Free the reindeer! A new album from the Music Tapes

By Steve Sedlak

The musical romanticists of the 19th century exalted music as a supreme art form because of its sheer emotional intensity. Now a superior communicative language based on human feeling, instrumental music was raised up from its lowly pre-Romantic era status as simple entertainment to something like a religion. As a human being, I can think critically about the way music is constructed, but I can rarely rationalize why the music moves me to dance, cry, or pace the Minnesota sidewalks, contemplating things at two a.m. in subzero temperatures.Because of the instant emotional appeal music has to me, I rarely ever come in contact with an album or piece of music that I only come to like over time. For example, I still don’t like Bach – he’s too organized. I’ve given Bach a chance time and time again over the years, but only his most popular works ever evoke any sort of emotional reaction in me. Maybe years down the line I’ll come to like Bach, but trying to get along with him now is a futile effort. People change and what they see in books, movies, and music changes too.

However, “Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes” is a recording that left me feeling Bach-esque ennui at its beginning and something closer to a Sgt. Peppers ecstasy at its end. The album certainly has easily accessible tracks such as “The Minister of Longitude,” but the majority of the tracks only come to emotional fruition through repeated listening.

The Music Tapes is an experimental project of Julian Koster from Neutral Milk Hotel. “Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes” was the first album put out by the project in nearly six years, but the love for the music shines through in every track. Koster employs various antiquated recording techniques, such as a wire recorder from the 1940s and even an Edison wax cylinder recorder. The remnants left by these now outmoded technologies in the music are beautiful. They seem to only intensify the listening experience, making the listener all the more aware that what they are listening to is a recording, a commodified and packaged message of sorts. If that’s not charming enough, the bizarre use of saws, banjos, and string instruments ought to do it.

I don’t know if I’m a lyrics or melody person but this album has the best of both worlds. The ending of “Tornado Longing for Freedom” trails off into a lonely western yodel. The pauses are heartrending. Tracks like “Cumulonimbus” have sweeping progressions reminiscent of the towering clouds in its title. Meanwhile, “Song for Oceans Falling” opens with lyrical images of grand pianos “sinking in the surf.”

The title fits this album in more than one way. A lot of the track titles do indeed have to do with clouds and other weather phenomena, and there’s an airy, sweeping quality in the songs. But it’s the lonely hopefulness of the clouds on the plains that seems to penetrate most of the songs of the album. It’s a good album for someplace as flat as Minnesota.