The Music Tapes
Mary’s Voice is the warmest and most accessible invitation yet into Julian Koster’s world—the culmination of a vision he has been realizing for over a decade.
That vision began taking shape in the ’90s, during which time Koster also became a key member of Neutral Milk Hotel and a contributor to The Olivia Tremor Control and other legendary members of the enormously influential Elephant 6 Collective. Since then, Koster (along with long-time collaborator Robbie Cucchiaro on horns) has pushed the boundaries of what audiences have come to expect from an “indie rock” band—staging unique caroling and lullaby tours, performing alongside mechanical contraptions like the 7-Foot-Tall Metronome, and displaying virtuosity on both the singing saw and orchestral banjo.
Mary’s Voice, the follow-up to 2008’s acclaimed Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes, is part one of a planned two-part album and inaugurates a newly active phase in The Music Tapes’ evolution—with plans to tour the world in a circus tent later this year and an NPR radio serial in the works. Recorded with The Music Tapes’ signature method of using recording machines of both past (early 1900s, ’30s, ’40s, ’60s) and present to achieve a timeless sound, the album is, in Koster’s own words, “a holiday from what is so often mistakenly called the ‘real world’… In music, time can disappear the way it does in long summer evenings when we’re allowed to go out and play as kids, or afterwards, when exhausted, we dream.”
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.
Peppered with bursts of incidental music suggesting a surprised handshake between the Beach Boys' Smile and Tom Waits’Frank’s Wild Years, Mary’s Voice can sound much bigger than its 1930s Webster Chicago Wire Recorder and 1960s Ampex AG-440 four-track would imply, especially on standout cuts like the desperate and bountiful “The Big Beautiful Shops (It’s Said That It Could Be Anyone),” the old-timey bard-pop ballad “The Dark Is Singing Songs (Sleepy Time Down South),” and the glorious last minute and a half of the sweet and sentimental closer, “Takeshi and Elijah.”
There’s nothing new here for the established Elephant 6 fan, as all of the collective’s notable idiosyncrasies are present and accounted for, but while Koster's childlike enthusiasm, meandering, impressionistic lyrics, and Anglophile steampunk posturing may be the very definition of twee (or tweed, in this sense), like Willy Wonka, it's hard not to admire his Luddite tenacity, especially in an age that prefers instant gratification to pure imagination.