The 90 Minute Guide: Elephant 6

Jeff Terich
The 90 Minute Guide: Elephant 6

Since the turn of the millennium, the status of the Elephant 6 collective has been a bit unclear. Many of the bands within the psychedelic lo-fi set were still active, save for Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel, but the logo disappeared. People stopped talking about it. Perhaps out of a desire to distance themselves from any sort of `movement’ or music critic pigeonholing, groups like The Apples in Stereo, Elf Power and Beulah stopped printing the icon on their album art. And since then, hardly a word has been spoken of Elephant 6.

In 2007, however, E6 is making something of a comeback. The Apples in Stereo’s New Magnetic Wonder is the first album in about half a decade or more to have the logo printed on it, and the new album by the Circulatory System, due later this year, is reported to do the same. Many things have changed since the collective began, primarily bands breaking up or venturing into new sounds (such as Of Montreal), but the spirit is still alive. For the best evidence just listen to New Magnetic Wonder, a gigantic masterpiece on par with the band’s earlier albums such as Tone Soul Evolution or Fun Trick Noisemaker. It’s good to be back.

Seeing that logo brings back memories of being in high school, driving to Lou’s Records in Encinitas and snatching up copies of whatever new E6 release had hit the shelves. The collective’s bands, based mostly in Athens, GA and Ruston, LA though spreading as far as San Francisco, created a magnificent world of fuzzy and joyous sound. It’s hard not to romanticize the idea of each of these artists in some kind of indie rock utopia. Of course, we know better than that. Every band is different, each with their own unique style of pop, ranging from the Beatlesque Apples to the more pastoral Essex Green.

Keeping in mind with the individual talents involved with E6, we wanted to create a mix tape statement that serves as both an introduction to the bands, as well as a unifying musical essay on their involvement with one another. There’s no precise order to this mix, other than a sort of sideways chronological sequence, but we think you’ll agree, it’s pretty darned awesome.

Side One

“Song Against Sex” – Neutral Milk Hotel

It might seem counterintuitive to begin with any artist other than The Apples in Stereo, as Robert Schneider is the de facto founder, but this track from Neutral Milk Hotel’s first album, On Avery Island, just makes such a perfect beginning to a mix tape. The sound is absurdly distorted, but the melody is so buoyant and gleeful, it’s hard not to want to jump out of your chair and start doing handsprings. Jeff Mangum’s lyrics, however, tell another story, some of the most harrowing and tortured verses, which cause a double-take upon first listen: “Threw a nickel in the fountain/ to save my soul from all these troubled times/ and all the drugs that I don’t have the guts to take to soothe my mind/so I’m always sober/ always aching/ always heading toward/ mass suicides/ occult figurines.

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Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island - Song Against Sex

“Tidal Wave” – Apples in Stereo

Alright, after getting the joyously warped wake-up from Neutral Milk Hotel, now we can move on to the Apples. Many would argue that Fun Trick Noisemaker is their best album, an indie rock classic in the vein of Slanted and Enchanted or Bee Thousand. This is the first actual song on the album (though it’s the second track), and is just as much of a high energy, hard rocking pop nugget, like the first song on our mix. But unlike Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples aren’t as eccentric or disturbing. They’re merely one of the best pop bands around and this song makes that awfully clear.

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The Apples in Stereo - Fun Trick Noisemaker - Tidal Wave

“Sunshine Soul” – Gerbils

Scott Spillane has contributed to many records released under the E6 umbrella, including Neutral Milk Hotel’s groundbreaking In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. His main project, The Gerbils, was a lot more straightforward, a lo-fi pop band in the vein of the Apples in Stereo or The Minders, and this is merely one of the nifty little tunes from their first album, Are You Sleepy?

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The Gerbils - Are You Sleepy? - Sunshine Soul

“Fun Loving Nun” – Of Montreal

Of all the artists on this mix, Of Montreal is the most prolific. Kevin Barnes has released nine studio albums, not to mention several singles, compilations and a remix album. The interesting thing is how different each one sounds. Because of this, there’s hardly a consensus on which one is the best. For a side one pick, “Fun Loving Nun” seems to fit nicely, a sprightly, short, and rocking track from The Gay Parade. Its silliness works hand in hand with the jubilant sound of the song. This is a fun cross section for OM, showing where Barnes was, creatively, after releasing a handful of albums, but before he diverged stylistically from the lo-fi pop aesthetic.

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Of Montreal - The Gay Parade - Fun Loving Nun

“Just Like Henry” – Dressy Bessy

Dressy Bessy came around a few years after the formation of most of the core outfits in the Elephant 6 collective, shortly after Tammy Ealom’s stint in the Minders. Ealom’s songs are simple and catchy, much like many of the bands featured here, only, perhaps even more so. “Just Like Henry” is a three chord pop song, with few frills, but its directness is what makes it so damn perfect. Amidst more complex and weird songs by the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control, “Just Like Henry” seems refreshingly unpretentious. The girl singer kinda sets it apart too.

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Dressy Bessy - Pink Hearts, Yellow Moons - Just Like Henry

“Hooray For Tuesday” – The Minders

It’s hard for me to pick my all-time favorite song by an E6 artist, and it, in fact, may change daily. But then again, it might be “Hooray For Tuesday.” Opening with triumphant horn and flute fanfare and psychedelic Beatlesque jangle, this track from the Minders’ album of the same name is life-affirming, infectious, irresistible pop. With production from Robert Schneider, the song becomes an elaborate masterpiece, one of the greatest accomplishments of the entire collective. Its lyrics tell of going on some kind of journey, packing a suitcase and sending postcards. But The Minders, like all of us, know the best reason to celebrate Tuesday—new records!

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The Minders - Hooray for Tuesday - Hooray for Tueday

“Song of the Nomad Lost” – Music Tapes

Music Tapes was one of the most idiosyncratic outfits of the Elephant Sixers, a solo project from Neutral Milk Hotel’s Julian Koster recorded on wax cylinders, reel-to-reel tapes and a 1940s wire recorder. This track, from 1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad sounds, more or less, like an old theatrical recording from before World War II, with strummed banjo, harmonized vocals, odd falsetto lines about aliens, and various movements, though no specific verse or chorus. Odd stuff, but still a nice tune.

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Music Tapes - 1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad - Song of the Nomad Lost

“Green Typewriters” – Olivia Tremor Control

The first side comes to a close with not one song, but rather, one ten-track song cycle by The Elephant 6’s most unconventional and arty band. If a casual acquaintance were to receive a mix tape with this monster tacked on to the first side, they’d probably be pissed, or at least confused. But I can’t help but think that its admission is absolutely essential. I could have gone with “The Opera House,” the most straightforwardly rocking track from Dusk At Cubist Castle, but one doesn’t necessarily pick up on the band’s more experimental aspects, which are what most set them apart from their E6 chums. Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart are ace songwriters, some of the best in the bunch, but they don’t easily let an album be just a bunch of songs. This middle section of Dusk is more or less made up of several different songs, all short, bleeding into one another, like a mini rock opera. And you could even break them up if you want, but if you don’t include the 9 minutes of musique concrete in the middle, then it’s not exactly complete. And it eats up time. Do you realize how short all of these songs are? Damn.

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The Olivia Tremor Control - Dusk at Cubist Castle - Green Typewriters

Side Two

“If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart” – Beulah

Beulah’s first record, Handsome Western States was a lot more snarky than its breathtaking follow up, When Your Heartstrings Break, but the direction they chose on that record was certainly for the best. Employing an army of guest musicians, ranging from horns to strings and otherwise, its closing track is another candidate for best song by an E6 band, displaying a sweetness which later faded from Miles Kurosky’s repertoire in favor of more bitter, honest confessions. The first few dozen times I heard this song, I felt immortal, as if the world were at my command. I’ve heard it a few more dozen (hundred?) times since then, and still get that feeling now and then.

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Beulah - When Your Heartstrings Break - If We Can Land a Man On the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart

“Six Times” – Ladybug Transistor

With the Ladybug Transistor, we begin to delve into the Elephant 6 extended family. Included here primarily because the band shares members with The Essex Green, the band never released anything bearing the collective logo. That said, they can still easily be tied in, their retro pop sound not the least of reasons why. “Six Times” is a bit divergent from more of the Sgt. Peppers, Byrds and Kinks inspired songs on our mix, as it takes more of a cue from Burt Bacharach than the Beatles. With an arsenal of horns and a plinky, ebullient piano, The Ladybug Transistor make something more baroque than their peers, and without the experimental, fuzzy aspect. But we’ll get back to that…

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The Ladybug Transistor - The Albemarle Sound - Six Times

“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” – Neutral Milk Hotel

Hearing In the Aeroplane Over the Sea for the first time was like some kind of beautiful dream, or hallucination, or any other apt comparison involving a foreign sense of elation. With the fuzz of On Avery Island mostly removed (some notable exceptions) and more quirky orchestration in tow, Jeff Mangum had the makings of a modern day classic that sounded like a great lost psych-era artifact. The title track was a magical rumination on acceptance of one’s own death, a combination of funeral march and celebration of life so powerful, most critics at the time couldn’t help but breathe the words Pet Sounds when speaking of it. Scott Spillane’s horns combined with Julian Koster’s singing saw only serve to conjure up more of a mysterious and strangely beautiful atmosphere. Mangum hasn’t released any NMH material since, probably because the album from which this came is such a defining piece.

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Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

“A Sleepy Company” – Olivia Tremor Control

And here we are, back to The Olivia Tremor Control. While “Green Typewriters” shows just how diverse and weird they can be at an extreme, this track from Black Foliage is a better example of how they combine their eccentricities into a stellar pop song. The bizarre sound effects are still present, as are the trippy studio tricks (the voices fading in and out when Hart sings “things come rushing in/ things come rushing out“). It would be the most accessible OTC song out there, but the onslaught of effects as well as the messy, chopped up outro sort of sabotage that, injecting this weirdo symphony with more of their experimental art spirit.

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The Olivia Tremor Control - Black Foliage: Animation Music Vol. 1 - A Sleepy Company

“Simon (the Bird with the Candy Bar Head)” – Elf Power

By comparison, Elf Power’s sound is much more akin to Built to Spill or the long lineage of Athens, GA indie rock bands than most of their Elephant 6 peers. Their album A Dream in Sound still fit in with the rest of the bunch, however, particularly for its fuzzy indie pop sound, use of horns and overall fun vibe. “Simon” was a particularly excellent track, a simultaneously funny and sad song about a bird whose head is actually a candy bar, and thus is consistently nibbled on by other birds. It’s silly, sure, but the strength of the song turns it from children’s book fare to a soaring emotional release.

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Elf Power - A Dream In Sound - Simon

“Everything is Green” – Essex Green

While the Ladybug Transistor may not have officially been considered an Elephant 6 band, The Essex Green were, despite having two of the same members. The main difference is that the band did, in fact, release an EP on the Elephant 6 label. As their name might suggest, The Essex Green had more of a pastoral, English psych-folk influence than groups like The Apples in Stereo or Beulah. The title track of their debut full-length is a perfect choice for our compilation for its swell display of their gentle, graceful sound. The harmonies during the chorus are sublime, and while the song is a bit on the laid back side, it evokes nothing less than sheer elation.

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The Essex Green - Everything Is Green - Everything Is Green

“Lonliest Heart in Texas” – Marshmallow Coast

Another peripheral member of the collective, Marshmallow Coast is the solo project of Andy Gonzalez, who has played with both Music Tapes and Of Montreal. His own style is reminiscent of Kevin Barnes’ playful compositions, and on this song from Marshmallow Coasting, Gonzalez strips it down to just his voice and acoustic guitar for a folky standout with a misspelled name that complements some of the bigger tracks on this comp nicely.

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Marshmallow Coast - Marshmallow Coasting - Lonliest Heart In Texas

“Lovely Universe” – Circulatory System
“See Yourself” – Sunshine Fix

When the Olivia Tremor Control split after their second album, its two main songwriters, Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart, each took on new projects. Hart started the Circulatory System, whose ranks also included Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, while Doss formed The Sunshine Fix. Examining these two projects in comparison to these songwriters’ work in OTC, it becomes quite clear what made that band such a weird amalgam of infectious psych-pop and art-house weirdness. Hart’s Circulatory System employed all of the stranger aspects of their sound, “Lovely Universe” being one of the more accessible tracks on their self-titled album. Meanwhile, The Sunshine Fix was a much more straightforward pop band, “See Yourself” free from lo-fi hiss and taking on a ’70s funk sound. Both bands were still quite good, but very, very different.

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Circulatory System - Circulatory System - The Lovely Universe

“About the Ocean” – High Water Marks

Just about every person tied to the Elephant 6 collective has played with about a zillion bands. But some are more full-time than others. In the ’00s, The Apples in Stereo’s Hilarie Sidney played drums in both the Apples and The High Water Marks. And though her tenure in the former seemed a lot more permanent, she actually left the band to focus on the latter. The two bands are pretty similar, actually, as this track shows with its three chord fuzz-pop.

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The High Water Marks - Songs About the Ocean - About the Ocean

“The Falcon” – ulysses

Robert Schneider has had his share of side bands as well, including The Marbles and ulysses. The latter was the simplest and most direct rock band of all of his projects, their album .010 recorded live with one microphone and left mostly alone. Seeing as how Schneider is still the songwriter, its fuzzy tone is quite similar to Apples fare circa Velocity of Sound.

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Ulysses - .010 - The Falcon

“Sunday Sounds” – Apples in Stereo

Before departing the Apples, Hilarie Sidney played on their newest album, and one of their best, New Magnetic Wonder. In fact, the two songs she sings, “Sunndal Song” and “Sunday Sounds,” which have curiously similar titles, are two of the best. Closer to a ’70s power pop sound than anything from the psychedelic era, her contributions are at once sweet and dreamy while rocking out as much as possible. Those riffs are unstoppable, but her lighter than air voice keeps it from full-on chest hair rock. It’s a shame that she decided to stop playing with The Apples, as her songs were often some of the best.

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The Apples in Stereo - New Magnetic Wonder - Sunday Sounds

“A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger” – Of Montreal

While The Apples in Stereo’s newest album brought the logo back into public consciousness, Of Montreal did not, in fact, include it on their Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? By now, Kevin Barnes’ oeuvre has strayed far from OM’s lo-fi pop beginnings, and currently entails a crisper, more kaleidoscopic electronic presence. Of Montreal has entered a brave and captivating new territory, and while it may have little to do with Elephant 6 at this point in time, I feel that Hissing Fauna deserves representation on this set, for some important reasons. Many of the other E6 bands have since broken up, most have stopped using the logo (though that could change) and few still embrace the fuzzy four-track sounds of the old days. What Of Montreal has done is the most divergent, yet underneath the drum machines, samplers and Prince-isms, Barnes is still playing joyous, vibrant pop music, and isn’t that what this whole thing is about?

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Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? - A Sentence of Sorts In Kongsvinger

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