Much like the bands it plays host to The Elephant 6 Recording Company doesn’t like to force itself upon the world; it lays quiet and lets the world come to it. Elephant 6, whilst having a recording company in the name, is more a community or a “collective” of musicians than a straight up record label it was started by childhood friends and self-proclaimed 60’s pop junkies Robert Schneider (no not that Robert Schneider, this Schneider has luckily kept his distance from Adam Sandler), Bill Doss, Will Hart and Jeff Mangum all of which are members of bands which formed the foundation of this now enigmatic and prestigious label.
The label has come to be celebrated for its releases by Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal and Olivia Tremor Control to name but a few, however at the time of release this success was unexpected and in many ways unwanted by the band members who up until then had enjoyed writing and playing music purely for the enjoyment of their label friends, paying little to no attention to the stir they were causing in the American indie scene in the late 90’s. The success of Neutral Milk Hotel's magnum opus In The Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998) forced the spotlight onto the label even more and with that came success for the labels (at the time) smaller bands and along with success came the ever destructive force of mainstream record deals which subsequently lead to the breakup of not only Neutral Milk Hotel, but the label as a whole in 2002. However, in true Elephant 6 style, all of a sudden in 2007 a new The Apples In Stereo album was released baring the Elephant 6 logo and this message; "The Elephant 6 Recording Company re-opens our doors and windows, and invites the world: join together with your friends and make something special, something meaningful, something to remember when you are old.”.
I’ve been a huge fan of Elephant 6’s output for many years now and consider them to be responsible for some of the greatest bands and albums ever made, and the influence the label has had can still be seen today not only through the influence of its releases but the influence it had on the record industry by showing that the community aspect of music didn’t die the day Woodstock ended. So now you know the label it’s time to introduce the bands, as its Elephant 6 I think it’s fitting to pick 6 essentials from the collectives rich history which I hope will make you understand why you just read all of this and why I typed it.
6. Of Montreal – The Sunlandic Twins (2005)
Of Montreal are Elephant 6’s most successful band in terms of holding ‘mainstream’ interest over several releases and this mainstream success is reflected in their work. The SunlandicTwins is one of the cleanest albums in terms of production to come out of the Elephant 6 collective and in terms of accessibility it’s a great place to start. Whilst the album is definitely more modern in comparison to the releases of associated bands it takes the 60’s pop aesthetic that pumps through the veins of all Elephant 6 bands and brings it into the now, relying way more on production, keyboards and synths and a lot less guitar and the general clamour that we’ve come to know and love from Elephant 6. However this move away from the collective’s usual aesthetic is not necessarily bad and makes for a very enjoyable slightly off kilter pop album.
5. A Hawk and a Hacksaw – The Way The Wind Blows (2006)
If you were to play a song off The Sunlandic Twins then a song from A Hawk and a Hacksaws' The way The Wind Blows you’d never guess they were in any way linked. A Hawk and Hacksaw clearly take a large chunk of their influence from Turkish and Gypsy folk and are probably best described as a less commercial deeper routed Beirut and that would partly be due to the fact that Zach from Beirut plays trumpet on a hand full of songs on this album. This is the bands most complete album in my opinion and smoothly hops around different parts of Eastern Europe and even different eras. As soon as you hit play it’s hard not to feel like you’re travelling through Romania in a Vardo.
4. The Apples In Stereo - Tone Soul Revolution (1997)
The Apples In Stereo are one of the forefathers of Elephant 6 and wear their “60’s pop music enthusiast” badges very proudly and this reflects I their music. The best way to describe this album would be imagine taking the Beach Boys and throwing in members of Built To Spill and what you get is perfectly moulded summer pop with a healthy dose of effect pedals. This album saw the band ditch the lo-fi aspect of their music furthering them from label mates NMH and Olivia Tremor and embracing high quality production (the Pet Sounds influence can be felt throughout) and this new recording style does the band many favours.
3. Olivia Tremor Control – Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle (1996)
This album almost acts as a summary for the whole of Elephant 6, it combines so many aspects from so many of the bands it’s hard not to get pulled into the winding journey Olivia Tremor takes you on here with their fun loving neo-psych masterpiece. Whilst previous Olivia Tremor outputs boasted help from Elephant 6’s reluctantly referred to leader Jeff Mangum what this album lacks in Jeff it makes up for in the fact it’s probably one of the most accessibly avant-garde albums of all time and that in theory is what Olivia Tremor is all about taking the avant-garde and the misunderstood and breaking it down into a unfaultable easier to digest pop formula.
2. The Gerbils – Are You Sleepy (1998)
The Gerbils are easily the noisiest band on the Elephant 6 label. The Gerbils to me seemed to be the most aware out of all the Elephant 6 bands as to what was happening in indie scenes elsewhere at the time other than just Athens and by doing this the band were able to make an album that at times can sound like Pavement, if Pavement were trying to be McCarthy and it’s this all-encompassing attitude that makes this album in my opinion the most underrated album the label has ever put its name to and maybe if people had paid attention at the time rather than listening to the Titanic soundtrack which was enjoying its 15th week at number one we could be seeing The Gerbils name up there with Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Sebadoh where it belongs.
1. Neutral Milk Hotel - In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998)
OK, ok I will admit I came into writing this already knowing that no matter how hard I tried this would always end up being number one, and already knowing this will rub people up the wrong way (what a horrible figure of speech that is). When it comes down to hard facts the thing is this is probably my favourite album of all time, and I don’t say that lightly as its sort of set I stone now I’ve typed it. This album does not only incorporate a vast spectrum of musical influences from the noise punk of Scratch Acid to the simple yet effective folk stylings of Simon and Garfunkel it’s the way the album so effortlessly sows together these influences and works in Barrett-esque lyricisms that never fails to stop me in my tracks. The album is a rich tapestry that has been purposely unstitched then put back together in the dark in order to purposely avoid perfection and that’s what makes this album perfect. You can feel the emotion and thought that goes into every word that leaves Jeff Mangum's mouth and the power behind every individual note the band plays. I could do my dissertation on this album and still have a wealth of things to write about, so if you haven’t already heard this album I’m going to stop typing now so you can go and do that right now… no seriously go.