Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
We use the term "sprawling" - or other people do in travelogues and architectural digests - to express the layout and dimensions of a city like Chicago and all its never-ending suburbs or Mars Volta songs, in pontificating rock and roll zines. There are serious amounts of tedious droppings and drummings, achingly painful parts about some things so sprawling and non-compact. Sprawling is the archrival, at times, of appropriate, of idyllic. We'd typically rather not have our eyes and other senses so completely full when it comes to such things that are appealing on so many levels because then they can never be fully taken in and loved.
The sprawling nature of an El Olio Wolof song doesn't fit this criticism. It spans and bursts at the gills, taunting simplicity and getting carried away with a story made for a science fiction novel that's been converted into a major motion picture featuring all of the essential details and geeked out particulars that send it up as anything but a normal bit of writing. The Merced, California band is led by a bearded and often stocking capped fellow who goes by the name of Radioactive Cauliflower, RC for short. He's one of the most unassuming lead singers that you're ever going to find, bringing out an Elephant Six-approved, quirky smooth voice that doesn't come along more than once every 10 years or so and throwing together narratives that could get all of the Dungeon masters and those with a Shel Silversteen fetish woozy.
If the Athens, Ga., scene of the early-to-mid 90s needed a band the likes of which Brian Wilson treated the Four Freshman, El Olio Wolof could have served that need, making music that isn't determined by its smallest parts, but by the beginning, middle and end, all pasted together and understood as a complete thought. The words that the band pens seem to be mostly mythological, unrestrained by conventional subject matters meant for pop songs and unwilling to just discuss girls and breakups. They are about wizards, witches and apple trees with feelings. It's some form of anthropomorphism, but containing enough human sensation to make it so much more than that. A dying apple tree in "Apathetic Apple" sees all of these people coming and going from the proximities of its withering roots and living and hibernating branches and realizes that they don't think about it the way that it may deserve. It thinks out loud, "Just remember how much apple pie they ate in '83," and there's pride and sadness in the line. It's the gentle way that RC takes with his subject matter that keeps it from reeking of pretentiousness or self-satisfying word dribbles meant solely to entertain the writer and few other people. It doesn't apply to El Olio Wolof, which proceeds with tune after tune of highly literate and fantasy-filled songwriting.