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Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes

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Album Review

From the sound of things, not all that much has changed for Julian Koster in the nine years since his Music Tapes project made its somewhat perplexing initial appearance with First Imaginary Symphony for Nomad. Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes finds the elusive, eccentric Koster still fixated on homemade and otherwise unconventional instruments (including such creations as a "fun machine" and "the Seven Foot Tall Metronome," along with his trusty banjos and otherworldly singing saws); still futzing around with archaic recording methods (no Edison cylinders this time around, but the credits do list a record lathe, a wire recorder and ribbon microphone from the 1930s, and several pieces of equipment from the '50s and '60s); and still warbling dreamily to, for, and about insentient entities and natural forces (in this case, as the title suggests, primarily meteorological phenomena, as well as reindeer). There are some definite musical developments here, most notably a shift away from the jumbled sound collage aesthetic to a more direct and melodic song-based approach, but the most striking change may be one of context. Whereas Nomad was released at the height of the Elephant 6 Recording Company's prolificacy and success, and got somewhat overlooked in the shuffle, the intervening years have seen the E6 collective's output dwindle and then essentially halt altogether, while its stature and the cult fascination with its works (most prominently Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, to which Koster was a significant contributor) have continued to increase; the upshot being that considerable attention was paid to this new offering.

That attention turns out to be absolutely warranted, for Clouds and Tornadoes is a fascinating and often compelling creation that effectively constitutes a vigorous and unexpected resuscitation of the long-dormant Elephant 6 spirit — particularly when taken in conjunction with the Apples in Stereo's entirely different New Magnetic Wonder (the only other major record since 2002 to bear the E6 insignia, and in some ways this album's polar opposite, although both feature an extensive list of contributions from many of the collective's musicians). Specifically, Clouds marks the return of E6's more idiosyncratic and less directly pop-oriented tendencies — it does, indeed, evoke the sepia-toned antiquarianism and fragile intimacy of NMH, and to a lesser extent the fractured, surrealist fuzzy warbles of the Olivia Tremor Control axis. All that said, this is incontrovertibly Koster's record, the product of his singular vision, which can only really be taken on its own unique terms. Many listeners are likely to be put off by his unapologetically wailing bleat of a voice, which he strains to the point of maximum expressive poignancy (or vexation, depending on your take); similarly, his quaintly whimsical lyrics are liable to come off to less charitable listeners as hokey, insipid babble. But those either charmed by or willing to indulge these excesses enough to engage with the strange music contained here will find much to marvel at, both in the album's songs — which gesture intriguingly at fusty folk forms, bygone back-porch balladry, golden-age silver-screen pop, marching band music, and more without really coming close to anything recognizable, or certainly anything remotely like conventional indie rock — and in its sounds themselves, which are at least equally important in conveying you off to its curious, self-contained little world. ~ K. Ross Hoffman, Rovi


Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Though the Music Tapes are seen primarily as a spinoff from the Elephant 6 music collective, which includes bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control, and the Apples in Stereo, they began as the brainchild of Julian Koster. As a 16-year-old, Koster conceived of his early recordings, like the "Silly Putty Symphony" as a surreal soundworld to escape into and share with friends. This motivation also fueled Koster's band at the time, Chocolate U.S.A., which eventually evolved into the...
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Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes, The Music Tapes
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