May 1999
s m u g
ear candy
by Ben Auburn

White Elephant

Try as we might, pop music just can't shake the sounds of the sixties. Sure, there's plenty of seventies and eighties-influenced music, it's the strategies, the aims, we can't shake, not the sounds. Outside of weirder electronica, when's the last time you heard an 808 used as anything but comic relief? [Send all "you're an idiot if you haven't heard this" comments to] But when it comes to the sixties' tight harmonies, chiming guitars, gutsy organ riffs, or Kinksy melodies, music makers just can't seem to get enough.

A loose collective of four-track savants based either out of Colorado or Athens, GA, depending on which magazine you choose as your source, the Elephant 6 Recording Company has been trying to reproduce the sixties-in-their-heads for four or five years now. Robert Schneider seems to be the ringleader, popping up on his own Apples in Stereo as well as records by compatriots Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel; but the whole clan seems to be as loose as a seventies key party, with AiS, NMH, and OTC members guesting on albums by E6 second-stringers like Elf Power and Buelah. The three core bands cover a wide swath of sixties territory, with the Apples staking out the British Invasion, OTC on the heavy psychedelia and Smile-era Beach Boys tiny-hugeness, and NMH the drug-crazed ex-folkies, playing campfire songs for lunatics.

Of the three, Jeff Magnum's Neutral Milk Hotel has released the best, and the loosest, record: 1998's In An Aeroplane Under the Sea was preposterously good, crammed with weird, hummable melodies and fevered playing. The recent Olivia Tremor Control release, Black Foliage, is about as accessible as they'll probably get, minus the odd interlude here and there and the 10+ minute tape-loop opus -- imagine the Beach Boys . . . just imagine the Beach Boys, really, only they had the benefit of Lenny Kaye's Nuggets album and We're Only In It For The Money.

Still, of all the sixties nostalgists -- and there are plenty more, like Regia, helmed by an ex Remy Zero drummer and co-produced by Robert Schneider, or the aforementioned Buelah and Elf Power -- it's a reformed shoegazer who takes home the prize for getting the most out of those Perfect Pop sounds that only the crankiest among us don't crave.

Starting out life as My Bloody Valentine advocates, Kurt Heasley's Lilys threw a curve ball in the form of 1996's Better Can't Make Your Life Better, under forty minutes of undeniable sixties-esque pop, including "A Nanny in Manhattan," which gained the band some UK fame when it was used in a popular Levi's commercial. Better sounds as fresh as any record made in '96, which is all the more remarkable considering how much is sounds like a Small Faces record. Heasley has a knack for ingratiating melody and no respect for A-B-B-A, verse-chorus-verse song structures. Despite the fuzz-box guitar and Farfasia organ, the Lilys never sounded dated or like throwbacks -- it's as if they were building working rocket ships out of wood and spit.


Their new record, The 3-Way, is torn out of the same book, except it's even better. Heasley aims at a wider target and still manages to hit right in the middle -- there's the odd trace of bossanova and banjo here and there, and the songs -- which go from 1:30 to just over seven minutes -- are even less interested in following rules.

On paper, it sounds dreadful, like a project Beck abandoned long before making it into the studio, but Heasley's so crafty -- and so obstinate -- that every piece falls into place. The two epics, "Socs Hip" and "Leo Ryan (Our Pharaoh's Slave)," are each made up of what feels like an uncountable number of song fragments. They're songs constructed entirely out of bridges, moving from one transition to another and looping back and never losing that essential pop bounce. They're over, and they couldn't have been more than two and a half minutes -- either that or a whole, blissful record went by.

The remaining tracks, while just as unconcerned with standard structures, don't feel like they've been removed from their own larger settings. They're their own animals, not refugees from other, non-finished epics -- proof that Heasley's got a master plan, that he's not just a pop savant who doesn't really know what he's doing.

Look, no critic likes to gush(or wear cargo pants) -- it makes us feel weak (we're very fragile) -- but The 3-Way, like Built to Spill's Keep It Like a Secret, is one of those unclassifiable masterpieces, all the more remarkable because it's built with tools that have mostly been applied to disposable products. In thirty-six minutes it accomplishes more than the less inventive and more experimental Black Foliage does in twice the time. Hopelessly retro and impossibly forward-thinking, the Lilys are the true archeologist-artists of the sixties tradition, making Cornell boxes out of the detritus they find on their digs.

in the junk drawer:

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