"I wanted to first play music when I went to a Cheap Trick show when I was in sixth grade," recalls Robert Schneider. "I went with my friend Jeff Mangum and I met my friend Will Hart for the first time there. And after the show Jeff and I, like, air-guitarred on tennis rackets all night to 'Dream Police' at his house."
An inauspicious narrative, perhaps -- that is, until one stops to consider that these three pubescent rock fans from small-town Ruston, Louisiana, would eventually record and release countless hours of beloved, ragged and massively influential psychedelic indie-rock under the catchall rubric of the Elephant 6 Recording Company. Specifically, Will Cullen Hart founded the super-trippy Olivia Tremor Control, and Robert Schneider continues to helm the almost painfully poppy Apples In Stereo. For his part, Mangum achieved the status of living legend when he dropped out of public view after his band, Neutral Milk Hotel, released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, perhaps the most revered independent album in rock history.
The E6 collective didn't really get off the ground until its founders converged en masse upon Athens, Georgia, in the early '90s. In the relatively sophisticated new environment, their influence and membership continued to grow, eventually taking like-minded Athens wack-job Kevin Barnes and his shapeshifting, misnomerically named band Of Montreal on board. Fast-forward a decade or two, and early 2007 is proving a hotbed of E6-related releases, including New Magnetic Wonder, the first Apples In Stereo disc in five years; a new CD from the increasingly popular Of Montreal; and the recorded return of the elusive Jeff Mangum. Well, sort of.
Elephant 6 Recording Company
"Jeff plays drums on two songs on New Magnetic Wonder," Robert Schneider explains. "Our ex-drummer [and Schneider's ex-wife] Hilarie Sidney actually played drums on the whole record except for on the two songs she wrote. She thought it would be cool to see what Jeff would do with it and he was in New York while we were recording, so he came down and we played together for a couple of days. Jeff's a really excellent drummer, and his drumming style is very distinctive from Hilarie's. She's more Ringo, and Jeff's more Keith Moon or something, like that falling-downstairs style of drumming, whereas Hilarie's a very strong backbeat kind of drummer."
New Magnetic Wonder boasts one of the strongest starts to a pop record in recent memory, with Schneider's heavily vocodered voice commanding the listener to "Turn up...your stereo --oh" before blitzing into the one-two punch of the virulently infectious "Can You Feel It?" and the nearly sublime "Skyway." The album gets more varied and moody as it goes along, with highlights including the loping, '70s-smooth "Play Tough" and the brief "My Pretend," which manages to be a fully satisfying composition while clocking in at less than 90 seconds. And yes, the drumming on Sidney's "Sundaal Sounds" and "Sunday Song" is notably more spastic than on the rest of the record. Thanks, Jeff!
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In contrast, the lyrics on Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? find Kevin Barnes in a dark and brooding mood, even as the music continues to mine the spacey funk-pop grooves so prevalent on 2005's excellent The Sunlandic Twins.
"The mousey girl screams 'violence! violence!' / She gets hysterical 'cause they're both so mean / And it's my favorite scene," Barnes exclaims, baldly referencing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on the disc's centerpiece, a 12-minute rant entitled "The Past is a Grotesque Animal." Another song, inexplicably entitled "Heimdalsgate like a Promethean Curse," finds him pleading desperately with his own body chemistry ("C'mon, moodshift, shift back to good again! / Come on, chemicals!") to the catchiest riff on the CD. Elsewhere he contemplates the difference between himself and church-burning black metal bands, fantasizes about hiring another girl to slap his girlfriend and generally gives the impression of encoding what seems to be a deep-seated personal crisis into an affably weird song-cycle, possibly the most extreme recording of its kind since Marvin Gaye's certifiably insane divorce-themed 1978 concept album Here, My Dear. The fact that Kevin keeps his band's signature toe-tapping vibe intact throughout this dark night of the indie-rock soul is a testament to a twisted talent indeed.
As it happens, Robert Schneider's life in music came full circle last month when he took part in a musical segment on Comedy Central's Colbert Report during which he got to play with Elephant 6's original inspiration, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick. In the process, he recalled a microcosm of the delusional essence of the whole rock and roll experience, from commodified arena bands to esoteric bedroom-pop dreamers.
"I caught Rick's guitar pick at my first rock concert," he remembers of that fateful night back in sixth grade. "And for, like, eight years I carried that guitar pick in my wallet and it was like this talisman. I just knew that I was gonna make meaningful music, and it made me feel like I'd had the torch passed to me or something. But what's so funny is there's millions of Rick Nielsen guitar picks out there; he fuckin' throws out thousands at every concert. He was even handing 'em out to everyone at the Colbert Report!" Of Montreal performs Saturday, February 17, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer, 713-629-3700.