If Ruston, Louisiana, isn't officially the middle of nowhere, it's the first exit before it. Five or six hours north of New Orleans, the only reason Ruston even made my AAA guidebook is because it's home to Louisiana Tech University--an engineering school, not exactly an artistic hotbed or a center of cultural thought. But Louisiana Tech has a college radio station, and wherever there's a college radio station, there's a group of curious music fans plotting to take over.
Jeff Mangum, Robert Schneider, William Cullen Hart, and Bill Doss started infiltrating Louisiana Tech's airwaves as volunteer DJs when they were all still in high school. (I don't believe any of them ever bothered to actually enroll in the college.) There they had access to all the hippest indie rock--Guided By Voices and Pavement and Sebadoh--but they also discovered Krautrock (the trippy sounds of '70s German art-rock bands like Neu! and Amon Düül II), Brian Eno's pop efforts, and albums such as Revolver, Pet Sounds, and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn: relics of the first era of psychedelic rock, and shining testaments to what can be accomplished in the recording studio when folks are fueled by the potent drug of rampant imagination.
The Ruston boys started making music themselves in various combinations in various parents' basements and garages. They traded four-track cassettes with each other and--with a teenage sense of drama amplified in those who live one exit before the middle of nowhere--they marked all of their recordings as products of something called the Elephant 6 Recording Co. They had time on their hands to dream up stuff like that, but time passed, the gang split up, and everyone moved out of Ruston. The guerrilla DJs of Louisiana Tech kept making music, though, and now, lo and behold, we have three startlingly unique albums from three bands with four auteurs in three different cities--all of them marked somewhere in the fine print as products of Elephant 6.
Despite the ties of friendship and history (not to mention the same master record collection down at the station), the full-length debuts by Neutral Milk Hotel (Mangum), the Apples In Stereo (Schneider), and the Olivia Tremor Control (Hart and Doss) are surprisingly diverse, except for two general similarities: They are all essentially home recordings, and they are all remarkably ambitious. In the past, too many of the leading lights of the four-track movement have been lo-fi as a sort of political statement; bedroom albums don't have to sound as if they were recorded through the wall from the apartment nextdoor. The Elephant 6ers couldn't care less about being hip if it means they have to sound like crap. They're emulating the musical heroes whose fanciful soundscapes transported them out of Ruston via their headphones and late-night radio shows.
Neutral Milk Hotel's On Avery Island (Merge) kicks off with the rollicking "Song Against Sex," a driving ditty punctuated by off-kilter trombone lines and boasting torrents of words that paint an impressionistic picture of what may or may not be the weird rush of feelings following a virgin same-sex experience. ("And the first one tore a picture of a dead and hanging man/Who was kissing foreign fishes that flew right out from his hands/And when I put my arms around him I felt the blushing blood run through my cheeks/And an eerieness surrounded when his tongue began to speak.")
Now based in New York City, Mangum sang and played just about everything on the album--guitar, drums, xylophone, organ, and tape loops--though he did get a little help from Schneider on extra keyboards. On Avery Island never comes up with another melody as indelible as "Song Against Sex," but "You've Passed" is an effective drone in the mold of "Tomorrow Never Knows," "Three Peaches" is a somber and scary mood piece, and the funhouse-mirror instrumentals sprinkled throughout make for a listening experience that keeps you wondering, How did he do that?
Schneider offers a clue to his working methods with liner notes that thank Mark Lewisohn, author of The Beatles Recording Sessions, a tome that lovingly details every backwards guitar and tape loop on Revolver and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (which, after all, were the first really wacky four-track recordings). The aptly titled Fun Trick Noisemaker (SpinART) is the slickest and most consistent of the Elephant 6 albums, and Schneider seems to be the master technician of the crowd. He is also the least interested in visual wordplay.
From their new home in Denver, the Apples In Stereo play fairly conventional songs of love and loneliness ("Love You Alice/D," "Pine Away"), with a sprinkling of science-fiction fun thrown in. ("Step inside the rocket ride/You're leaving on a race through outer space," Schneider sings with childlike enthusiasm in the giddy "Dots 1-2-3," as drummer Hilarie Sidney, the most prominent female voice in the Elephant 6 collective, provides gorgeous backing vocals.) Like the fabulous Flaming Lips, the Apples contort their old-fashioned pop songs into something new and different by injecting weird synthesizer sounds and odd vocal effects, or contrasting chaotic guitar noise with crisp, jangling acoustic guitars. It's a heady and winning mix.