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Like many indie bands, the Olivia Tremor Control—part of the retro-psychedelic Elephant 6 collective that also includes the Apples in Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel—has released numerous limited-edition bits of ephemera through the years, vinyl-only recordings prepared solely for quickening the pulses of fans and collectors alike. One of the band’s first recordings was, believe it or not, a 7-inch made of crystallized sugar soaked in LSD that you nibbled while it spun on your record player—thus allowing the happy listener to literally get high off the music.
OK, so I’m completely full of crap: You won’t find said edible acidic 7-inch on the OTC’s new Presents: Singles and Beyond, a collection of the band’s hard-to-find cuts recorded between 1992 and 1996. But the druggy little disc would certainly be in tune with the group’s music, which doesn’t so much evoke the acid-drenched days of 1967 as re-create them. The only thing missing from this album, except for an accompanying Peter Max poster, is a sitar solo. Ravi Shankar must have had other obligations.
But if the OTC teaches us anything, it’s that sometimes you should just say no. Listening to the Aquarius-in-retrograde sounds on Presents: Singles and Beyond reminds me of Randy Newman’s dismissal of America’s “Horse With No Name” as “this song about a kid who thinks he’s taken acid.” You can’t help but picture the OTC gathered around the Lava lamp in their Nehru jackets and granny glasses, pretending they can see through their hands. Hippy-dippy studio effects, distorted Sgt. Pepper’s-period vocals, a childlike fascination with oddball instruments like calliope and bagpipes: The OTC are to ’60s psychedelia what Civil War re-enactors are to the Battle of Gettysburg.
Presents: Singles and Beyond makes it obvious that the members of the OTC have practically worn the grooves off their early Mothers of Invention records and listened to Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma more times than any human being ought to. They’ve even gone so far as to include a couple of sound collages that may appeal to gullible acidheads, but leave non-sunshine supermen such as myself unmoved. Nobody’s had the gall to try to pass this stuff off as art since the heyday of Frank Zappa.
How is it, then, that I still really dig this album? Well, it comes down to the fact that, much like Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, the OTC’s William Cullen Hart and Bill Doss are such offhandedly gifted songwriting savants that they can’t help but transcend their own worst impulses. These guys may have never gotten off the Yellow Submarine, but they know an irresistible hook when they hear one.
The new CD includes 20 songs—half of which I can’t stop listening to. “The Giant Day” includes enough purloined Beatle-isms to keep Sir Paul’s crack team of plagiarism attorneys busy for years, but the damn thing moves along at a buzz-saw pace that would have left the Fab Four begging for leapers. “Beneath the Climb” is propelled by a simple melody as undeniable as any Lou Reed used to toss off for his “sweet” Velvet Underground songs. “The Princess Turns the Key to Cubist Castle (Curtain Call Pt. 1 & 2)” is delicate and pretty, and may well be about the sales clerk who waits on the rich woman at Bloomingdale’s—or, you know, whatever “Stairway to Heaven” was reputed to be about. “Shaving Spiders” sounds like a twitchy rejoinder to the Who’s “Boris the Spider,” complete with some dissonant guitar that makes me wanna let my freak flag fly. “Gypsum Oil Field Fire” features great guitars and wonderful out-of-tune singing by an obviously unrehearsed chorus of wasted friends.
Sometimes, though, the OTC just comes across as talented mimics addicted to one of the most cloyingly precious periods in musical history. “A Sunshine Fix” (“We can nod in the sun all day long/Turn around and find out that life is a song”) is a proud graduate of the Donovan School of Inane Acid Reverie. “Curtain Call Pt. 3” starts off sounding like a Grandaddy song before handing over lead vocals to one of the Chipmunks (which one I’m not sure, though I’d be willing to bet he’s spent time in the Betty Ford Clinic). “I’m Not Feeling Human” takes Zappa’s “Call Any Vegetable” way too literally. And the band follows up the wonderful “Love Athena” with a song titled “Today I Lost a Tooth.” Some mundanities can be turned into art, but, hey, this ain’t one of them.
The OTC reminds me of a couple of precocious kids who have found their way into Uncle Hippie’s dusty attic trunk. The resultant fashion show is amusing at first, but by the time they’ve tried on their sixth paisley headband, the joke’s worn thin. One listen to “Love Athena” and album closer “The Ships” and you know that these guys are built for much better things than fashioning the aural equivalent of fringed buckskin vests for latter-day psychedelic tourists. CP