant 6 artists. (Apologies to those who are surprised not to see anything by The Olivia Tremor Control in the list. There is no denying their place in the collective, or some excellent songs, but in general I find them to be rather hard work).

The Apples in Stereo – The Discovery Of A World Inside The Moone

Robert Schneider’s The Apples In Stereo are the best place to start when listening to the Elephant 6 and The Discovery Of A World Inside The Moone is their finest hour. From horn blasting opener ‘Go!’ to the acoustic whimsy of ‘The Afternoon’ it never puts a foot wrong.

The album manages to be a great retro homage without ever falling into the trap of being a pointless exercise in nostalgia. Vocal harmony, handclaps and a genius command of melody runs throughout the album. Classic pop, psyche, garage and even white funk (‘The Bird That You Can’t See’) make for a really enjoyable set.

Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

This is probably the most influential album in the list, and the only Elephant 6 album that regularly appears in “Greatest Album” lists. Jeff Mangum’s band are not always an easy proposition managing to be primarily acoustic but also incredibly noisy and abrasive at times.

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is influenced by 60s psychedelia but also has a strong folk sound in terms of vocals and instrumentation. ‘The king Of Carrot Flowers, Pt.1’ is a genius off key pop song and sets the tone for the album perfectly.

Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

The band has a slightly sinister sound and songs like ‘Two Headed Boy’ are fairly warped stories. ‘Holland, 1945’ is a great noisy pop piece filled with nonsense poetry and inventive instrumentation.

It isn’t the kind of record that people immediately click with but it rewards persistence and is the kind of album that you come back to again and again.

Dressy Bessy – Little Music

This choice is a bit of a cheat, being a collection of singles rather than an album proper. However, it is probably the best collection of their music and perfectly demonstrates all that is great about this band. Lead by Tammy Ealom the band stands out from the predominantly male collective.

The band, also featuring Apples In Stereo guitarist John Hill, has an aesthetic is rooted in 60s beat pop but also the slightly bored and detached vocal sound of some of the 60s girl groups.

It is a singles collection and as such it is a very poppy, ranging from cute ‘Lipstick’ to whimsical ‘Gloria Days’ to punkey ‘All The Right Reasons’ but Ealom manages to keep things the right side of cloying at all times.

Recent Dressy Bessy releases have adopted a drab heavier sound, but this is a great place to discover a much underrated act.

Beulah – When Your Heartstrings Break

Beulah are a real loss to the music world, releasing four excellent albums before giving in to the public’s indifference and calling it a day in 2004. Their second album, When Your Heartstrings Break, is probably their finest moment.

Despite a clear 60s influence, some eccentric production and great use of pop horns and strings, they are probably the most conventional Elephant 6 band. With a bit more luck they could have been the first Elephant 6 act to break through into the mainstream.

Songs like ‘Sunday Under Glass’ and the excellent ‘Emma Blowgun’s Last Stand’ are simple pop classics and closer ‘If We Can Land A Man On The Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart’ has brilliant, if slightly off key orchestration and sounds like a snotty disaffected Beach Boys.

Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer?

Of Montreal had released several whimsical and fey albums before front man Kevin Barnes went through a transformation over the course of the Satanic Panic In the Attic and The Sunlandic Twins albums.

By the time he recorded Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer? he was operating solo, with the concept of the band existing live only, and the sound was much darker. Imagine Prince as a cross dresser who grew up listening to Kinks records and you are some way to understanding the Of Montreal sound at this time.
He is the master of the quirky retro pop song as opener ‘Suffer For Fashion’ shows, but the album is much more than just 60s influenced pop music. Elements of electronica, krautrock, garage and even Prince style funk (‘Labyrinthine Pomp’) permeate the album.

Some of the songs would almost fit onto earlier releases by the band but tracks like the epic repetitive ‘The Past Is A Grotesque Animal’ mark a real departure. Lyrically it is dark and bitter, none more so than the excellent ‘She’s A Rejecter’. This is probably the best Elephant 6 related release of the 21st century.

Elf Power – Walking With The Beggar Boys

For their 6th album, Walking With The Beggar Boys, Elf Power dropped most of their psychedelic tendencies in favour of a more conventional alternative pop/rock sound. They sound all the better for it, the quality of the songs shining through.

Elf Power

Opener ‘Never Believe’, the title track and ‘Hole In My Shoe’ are pretty straightforward pop songs, but they are as good as that kind of song gets, direct and full of fizzing energy.

It isn’t an entire change of style for the band. The lyrics are still littered with obscure references and a psychedelic sensibility. There are also still several examples of their quirky instrumentation and production sounds, particularly ‘The Cracks’ but these songs sound better in the context of this album.

By Dorian Rogers,  May 2010

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The Apples In Stereo – Travellers In Space And Time

Posted on 21 September 2010 by Joe

The Apples in Stereo last album 2007’s New Magnetic Wonder was packed with the US band’s trademark catchy riffs and perfect pop.

Even though tracks, such as ‘Energy’, were used aplenty in advertising by the likes of Pepsi and Samsung and even being covered on American Idol, the album still sounds as fresh, energetic and credible as it did when it was released.

Step forward to 2010 and the band, a leading light in the Elephant 6 recording collective and spearheaded by Robert Schneider, are back with Travellers in Space and Time, their second album on Elijah Wood’s label Simian.

Once again produced by Schneider it combines the same piano driven, catchy pop with his continued experimentation with music, including his own invention, the maths based Non-Pythagorean musical scale.

Schneider says of the new album:  “I wanted to make a futuristic pop record, to reach out to the kids of the future. It is what I imagine their more highly-evolved pop might sound like: shiny soul music with robots and humans singing together.”

So has he achieved that? In terms of a realistic vision of the musical future, definitely not.
Travellers in Space and Time is at times is too robot than human, thanks mainly to the annoying use of an 80s sounding vocoder throughout. Bubblegum pop with robot sounding vocals is not exactly an original or inspiring vision of the future.

But while the album lacks the same soul of New Magnetic Wonder in places there are undeniably flashes of brilliance. Eighth track ‘Dignified Dignitary’ is quite simply superb. Choppy guitar pop that is as credible as a Robert Pollard release and can still be lapped up by advertisers and American Idol contestants. Like last year’s ‘Two Weeks’ by Grizzly Bear or Pheonix’s ‘Litzomania’ this is a top, top indie pop single.

I like the oddities on the album as well. Opener ‘The Code’, just a minute or so of a professor talking about the links between the maths driven ‘code’ and music.

‘Next Year About The Same Time,’ is another fine track, more like British early 80s synth pop of the likes of OMD. Other highpoints are the ELO influenced ‘Told You Once’ and ‘Nobody But You’, beautiful pop, with Schneider’s lyrics sounding really crisp.
First single ‘Dance Floor’ on the first few listens appeared a little bland, but gets more human and less robot with each listen thanks to its catchy keyboard hook.

But these gems cannot mask the vocoder laden low points.  ‘Dream About the future’ gives an indication of what’s to come. Familiar Apples piano riff intro, but goes nowhere and lacks passion. ‘Hey Elevator’ is so bad it is almost unlistenable, a plodding track that thankfully fades out after realising it has nowhere to go.

And ‘CPU’, the supposedly quirky one, is not really that quirky at all or that futuristic. Devo were doing this kind of stuff in the mid 1970s, except they did it with humour.

Special criticism goes to ‘No one in the world, ‘Oh, Oh, Oh there’s no one in the world…like my little girl’ bleats out the sugary chorus backed with the ever present vocoder vocals, until it too thankfully fades out.

So where does Travellers in Space and Time sit in the grand scheme of indie-pop. It’s nowhere near as good as New Magnetic Wonder but it’s better than Yeasayer’s 2010 album Odd Blood and anything Passion Pit have done.

What is most perplexing is that for someone so interested in the production process Schneider has effectively sucked the life out of too many of the tracks.

6.5/10

by Joe Lepper, Apr 2010

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