By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
After he graduated, Hart moved to the Virgin Islands, working at beach resorts before it became too expensive to stay. He planned to return to Ruston, yet never quite made it back, making a pit stop in Athens that has lasted much of this decade. But Ruston's influence remains in his songs, if only in the way he learned anything was possible as long as you have enough tape and imagination. Black Foliage recalls how those early recordings must have sounded--in content, at least--as scores of disparate sounds are worked into an elaborate puzzle, arranged and rearranged until a picture emerges. And if a few of the pieces don't exactly fit, well, maybe that's even better.
"We try to take something really simple and reiterate its theme over and over, and at the same time, like every time it comes in--if you're listening closely or after multiple listens or whatever--you'll notice some things that don't fit," Hart explains. "Or some elements that have been juxtaposed which, at least we think, haven't been. Beach Boys harmonies and grating noise. You know, just things that we like. That's something that we love. We listen to whole albums of that.
"I think you can have the power of guitar in some other way," he continues. "I like the idea of having like three or four drummers and an organ player or something, and it could be just as heavy as a heavy rock band. But the context should soon change. People should start imitating techno with their drumming. Stuff like that. It's just been new to me, to hear, like, Oval records or something. Just to hear something a little different that's somewhere between songs and sound."
Somewhere between songs and sound--it's an almost perfect description of Black Foliage. The album careens between free jazz (the freak-out finale of "A Familiar Noise Called 'Train Director'") and dot-dash-dot ambience (all of the album's dozen or so interludes), Brian Wilson outtakes (the lovely "Hideaway" and "A New Day") and psychedelic prog-pop (almost everything else). The title track itself turns up in six different incarnations...sort of. Five of them are short themes based on the actual song, reprises that tie the bow on a rambling package. And it works: Listened to as a whole, Black Foliage resembles an old AM radio station used as the soundtrack to an episode of Sesame Street being watched in Roky Erickson's living room, full of carnival-pop experiments that rarely fail but always seem on the verge of doing so.
In a sense, it's better that Black Foliage was recorded at home, and not just because it would have cost a small fortune to produce in a real studio. More so than Lou Barlow or any of the other home-taping pioneers, Olivia Tremor Control and its Elephant 6 cohorts have shown exactly what can be accomplished with cheap equipment, that low-budget doesn't necessarily have to mean lo-fi. After all, even though Black Foliage is basically demos recorded by Hart and Doss with overdubs layered on top, it could have been produced by Phil Spector, resting all of its weight on his Wall of Sound. For Hart, recording at home isn't just a technique. The four-track is necessary because, to him, sound is secondary to the feeling, the mood. It's something that has to be captured right away, as soon as he has an idea, and often, he can't improve upon it.
"I usually can't carry the song around," Hart says. "I have to throw it down, or I lose the essence of the melody. It's just A to G to E, you know, any chords. But it's just, like, 'Man, did it go ba-baa-baba, or did it go la-la-la-laaa? Don't remember. Better put it down.' If I've nailed the feeling the first time with an acoustic guitar and maybe some organ, that can be better than if I really tried to work it out."
It's that kind of simplicity that is the real heart of the band, though Hart insists the Olivias are a "pop band that likes to inject sound." Right now, the band's more experimental side is more fully realized by the Black Swan Network, a same-member side project (including bassist John Fernandes, drummer Eric Harris, and keyboard player Peter Erchick) that debuted on the B-side of the "Opera House" single. The Black Swan Network's main objective is taking dream recordings--descriptions of dreams taped and sent in by fans--and cutting and splicing them into warped sound collages. Dream recording is something that Hart says has always interested him, though he has never actually done it himself. He doesn't think he could describe it properly. But maybe, he believes, his music can.
"I really grab more from the mystery of them, rather than the dream itself," he says. "I love the idea of a dream. You know, it makes you feel so good, but then if you try to explain it to anyone you can't put across the emotion, because in the dream, that person [in it] meant something to you. It's a haze of nostalgia. That's what it is for me, like this haze of like, God, I've been there before. You don't wake up and think about your job. You don't think about what you're doing. It's that moment. You go, 'Wow, that's so mysterious.' That's pretty much what I'm reaching for all the time with music, to try to grab that.