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The Music Tapes: 'The Minister of Longitude'

The Music Tapes' Julian Koster.
The Music Tapes' Julian Koster.

Julian Koster may not be a familiar name to you. But if you've heard the music of Neutral Milk Hotel, you've heard Koster at work. He appeared on stage and in the studio with Neutral Milk Hotel back in the '90s, playing the musical saw, banjo and other instruments. In 1999 Koster released a solo album under the name "The Music Tapes." Now, 9 years later, he's back with a follow up.

Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes comes as the second Music Tapes release — an admittedly sparse output for a musical project that has existed since Koster's high school days in the early '90s. But take one listen to Clouds and Tornadoes, and you'll understand why Koster takes his time. Koster's work as The Music Tapes makes richly textured freak folk with antique instruments and vintage recording techniques (Clouds and Tornadoes was recorded with a 1930s Webster Chicago wire recorder), and the time and mental effort put in to arrange each musical concoction is exhausting.

As such, Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes is dense and very hard to digest, so much so that a lot of people probably won't be able to listen at all. But when he gets it right, Koster seems like a mad, fuzz-folk genius. At first, tracks like "Majesty" and "Nimbus Stratus Sirus (Mr. Piano's Majestic Haircut)" sound more like grainy messes than music. But repeated listens unveil beauty shrouded amid the chaos.

"The Minister of Longitude" is the most accessible track on the record due to a surprisingly singable in-and-out of key melody featuring Koster's wavering vocals. Songs like this, and more sparse folk singer-songwriter tracks like "Manifest Destiny," mimic the shanties sung by forlorn shipmates out to sea for months in the 1700s. The sound is as creaky as the equipment.

Koster is a member of the Elephant 6 Collective. He is a former member of Neutral Milk Hotel and has played with the Olivia Tremor Control as well as other bands in the collective. Later this year, Koster will release The Singing Saw at Chistmastime, a 12 song record that finds Koster orchestrating classic Christmas songs like "Silent Night" and "Frosty the Snowman" with a chorus of saws.

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Conor McKay
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