Release Date: Sep 4, 2012
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Lo-Fi, Experimental Rock, Neo-Psychedelia
Julian Koster, former member of Neutral Milk Hotel and principle songwriter for The Music Tapes, is a man who warrants very little introduction. He’s been the go-to studio musician and arranger on many of the albums associated with the Elephant 6 collective for going on 20 years and has endeared his boisterous boyish persona into the hearts of many a listener. Koster’s work with The Music Tapes has ranged from lo-fi outsider music to charmingly textured folk and his latest album, Mary’s Voice, is no different.
There's nothing ordinary about Mary's Voice, the fifth album by the Music Tapes. From the singing saw, violin and banjo that make up the majority of the instrumentation to the simple yet stirring melodies, Julian Koster and collaborator Robbie Cucchiaro have made a magical album that builds on 2008's For Clouds And Tornadoes. Over the past 15 or so years, the duo's songs have grown from ambitiously ramshackle to lovingly crafted, and much of this album is reminiscent of lullabies passed down through generations: the kind of songs we sing from memory rather than from learning.
Stepping out of a storybook, the ageless, elfin Julian Koster is a music industry oddity. A member of several notable Elephant 6 groups, including Neutral Milk Hotel, he embodies the boisterous, endearingly childish side of the musical collective. With The Music Tapes, he’s become a defender of folk traditions, placing emphasis on intimate community-oriented performances, especially caroling (the artwork’s Rankin/Bass-looking figurine is yet another example of his fixation on Christmas).
The Music TapesMary's Voice[Merge; 2012]By Joshua Pickard; September 5, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetJulian Koster always seems to be unfairly pegged as one of the lesser Elephant 6 musicians. This seems to be due in part to a relative inauspiciousness when it comes to his public persona - though he’s never shied away from completely fantastical elements like overly elaborate set designs and tour methods - and his habit of playing the expert studio musician on many E6-related releases. The albums he has released as The Music Tapes have always been artistically inventive, though sometimes creatively scattershot.
Pick up any Elephant 6 record worth a damn, and chances are you'll find Music Tapes frontman Julian Koster's name somewhere in the liner notes. For going on 20 years, Koster's been instrumental in shaping the sound of Elephant 6's sprawling psychedelia, lending his singing saw (and his considerable compositional expertise) to Neutral Milk Hotel and the Olivia Tremor Control, to his own Chocolate USA and the Music Tapes. Though the weird whinny of Koster's favored axe and his symphony-on-a-shoestring arrangements are nearly as essential to the E6 sound as their thousand-part harmonies, his work as the Music Tapes has occasionally struggled to distinguish itself from the company he keeps.
It was only a matter of time before Julian Koster's strict adherence to dated recording techniques, oddball instrumentation, syrupy-sweet melodies, and relentless nostalgia would lead to a full-on circus sideshow. Bolstered by an ambitious Kickstarter campaign, Koster and his band of merrymakers plan to take their latest concoction, the typically lush, fractured, and kaleidoscopic Mary's Voice, on the road in style with "The Traveling Imaginary," a mobile big-tent event replete with music, games, stories, films, and amusements. It's a fitting notion, as the 14-track collection of new material, the band's first since 2008's well-received Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes, plays like a fire-twirling, tightrope-walking, funnel cake-devouring Sunday-afternoon performance with Koster wearing the top hat.
Julian Koster, former member of Neutral Milk Hotel and singing saw enthusiast (among other things), is not revivalist. Koster and his music seem to both exist in a time far away, a time that may not have ever really existed, something murky and partially imagined and yet all the more genuine for its fantastic elements. Mary's Voice, his new record with the Music Tapes, is another clash of ancient recording methods and current ones, and the result isn't lo-fi so much as it is earthly and covered in so many layers of dust.
The Music Tapes have become purveyors of a particularly mournful strain of old-movie-soundtrack pop over the past few decades, although that’s hardly the extent of their bag of tricks. Mary’s Voice, the latest effort from this 90’s-era collective spearheaded by former Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster, mostly fits that description. It’s the aural equivalent of a dusty old attic, rife with sounds that evoke memories of earlier times.