Elephant 6

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The Elephant 6 Recording Co.

 

Track (Band)Album
Ruby (Apples in Stereo)Her Wallpaper Reverie
Jumping Fences (Olivia Tremor Control)Dusk At Cubist Castle
Holland, 1945 (Neutral Milk Hotel)In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Live To Tell All (Dressy Bessy)Little Music
Emma Blowgun's Last Stand (Beulah)When Your Heartstrings Break
Jennifer Louise (Of Montreal)Aldhils Arboretum
Don't Know Why ... (Essex Green)Cannibal Sea
Yeah Yeah Yeah (Minders)Hooray For Tuesday
The Naughty Villain (Elf Power)The Winter Is Coming
Can You (High Water Marks)Ecstasy Rhymes

 

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Jeff Mangum, Robert Schneider, Bill Doss (l–r 2007)

 

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Elephant 6 playlist

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

After nearly 1,000 Toppermost entries, each dedicated to a single artist, I’ve been given special dispensation by the Powers That Be to break the mold. At least just this once. For the Elephant 6 Recording Co. (or simply the Elephant 6) is not a band. Nor, for that matter, is it (strictly speaking) a recording company. Rather, the Elephant 6 was the informal nickname for a loose collective of American indie rock bands that coalesced in the early- and mid-90s. This musical movement of sorts began with a small group of high school friends who went on to form multiple bands, gradually expanding their network to include other like-minded artists who would at times play on and produce each other’s records and tour together. And while many of these acts had a shared musical sensibility, deeply indebted to late 60s psychedelia and sunshine pop, incorporating everyone from the Beatles to early Pink Floyd to the Beach Boys, there were broad variations in the music each produced.

The Elephant 6 traces its origins back to Ruston, Louisiana, where four high school friends – Robert Schneider, Bill Doss, Will Cullen Hart, and Jeff Mangum – played music together and swapped lo-fi bedroom recordings. Schneider relocated to Denver and formed the Apples in Stereo, probably the most straight-forwardly power-pop-oriented of all the acts (while also building the home studio where he would produce records for many other acts in the stable). Doss and Cullen Hart moved to Athens, Georgia, and formed the Olivia Tremor Control, a more psychedelic-leaning band. And Mangum, after a stint with the Olivias, started up Neutral Milk Hotel, creating complex and difficult music which may appeal to a narrower (but rightfully fanatical) audience.

Along the way, these bands befriended and collaborated with various additional musicians who joined them in the informal collective.

Most of the acts in the stable started off with lo-fi home-brewed recordings, gradually moving into greater sonic sophistication. Some released widely-lauded masterpieces before quickly flaming out – both Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel, after assorted home recordings and singles, managed a mere two full-lengthers before splintering – while others continued to record well into the 2000s or even up to the present day.

And without further ado, let’s get into some highlights, shall we?

 

The Apples in Stereo

This band seems the logical starting point, being the core (get it? Apples? Core? Sorry, carry on …) of the collective, with Schneider working with many of the other bands over the years (while other members of the Apples served double-duty in other bands as well). The Apples have a rich discography lasting up through 2010, and I’ve already written a stand-alone Toppermost dedicated to their top tracks (check it out), so I won’t add much here. But of all the Elephant 6 acts, the Apples were probably the most accessible, with countless ridiculously infectious tunes that make for the easiest starting point for listeners new to the sub-genre. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’m opting here for Ruby, a piano-driven, delightfully upbeat sing-along number that serves as a fine introduction to the band. It appears on a great but pithy EP; folks looking for a full-length doorway are best served by 2000’s varied The Discovery Of A World Inside The Moone (though 2002’s energetic, noise-pop Velocity Of Sound is a nice blend of the band’s earlier lo-fi roots and their later, more baroque songcraft).

 

The Olivia Tremor Control

Though drinking from the same Beatles/Beach Boys-rich well of 60s pop as the Apples, the Olivia Tremor Control had a far more psychedelic edge, shades of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and the mid/late-60s Pretty Things, as well as 80s Paisley Underground acts like Rain Parade. After some fine singles (later compiled on CD), they blasted out of the gate with 1996’s astounding full-length debut Dusk At Cubist Castle. A modern-day Sgt. Pepper, the record, one of the best of the whole Elephant 6 oeuvre, offers all manner of headphone-friendly psychedelic delights, yet wedded to wonderfully catchy pop songs. The centerpiece is a multi-part suite called Green Typewriters, a condensed acid trip in musical form. The album works best as a unified whole, making it hard to pick a representative song, but Jumping Fences does a good job of highlighting the band’s harmonic and melodic strengths.

While Dusk is the must-own here, its 1998 follow-up Black Foliage is nearly as great. It’s more sonically refined, the stand-alone songs at least as good. Alas, they intersperse the songs with somewhat self-indulgent studio experiments that can be distracting on repeat listens, but reduced to the core songs it’s a terrific listen.

Unfortunately, co-leaders Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart separated after those two albums to form their own bands, The Sunshine Fix and The Circulatory System (respectively). OTC fans will undoubtedly enjoy the records released by the splinter bands, each of which sounded like logical successors to Dusk and Foliage while also confirming that, in Lennon-McCartney fashion, they did their best work together. The pair revived the band in 2005 for some live shows, and managed a studio single, but plans for a new album were sadly scuttled by Doss’s untimely passing in 2012.

 

Neutral Milk Hotel

Jeff Mangum’s Neutral Milk Hotel were either the most challenging or the most revolutionary of all Elephant 6 bands, depending on whom you ask. Mangum’s lyrics were often emotionally devastating; his distinctively plaintive (if not exactly soothing) vocals, paired with music that ranged from pop to folk to punk while sometimes accompanied by unusual instrumentation that sounded like a marching band on acid, all made for a package that might put some people off but can be literally life-changing for acolytes.

The band’s 1996 debut, On Avery Island, was a striking record, from the fizzy noise-pop of opener Song Against Sex to the entrancing ballad Naomi. (The CD appended the early single Everything Is, a deliriously noisy yet tuneful song that gives visibility to the Elphant 6’s lo-fi roots.) But Avery turned out to be mere prelude to 1998’s stunning In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Having revisited “The Diary Of Anne Frank”, Mangum concocted imagery-rich poetry touching on love, sex, death, and even genocide, while the album (produced by Schneider) offered an even more varied musical palette. The record – again, not everyone’s cup of tea – has attained legendary status, in part due to Mangum’s decision shortly thereafter to retire, a recluse who disappeared from the music scene (some mid-2010s reunion shows aside) while at the peak of his creative power. Like the Olivias’ Cubist Castle, Aeroplane is best heard in its entirety, but the frenetic Holland, 1945, a lyrically devastating Holocaust allegory, holds up as one of the most unforgettable songs to come from the Elephant 6 stable.

 

Dressy Bessy

After the intensity of Neutral Milk Hotel, it’s helpful to lighten things up with Dressy Bessy, the most unabashedly bubblegum of all Elephant 6 bands. The Denver group, which has remained active on-and-off to the present day, is fronted by singer-songwriter Tammy Ealom. Ealom’s chirpy, girlish vocals, paired with simple, fizzy, 3-chord riffs provided by guitarist John Hill (who also serves in the Apples in Stereo), make for endlessly charming ditties ideal for mixtapes. Their 1999 full-length debut Pink Hearts Yellow Moons is relentlessly fun from start to finish, lo-fi and low-pretense; starting with 2003’s self-titled release, they gradually amped up the sound, giving it a bigger oomph without losing any of the playfulness. Pretty tough to settle on one representative track, but I’m opting for the delirious Live To Tell All off their 2003 singles collection.

 

Beulah

San Francisco-based Beulah, a bit far afield from the Southern (or at least Denver) roots of most of the other E6 acts, joined the fold when Robert Schneider offered to produce some early recordings. 1997 debut Handsome Western States is energetic, lo-fi, artsy pop, not too dissimilar from early Apples records (with shades of Guided by Voices). Lots of crunchy hooks, like on the wickedly fun I Love John, She Loves Paul. But they cleaned things up for the 1999 follow-up, Handsome Western States, which, much like the Apples’ later records, demonstrated a far broader, more baroque musical palette. The brilliant, epic Emma Blowgun’s Last Stand, with its long organ-driven wind-up breaking into a blast of joyous horns, is monumental; later albums (they disbanded after 2003’s Yoko) were similarly complex, dense yet still melodic. 2001’s The Coast Is Never Clear in particular offers a magnificent array of songs conjuring Beach Boys sunshine and occasional Stonesy riffs, a great lost 60s album that sounds wholly current.

 

Of Montreal

The highly prolific and still-active Athens-based Of Montreal is one of the most eclectic, impossible-to-pigeonhole acts in the stable. Frontman Kevin Barnes and a shifting slate of musicians started out with skewed pop songs, detailed short stories paired with quirky, stripped-down music; you could hear a bit of Ray Davies in the lyrics, or Syd Barrett and Jonathan Richman in the wide-eyed delivery. Barnes’s boyish vocals and twee rhymes and offbeat instrumental flourishes were not for everyone, but offered simple yet subtle joys. 1998’s The Bedside Drama, for example, is a concept album relating the tale of a romance, from start to finish, over 40 minutes of bite-sized songs. Sometimes the music would gel into something resembling full-fledged power pop, like on standout track Jennifer Louise, but rarely settled for easy hooks. Over the years, Barnes would leave behind the sparse bedroom pop for increasingly challenging records that added in electronica and dance music and all manner of studio experimentation. Inarguably a more challenging act than, say, the Apples or Beulah, but as they say about difficult music, “rewards repeat listens.”

 

The Essex Green

The Brooklyn-based Essex Green are one of the more approachable of the E6 crew, with a twee, soft-rock/sunshine pop sound featuring traded male and female vocals that calls to mind 60s acts like the Free Design and the Cowsills. They’ve released a number of albums over the years, most recently in 2018 (after a long break), and while none is as envelope-pushing as the other works discussed here, they all offer some quiet, understated gems. I’m most partial to 2006’s Cannibal Sea, which is a bit more upbeat, offering some highly infectious power pop leanings while still remaining firmly within the mindset of Bacharach-ian late 60s gentle pop. That record’s Don’t Know Why (You Stay) is particularly winning, though Penny & Jack is equally fantastic.

 

The Minders

Denver-based Minders, like Beulah, most closely approximate the baroque pop sound of the Apples in Stereo (not entirely shocking, as both Robert Schneider and Apples drummer Hilarie Sidney backed Minders frontman Martyn Leaper on his early singles). The band’s earliest work, found on the excellent Cul-De-Sacs And Dead Ends singles compilation and full-length debut Hooray For Tuesday, merged British Invasion pop with the edgier, skewed pop of XTC. Indeed, stellar single Yeah Yeah Yeah is undoubtedly the most Beatlesque of any Elephant 6-related song. 2001’s terrific Golden Street sounds like a great lost XTC record (or perhaps that band’s psychedelic alter ego the Dukes of Stratosphear), though later releases – their most recent came in 2017 – found the band exploring more folk and experimental music with fewer pure-pop nuggets.

 

Elf Power

Like fellow Athens band Of Montreal, Elf Power are eclectic to a fault and difficult to categorize, a strange and disorienting blend of folk, glam, and psychedelia-tinged indie rock, unpredictable grooves with the occasionally catchy pop flourish. (A truly fun 2002 covers album found them paying tribute to artists as disparate as T. Rex, Hüsker Dü, Roky Erikson, and Robyn Hitchcock.) They shone brightest on 1999’s A Dream In Sound and 2000’s The Winter Is Coming, oddly endearing epics not too far afield from OTC’s Cubist Castle but less obviously psychedelic. Each was broken up by the occasional pop track, most notably Simon on the former and the playful The Naughty Villain on the latter. Still, my personal favorite, and perhaps the easiest entry point, is 2004’s Walking With The Beggar Boys, an almost radio-friendly blend of power pop, glam, and folk that shunts aside most of the band’s more experimental tendencies.

 

The High Water Marks

Finally, we close the list with a second-generation Elephant 6 act. The High Water Marks began in the mid-00s as a side project for Apples in Stereo drummer Hilarie Sidney. Though she wrote and lent her inviting, girl-next-door vocals to a few Apples tracks, Sidney got to play more a of a lead role in this band, sharing vocal and instrumental duties with Norwegian musician Per Ole Bratset. The songs, like Sidney’s Apples contributions, are high-energy, fizzy bubblegum power pop, not far afield from the earlier Dressy Bessy records. (Sidney, who’d been married to the Apples’ Schneider, left that band when she and Schneider parted; she later married Bratset.) They’ve released three albums to date, their most recent in 2020 (highlighted by the joyful Can You), all of them delightfully catchy and unpretentious.

 

Other Bands

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While narrowly missing my Top 10 list above, a few other artists affiliated with the collective are worth checking out as well. Brooklyn’s Ladybug Transistor released a number of fine albums of sophisticated, baroque sunshine pop, not dissimilar from the Essex Green (whose two singers also play in this band). The perky, piano-driven Meadowpart Arch, from 1999’s The Albemarle Sound, is a nice introduction to their work. They disbanded in the early 2010s, though lead singer Gary Olson released a lovely self-titled solo album in 2020 that carries on the band’s legacy.

While perhaps getting less attention, Great Lakes – originally from Athens, later of Brooklyn – sound like a mash-up of other Elephant 6 bands. Which makes sense, as members of the Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power, and Of Montreal all played on early records. Frontman Ben Crum at times sounds like Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker singer David Lowery, though the music is much poppier. 2006’s Diamond Times is particularly winning, a blend of 60s pop and Byrdsy Americana, while 2002’s The Distance Between [for some reason mis-credited to Great Lakes Chorus on Spotify] finds them more firmly in Brian Wilson territory, with some nifty Zombies and Mike Nesmith covers as well as the band’s catchiest power pop number, Sister City.

 

 

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The 2008 Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour featuring various members of Elf Power, Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel and other Elephant 6 bands playing together

 

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Tammy Ealom (Dressy Bessy) & John Hill (Dressy Bessy, Apples)

 

The Apples in Stereo – last song of the 2010 tour

 

The (Brief) History of Jeff Mangum & Neutral Milk Hotel

 

A Place We Have Been To: The Elephant 6 Documentary trailer

 

Official Elephant 6 Recording Co. website

AV Club article (2012)

Illustrated Flowchart from Chelsea Spear (2014)

Elephant 6 biography (Wikipedia)

Marc Fagel is a recovering lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the recently-published rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter.

Marc’s previous posts include Sweet, The Bats, Matthew Sweet, Badfinger, New Pornographers, Bettie Serveert, Flaming Lips, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson, Brian Eno

TopperPost #949

1 Comment

  1. Mat Baker
    Apr 14, 2021

    I am going to bang through this entire play list. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Looks right up my street.
    Reminds me that I have to do a Brian Jonestown Massacre one soon, too…

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