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Circulatory System

Signal Morning

[Cloud Recordings; 2009]

By ; September 28, 2009 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

In 1996 I worked in Cambridge, MA. Most days during my lunch break I would quickly eat a sandwich in the local mall then head upstairs, past the piercing studio and the anime shop, to leaf through the black wooden bins of my local Newbury Comics (one of a chain of comic shops, turned reasonably-indie record shop that dot New England).

Most days I’d simply browse, hoping to stumble on maybe a new band or a rare import CD from an old favorite. On one particular day in 1996 I wandered in to the shop and heard over the sound-system something both hard to categorize and immediately catchy and accessible. I casually glanced at the display behind the counter (I didn’t wanna alert any hipsters to my obvious ignorance after-all) and was able to spot that the band was called, bizarrely, Neutral Milk Hotel. I quickly grabbed the CD, called On Avery Island, and went up to the counter. The clerk, a well-intentioned (if overly tattooed) friend of mine, looked at the CD and said, “Do you already have the Cubist Castle thing?” I laughably said, “Isn’t this their first record?” He quickly explained that Neutral Milk Hotel was no ordinary band. In fact they weren’t even really a band in the typical sense, but a ‘project’ of something known as the “Elephant 6 Collective”…another of their projects was the aforementioned “Cubist Castle thing” (actual name: “The Olivia Tremor Control – Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle“). Based on what I was hearing I eagerly purchased both CDs and by doing so I discovered two modern classics.

Months passed, and as will come as no surprise to anyone that knows those two early E6 releases, I became a bit obsessed with these guys. Information was scarce though as these were essentially pre-internet days and most of what I could figure out came from reading the odd interview or review, but mostly I just listened to the music.

That winter, to my great excitement, both bands, err, projects, were touring together and would be playing a small local venue. I quickly bought tickets and waited anxiously to see what this new musical idea would look like live.

I was not disappointed.

Now, each band played a set, but this wasn’t what you’d normally see on a Friday night at your local rock club. Seemingly, most of the guys were in both bands and I swear at points you couldn’t tell which band was playing. And, oh yeah, all of it was amazing. It was kind of a 60s psychedelic pop, but played with no regard for convention… this was not, in other words, The Brian Jonestown Massacre (or any of a million bands which aped a 60s sound, but didn’t really push music forward).

I was not the only one impressed. The records, both of them, sold quite well and a second NMH album called In The Aeroplane Over The Sea came out two years later and was a critics favorite. Fans liked it even more. In 1999 The Olivia Tremor Control (finally) put out a new album named Black Foliage: Animation Music which was also a hugely successful album with the critics, but about as bizarre as pop music can get.

These two releases further solidified these guys as musical visionaries, but also as uncompromising artists. They didn’t want you to necessarily “get it” on the first pass. This stuff wasn’t easy, but it was rewarding for those that would give it a chance and like all good artists, both bands seemed to grow between their first and second records.

This new success brought with it issues. Almost every member of these projects had other projects. the “collective itself” even had other bands (like the Apples In Stereo and of Montreal) which, while officially connected, weren’t composed of the same members (though even that’s not quite accurate). All of this made it very complicated to keep these projects going and in 2002 the Elephant 6 Collective semi-officially disbanded.

After it ended though, the main members of two of the most influential indie acts of the 1990s didn’t just disappear; they went on to form other bands and other inter-related projects.

The main force behind Neutral Milk Hotel, Will Cullen Hart, started his latest project, Circulatory System, in 2000. In 2001 they released their self-titled debut. It would be fair to say that it received mixed reviews though I personally love it. A few months later they released a completely (utterly) reworked version of that record, called “Inside Views.”

In 2003 they toured, and seemed to be on the verge of releasing something new. Then Hart was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. This didn’t stop him, but it did understandably slow things down a bit. In the intervening six years they have been working, on and off on their next record called Signal Morning. It was finally released almost seven years after some of the songs were written.

Signal Morning is a sometimes amazing, sometimes confounding, always challenging and often rewarding psychedelic pop/rock record. On first listen, many people will be put off by the arrangements. A typical Circulatory System song features many variations on one melodic theme–almost like the band recorded three of four versions of the same song. These variations are then rammed into one another with an artful, often intentional awkwardness. In other words, songs tend to mutate into variations of themselves in clever but jarring ways. On some tracks, such as “This Morning (We Remembered Everything),” this approach is revelatory. Bits of sound and texture float in and out of the mix with astonishing precision and the melody seems to grow more interesting with each passing iteration.

The overall effect of this approach is one of “structured chaos.” We know that people chose to make this sound all fucked up and beautiful, but for the life of us we can’t quite figure out why specific choices were made or even how the final product was constructed in the studio. Unfortunately, this brings us back to the central issue with this record: its greatest strengths are also its greatest flaws.

This record took seven years to germinate. The amount of creativity on display is daunting. If you play this to your friends, there’s a good chance they’ll either be blown away by its shot-gun approach to song-craft, or they’ll be repulsed by its chaos and its non-conformist approach to production.

For existing fans, the knife is equally sharp. This record is not too horribly different (or better) than anything else these guys have done. It’s not a step forward, it’s not a milestone in the E6 cannon, it’s just another record. Now for fans, that’s no bad thing, on the surface, but… when an artist/musician becomes known for pushing music forward anything less than revolutionary can seem kind of two-dimensional and flat.

The production is full of surprises, from avant-jazz noodling that wouldn’t be out of place on a Henry Threadgill record (Electronic Diversion) to classic psychedelia. You will, if you let this grow on you, find yourself repeatedly saying, “what just happened?” To a listener like me, this weirdly beautiful mess is exhilarating more than tedious and the stand-out tracks will make it on to mixes for friends.

For all of its flaws there are dozens memorable hooks, and more daring a pop record has not been released this year. Herein lies the real problem with Signal Morning: it requires too much of the casual listener and doesn’t reward the dedicated fan enough. For those unfamiliar with the sprawling approach the Elephant 6 guys take, this record is potentially a very daunting listen.


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