Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Music Tapes :: For Clouds and Tornadoes

Julian Koster has explained his main project The Music Tapes as ‘post cards from his imaginary world.’ If this is true then their latest album For Clouds and Tornadoes was post marked nine years ago. That’s how long it’s been since the band released 1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad.

The new album is a lo-fi journey into the wintery shallows of Koster’s mind. It is much more accessible than 1st Imaginary, which was characterized by experiments in sound and noise, audio clips cut together and storytelling, all blended in song. For Clouds and Tornadoes is reminiscent of Koster’s work with Neutral Milk Hotel, however the band is in no way trapped in the shadow of Jeff Mangum and stands by itself amazingly well. The only darkness looming over The Music Tapes is that of the sonic tornado Koster has created.

The album was recorded in various bedrooms using vintage equipment, such as microphones from the 1930s. There’s even a track of Koster’s grandfather singing, called “Julian and Grandpa,” adding to the homemade feeling of the record.

Koster plays banjo, harmonium and even the ping pong ball in “Saw Ping Pong Orchestra.” He also plays the singing saw, present on nearly every track, as part of a quartet featured on the album. Don’t forget the wild musical inventions such as the seven foot metronome, Static the singing television and the Clapping Hands Machine, among others.

Throughout the record, imagery of snow and clouds conjure strong themes of Christmas. The three instrumentals that feature singing saw interludes relate to the holiday as well. “Schedrevka” is the name for a Ukranian New Years Carol and “Kolyada” (numbers one and two) is the original Slavic word for Christmas.

Koster has a unique way of creating percussion on the album. In addition to the ping pong ball, songs like “Freeing Song by Reindeer” rely on natural mechanical noise to create a rhythm. The harmonium clacking against itself becomes the steady mournful heartbeat of the ballad.

Koster’s lyrics can sometimes be overpowered by the music and the vocals buried, but his emotions ring through. The album is a carefully balanced mix of sorrow and happiness. “Majesty” buzzes and crashes in the album’s most joyous moment. Koster proves that he can still get noisy at the end of “The Minister of Lognitude,” the trombone blasts making you smile every time you hear it.

Then there are songs that could be both celebrations and laments. “Tornado Longing for Freedom” is a poppy tune of longing. It ends with Koster’s catchy and eerie woohoo-ing.
Visually, his imagination probably looks something like his Web site, mimicking Koster’s music as a swarm of antique images and stories. The site is made up of sequences of photographs, each with a written passage to accompany it. The pages deserve some time to be set aside in order to allow for proper exploration.

The Music Tapes’ For Clouds and Tornadoes proves a strange and wondrous place that can be revisited over and over again with something new discovered each time.


~Lee Stepien

Posted at WERS.org on October 11, 2008

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