Following the tragic loss of Olivia Tremor Control mainman and Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise mainstay Bill Doss earlier this year it would be easy, especially in light of Jeff Mangum’s seeming return to the hinterlands following a brief return to the public eye, to consider Elephant 6, those beatific kids huddled in a commune in Athens, Georgia who went on to make some of the greatest records of the ’90s and early ]00s, a spent force.
That statement, in light of the potential shown on The Music Tapes’ 2008 album For Clouds and Orchestra and the promise held in their astounding performance at this year’s Mangum curated ATP festival, would seem to be a premature assessment. This record, a wonderful early Christmas present of an album, should set the idea entirely to rest.
Julian Koster has created the most musically clearheaded, touching, connective and accessible of his works to date in Mary’s Voice, drawing on his years of musical collage experimentation (he’s been creating wildly experimental mixtapes since the age of 16) and marrying it like puzzle pieces to his parallel time in more “straightforward” bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and the aforementioned Olivia Tremor Control.
While Koster’s previous solo work, however beautiful, was an ethereal, often fleeting experience, he has managed here to solidify those ideas he’s hinted at before into an entirely more satisfying, memorable and entirely welcoming whole. This is not to say that Koster’s work is no longer half-alien, part-stargaze, part-intangible: he’s simply tamed the wildness of his own imagination enough to deliver an absolutely excellent pop record.
A buzzing bass and a nonsense lyric imbued with hope (“S’alive to be known/For so long here” he repeats) and intuitive and simple melody first hint at greatness on ‘S’Alive (Pt1)’ while on the following track ‘The Big Beautiful Shops (It’s Said That It Could Be Anyone)’ you get the first hint that you may be listening to something miraculous. Koster’s Thom Yorke-like wail sails across the juddering, rolling instrumentation, heart filled with unbridled joy and unbearable sadness. The song’s dynamics are so emotionally intuitive as they switch from cut ‘n’ paste electronica to organic, full-bodied (does this sound like a cider?) orchestra as to involuntarily drop the jaw. It shares the build and fall of most post rock but also boasts the instant connection of classic pop – moving wherever it wants and warmly carrying you along under its glowing orange wing.
That memorable wail of Koster’s is reaffirmed on ‘To All Who Say Goodnight’, a Jeff Tweedy strum transposed to banjo that then whirls into carnival song. The chorus and juxtaposition of ancient and baffling sounds suggest a Radiohead of the heart and the soil as opposed to one of the technological and alienated.
The timelessness of the record is the thing though. It sounds like a relic brought to life, like modernity sent into a sepia past, like a potential future tinted with strong wine and weak wills. ‘The Dark Is Singing Songs (Sleepy Time Down South)’ sees the musical saw, organ, brass and Koster’s untrained croon combine to soar into a blue sky-bound sound of antique wonderment. His yearning notes, the trill of the saw and the circus crash of drums fall together to create something defiantly melodic, an alternate universe lesson in musical history.
There’s more time travel on ‘Spare the Dark Streets’ as a tear-pricking violin line draws us in to the sound of a Victorian nickelodeon show, or perhaps the soundtrack to a forgotten 1920s cartoon. If you’re not a bit in love by the time Koster’s clashing voice smiles “Summer steam filled all your eyes” then, in the time honoured fashion, please check for a pulse.
The wonder continues with both ‘Kolyada’, a 1930s whistle of a tune that could have soundtracked a Jimmy Stewart classic, and ‘Go Home Again’, a serrating lament and duet for voice and organ. A torch song for the drunk, the drugged or the just plain sleepy it combines, as much of the album does, a childlike naivety and purity with hints of the shadows of darkness that fill the adult world. While Koster never allows one to overwhelm the other this is, perhaps, the saddest he’s ever sounded on record. With a melody reminiscent of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and closing on the chime of distant bells you’ll be hard pressed to control your emotions as this plays out.
There’s more, though, there’s more. For Neutral Milk Hotel fans there’s a rollicking Mangum-like jam that teases climaxes, juts out rhythms, tickles you with banjo and barrages you with crashing, pounding waterfalls of drum – there’s even a tense/lovely middle eight build on the repeated phrase “We’re waiting” before we’re allowed the joyous return to explosive orchestra sounds.
Then there’s the album’s truly triumphal moment, ‘S’Alive To Be Known (May We Starve)’ which brings back the coda of ‘S’Alive’ with more dramatic instrumentation and more forceful intent. It’s the sound of a rag tag, resuscitated Civil War army band brought back to life by Koster’s sweeping musical imagination. You’ll need to be seated for this one, should you simply collapse in awe.
Finally we’ve ‘Takeshi and Elijah’, lyrically the clearest offering here with Koster’s voice prominent (though the exact story he’s telling is veiled in obscure imagery and juxtaposed situations). Lines like “Did you scare them dressed in sheets of white/At dizzying heights” dance alongside more painful words, almost impossible to not offer emotional weight to in light of the recent death of their close friend Doss, like “Pointing hands, pointing hands/Ghosts of the old friends we all used to be”, the alternate close to that couplet being “Somehow we all played in musical bands that toured throughout the land… tell them the secret to snowing”.
When, after nearly 5 and a half minutes The Music Tapes’ full orchestra hits its cataclysmic stride your arms reach into the air and you are momentarily there with the Elephant 6 Collective, preserved in musical aspic.
A love letter to musical forms that pre-date rock ‘n’ roll, a heartfelt reminiscence of a key moment in modern music’s trajectory, a beauteous and tender embrace of melody, invention, love and strangeness, this is a magnificent, near-magical album that should prove conclusively to anyone who cares that Julian Koster and his Music Tapes are just the right guys to take the Elephant 6 dream of a musical utopia through to its logical, illogical, frightening, chest-bursting conclusion.
It’s something of a masterpiece, you see.