This album spotlights Julian Koster's songcraft and distinctive vocals, his almost religious devotion to the singing saw, and numerous contributions from other musicians in the Elephant 6 orbit. As on previous efforts, recording was done using an array of antique hardware, giving the record a timeless, texturally rich sonic palette.
The Music Tapes:
Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes
The word "timeless" is bandied about carelessly in music writing, often incorrectly as an indication that something is more than a fad. But Music Tapes For Clouds and Tornadoes, the long-time-coming sophomore album by Julian Koster's Music Tapes project, is the rare case of a record that literally sounds timeless, or not of a specific era. With liberal use of banjo coupled with the tones of the singing saw and the intimacy of a lo-fi or field recording, Music Tapes comes across like a sweeping summation of the history of 20th century American white-boy music, from the sounds of Appalachia or the Grand Ole Opry to MGM movie musicals and K Records do-it-yourself twee.
You'd be forgiven if the band name the Music Tapes doesn't ring a bell. They released their only other record, First Imaginary Symphony For Nomad, nine years ago-- ages ago in these accelerated culture days. The group revolves around Koster, one of Jeff Mangum's partners-in-crime from Neutral Milk Hotel, and a collective of Elephant 6-related musicians (Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes, A Hawk and a Hacksaw's Jeremy Barnes, Olivia Tremor Control's John Fernandes and Eric Harris, NMH's Scott Spillane, among others) who lend a hand fleshing out his psych-folk fantasias and laying them to tape.
Few records encourage listeners to identify recording equipment-- who, save engineers and musicians, cares what kind of microphone was used?-- but the Music Tapes use the scratchy textures of vintage equipment as a key component of their sound. The fuzzy crackle of Koster's cadre of toys-- from the record lathe (think ProTools for the phonograph age) and Depression-era wire recorders to a handheld tape recorder-- is as much a part of creating Music Tapes' aural character as the instruments played. And the combination of such unusual equipment with such surprisingly accessible melodies creates a pleasingly disorienting sense of déjà vu. Album opener "Saw Ping Pong and Orchestra" starts with a rhythmic sputter and haunting singing saw that sounds like the soundtrack to a black-and-white B movie, but then, with the addition of weeping, waltzing strings, blossoms into a score for a 1940s melodrama.
Willfully and wistfully cinematic, "Freeing Song By Reindeer" sets Koster's plaintive, reedy voice against cabaret accordions, like he's an E6 Edith Piaf, for a psychedelic take on a Parisian-café sequence. "Tornado Longing for Freedom" builds an off-kilter campfire song on a stop-start banjo line and ghostly background drone, like an acid-fried "Rainbow Connection". And closing track "In an Ice Palace" features the jingle-bell percussion, groovy Magnus organ, and jazzy rhythms of the mod 60s. Listeners will also be reminded of Koster's tenure in Neutral Milk Hotel. "The Minister of Longitude", the album's most anthemic track, bursts with the kind of tinny-yet-rousing folk and ramshackle horn orchestrations of "Holland, 1945", and "Song for Oceans Falling" is the sort of crackling, aching ballad that would have been both shambolic and heartfelt enough for In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
Don't get hung up on such weirdness, though. Sure, Koster and his cast of collaborators use lyrical abstraction and experimental recording techniques, but the melodies at the heart of each song are welcoming and familiar. And even the unusual way they've been gussied up only adds to their poignancy. These 15 tracks were certainly worth the almost-decade-long wait.
- Rebecca Raber, August 21, 2008