Circulatory System – S/T

Apparently growing weary of waiting for Bill Doss to return to the Olivia Tremor Control fold, his former band mates and their obligatory cast of like-minded conspirators have once again congregated and delivered unto us yet another album of progressive lo-fi psychedelia, this time as Circulatory System. With Doss off mainlining good vibes as a member of the Sunshine Fix, the world has been overripe for another William Cullen Hart project, so even the hardcore fans should take no offense at his moving on. Still, at first glance, it’s hard to imagine this release as being anything but the latest Olivia Tremor Control album. Same surreal artwork, same sprawling track listing of over 20 songs, and largely the same sound that made albums like Dusk at Cubist’s Castle and Black Foliage earn high marks in the indie rock canon. Of course, just the fact that they took the care to change the band’s name almost infers that they’re saving the OTC franchise for when Doss returns. At any rate, the choice doesn’t seem as curious as some have made it out to be.
Regardless, Circulatory System crosses some familiar territory. Fuzzy guitar-rock, hazy dream-pop, and the occasional crypto-ballad, all wrapped in the same variety of surreal escapist lyrics, are distinct holdovers from their previous work. Thematically there is little distinction between the two, either. Words like “stars,” “sea,” “sun,” “sky,” “worlds,” and “time” turn up repeatedly, placing the songwriting focus clearly on the celestial plane. The word “inside” turns up even more frequently, giving strong evidence of the general theme of exploring one’s personality to find meaning in life. Apparently instructing the listener to withdraw within the metaphysical worlds inside themselves to escape mundane outside reality, the value of introspection is confirmed in tracks like the sparkling “Joy,” although strangely running parallel to the extolling of the virtues of everyday life in tracks like “The Lovely Universe.” The lyrics are complex, gloriously contradictory, and occasionally baffling. Still, even when presenting a somewhat disillusioned front, a vague optimism and longing for oneness with the community of life remains a more dominant theme.
Of course, the music is pretty darn good, too. The adventurous spirit that colored the previous OTC releases is still in strong evidence, though the more sugary highs are a little subdued, and the more avant-garde tendencies are somewhat toned down. Still, the hooks have survived, with the opening “Yesterday’s World” landing on loud guitars and pounding drums, and a snaking melodic line awarded to the most hallucinatory clarinet. Further, a little Phil Spector-by-way-of-Brian Wilson wall of sound comes through on the giant rolling “Symbols and Maps” with fluid harmonies and tinkling atmospherics. The hooks are sharp and spread out fairly evenly through the hour-long set. As usual, their cast of friends have brought along their cellos, oboes, trumpets, and tape manipulation machines, ensuring that every song is dressed in a elegantly dour tones.
A somewhat medieval sounding dirge, “Outside Blasts” marches through a muddy bubbling mass of sounds, all the while entreating you to “walk up and down the things inside you.” Establishing another lyrical theme, “Days to Come (in Photographs)” sinks into a trotting groove to continue the album’s pondering of the nature of time. Heady stuff to be sure, but there is also a competing sense of finding solace in the here and now, with lyrics like “who wants to rise above these buildings?” running shoulder-to-shoulder with sentiments like “let’s say goodbye to the world that we know.”
Overall, despite the rather hazy metaphor, the message of the music is clearly communicated: live for the moment. Simply summed up in the words “make your own parade,” from the thudding spooky groove of “Your Parades,” these songs approach the topic of self-fulfillment through personal exploration with an almost religious fervor. Whether or not you find that entreaty wise, it is the enduring aesthetic of the music, presented in both sound and lyric. How these Elephant 6 bands continue to release first-rate material, despite all working in more or less the same medium, is beyond me, but the fact remains that nearly everything that comes out of their secret headquarters (exact location still to be determined) is consistently engaging and artistically rewarding. I guess when this many minds get together, there is little standing in the way. This Circulatory System provides enough life-nurturing blood for all.