Pros: The man in the cigarette costume on the album art; definitely a unique listen
Cons: Abundance of sound collage material would likely prove unlistenable for many people
Major Organ and the Adding Machine is the weirdest Elephant 6 Collective Recording ever released. For the listener who's familiar with Elephant 6 (a group of musicians from Athens, Georgia who would later form bands ranging from Of Montreal, Elf Power, and The Apples in Stereo to Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control and even Dixie Blood Mustache), declaring this to be their most bizarre recording is saying something. Since its beginnings in the early 1990s, the Elephant 6 collective had been responsible for plenty of weirdo recordings, from Olivia Tremor Control's Beatles-esque psychedelia and noise experiments to Neutral Milk Hotel's punked-out folk tunes. Among the most downright strange recordings from the collective were those produced by the Dixie Blood Mustache project, twelve women who recorded noise-based experiments using kitchen utensils, yet I'd have to say that the most bizarre recording from the collective has to be Major Organ and the Adding Machine.
Released in 2001, this disc has the feel of being recorded in the midst of a bad acid trip, covering vast amounts of sonic territory and having some really nice, almost song-like moments scattered in the middle of extensive sonic experimentation. For its 35-minute run time, Major Organ whisks the listener away to a potentially disturbing inner space where sounds take precedence over tones: this record seems like the great noise project that the various members of the collective wanted to make for so long while "selling out" and making damaged pop tunes in their other, more accessible musical outlets. Since this self-titled album is apparently attributed to a non-existent band of unknown persons, there has been much speculation as to who actually is involved in this project, but it seems fairly certain when examining the recordings that several key figures from the aforementioned bands appear in one form or another on this disc. It's quite easy to pick out Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes and Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum doing vocals on the record, and the various psych-rock tinged guitar lines and whacko combinations of instruments would lead one to believe that Will Cullen Hart of Olivia Tremor Control and Circulatory System had to be in there someplace - the album has a kind of "Where's Waldo" feel for the listener familiar with the various musicians involved in Elephant 6.
What is most interesting for me about this release is in comparing it to the other Elephant 6 bands. Major Organ seems especially similar to the early, unreleased material from Jeff Mangum's Neutral Milk Hotel in that the entire disc seems like a lengthy sound collage. Much of the material Mangum produced prior to releasing Neutral Milk Hotel's first studio album On Avery Island in 1996 was noise-based material similar to what is featured on Major Organ. While Neutral Milk Hotel has been praised across the board and has garnered a cult-like following, most audiences have found Major Organ to be difficult to sit through, the more melodic moments all but buried in the waves of weird sound, spoken word and unfamiliar instruments. Even the eclectic mix of sound that makes up the usual Olivia Tremor Control album, efforts which frequently utilize sound collage techniques to segue into shiny bits of pop-rock goodness, seems positively mainstream to the type of material featured on the Major Organ disc. This, then almost seems like an album that dares the listener to experience what the Elephant 6 musicians would sound like with no barriers put in place with regard to their creative output.
From the opening track, the listener is likely to already have made up his or her mind about the disc. Album opener "When Father Was Away on Business" has a warbled, warped vocal track placed over a demented, crazed organ melody and accordion while a female voice wails distantly in the mix. With a slightly haunting, deranged kind of feel, the track is likely to throw off the listener and sets up the weirdo atmosphere of the rest of the disc. A brief interlude section with similar odd instrumentation transitions the record into the second track, a uptempo track that sounds like a lost 45 from the 1960s. "His Mister's Pet Whistle" demonstrates that this group of musicians can make gold if they want to, but just as quickly, the album reverts back to noise experiments, throwing in cartoon sound effects, a xylophone, and repeating voice parts - in French no less. The middle parts of this album have a mesmerizing kind of feel, with individual pieces becoming almost insignificant. Parts and pieces of tunes fade in and out at random, and the album seems to plunge into all sorts of sonic territory in the process.
Perhaps the thing that would be most frustrating for some listeners would be the moments of pure brilliance scattered around on the disc. The problem is, for every catchy and goofy track like the fuzzy psych-rock of “Water Dripping on Bread Makes Bread Taste Not so Tasty” with it’s back-and-forth dialogue between, what seems to be, a game show announcer and a winning contestant, and "Your Moonpie Eye," which features a funky bass groove, a jaw harp going wild, and wish-washy guitar strums, there's three or four pieces along the same line as "Transmission" or "The Snack Bar"- tracks that are all over the place, containing minimal to no melody and more or less just a combination of discordant sounds. "Francisco's Victory" is another model of song found on the album, as combined layers of vocals relate a fairy-tale-like story. Tracks like this seem to be pure fluff even in an album that's already full of arguably superfluous tracks. As art rock, Major Organ and the Adding Machine is fascinating, and one could very easily get lost in the sheer variety and multitude of sounds that show up on the album. Compared with just about everything else the Elephant 6 collective put out, however, this album is likely to come across as confusing and ultimately frustrating for the listener.
The final two tracks on the album among the best pieces on the disc in my opinion, the honky-tonk jam "Do the Moonpie Eye" and repetitive psychedelic dirge "Life Form (Transmission Received)," but I would question whether some listeners would even have to patience to get that point on the album. Major Organ and the Adding Machine, to put it simply, is probably too avant-garde and potentially intolerable for the vast majority of people who might be interested in it. It's somewhat difficult to even really attach a rating to this album; personally, I like it a lot, but I can easily see how people would be turned off by it. It’s certainly a very unique little disc that likely will offer a different and new listening experience each time one listens to it, but I can't really say that it's particularly pleasant or easy to listen to. This album would probably be most worthwhile for those already familiar with the somewhat eclectic psychedelic music performed by the various Elephant 6 bands, but I suspect even for that “turned on” crowd, this disc might be a little too far out.