Review Summary: An invitation to an endlessly wondrous and enchanting world
The Music Tapes, lead by Neutral Milk Hotel's Julian Koster, have always walked a fine line between obscure genius and utter nonsense. With 1999's "First Imaginary Symphony for Nomad", The Music Tapes's first full-length, Koster and his group assaulted the senses with an eclectic array of bizarre instrumentation, off-putting vocals, and irritating vocal samples, effectively out-weirding most of their fellow Elephant 6 buddies by leaps and bounds. The album had glimmers of brilliance that were ultimately marred by a multitude of problems. After the release of "First Imaginary Symphony for Nomad", recording for The Music Tapes's second official album "Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes" began, ultimately taking Koster 9 years to complete.
This time around Koster seems to have matured vastly in his song writing abilities, cutting out the irritating and frivolous qualities his first album possessed. He also managed to get a much better handle on his unique brand of lo-fi recording techniques. The recording process itself is as crucial of an element to The Music Tapes's effectiveness as the music itself. Antique relics such as World War II era reel to reel tape recorders and a 1895 Edison wax cylinder recorder were used to give the music a timeless and raw sound, to the extent that the album truly does not sound like it is from any specific era. The album pops and hisses in a manner that sounds as if it were being played on a phonograph during the latter part of the 19th century.
"Saw Ping Pong and Orchestra" begins the album with a lone wavering singing saw (the saw being one of The Music Tapes's most distinct characteristics) and Koster wailing about the beauty of falling snow, until an intervention of strings reminiscent of a classic Hollywood picture whisk the song away, setting the mood for the album.
The beginning of "Nimbus Stratus Cirrus" is an impressive example of the obscure and curious beauty the singing saw provokes, as a group of saws weep and cry in a quaint little symphony of nostalgia and longing. Tracks such as "The Minister of Longitude" and "Majesty" display the more upbeat and fuzz-folk influence in The Music Tapes's sound, and occasionally bring to mind the marching-band style melodies that Koster crafted during his Neutral Milk Hotel days.
Whether plucking simple chords on a banjo while quietly crooning soft and tenuous melodies, or belting out lyrics about family and reindeer, Koster remains in a constantly driven state, consumed by an overpowering force to express a beautiful and wondrous vision, much like Jeff Mangum in "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea." Every moment of "Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes" sounds delightfully deliberate and meaningful.
"Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes" is not a grand experiment meant to test the limits of sonic weirdness, nor is it meant to be an inventive and clever art piece. The effectiveness of the album lies in the fact that it feels like a genuine and honest attempt to invite the listener to escape into a fantastical world that is both new and magical, yet grounded in traditional Americana roots. A world where everyday is Christmas morning and childhood fascination and wonder have not yet been squelched by the ills of the adult world. "Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes" is surely an acquired taste, but with an open mind and willingness to accept something a little bit unusual, I'm sure Koster would love nothing more than to include you in his fantastical world.