Stepping out of a storybook, the ageless, elfin Julian Koster is a music industry oddity. A member of several notable Elephant 6 groups, including Neutral Milk Hotel, he embodies the boisterous, endearingly childish side of the musical collective. With The Music Tapes, he’s become a defender of folk traditions, placing emphasis on intimate community-oriented performances, especially caroling (the artwork’s Rankin/Bass-looking figurine is yet another example of his fixation on Christmas). News that the band plans to travel and perform with a circus tent is unsurprising when we remember this is the guy who toured with a seven-foot metronome and personified his musical saw by naming it Badger, even giving it a gender (female) and age (she should be around 12 now, I think).
Situating Mary’s Voice among The Music Tapes’ Imaginary Symphonies series is a little tricky. 2nd Imaginary Symphony for Cloudmaking, an hour-long narrative unbroken into separate tracks (more audiobook than album), was released in 2002, three years after First Imaginary Symphony for Nomad; Mary’s Voice is rumored to be the first segment of a potential two-part 3rd Imaginary Symphony. There is a narrative being told here that’s thankfully less obtrusive and cloying than Cloudmaking’s, but hearing the eventual second half isn’t essential to appreciate Mary’s Voice, which stands alone as an extended lullaby that soothes even as it piles chaotic noises atop one another. After a release dwelling on the sea and a couple dedicated to clouds, it’s on to sleep and dreams in what’s intended to be their warmest and most accessible record.
But for all its supposed warmth, there’s something sadder about the night-themed Mary’s Voice than The Music Tapes’ most recent album, 2008’s exuberant Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes. It might be all the references to darkness, within lyrics and titles, that began with last year’s Purim’s Shadows EP, or maybe it’s the fragility of Koster’s voice on tracks like “The Big Beautiful Shops” and “Spare the Dark Streets.” From him, we’re used to a playful scratchiness, a refusal to play nice and pretty up the quality of sound or rasp of voice that divide so many listeners. Although Mary’s Voice maintains the anachronistic recording techniques that give The Music Tapes’ sound a characteristic hiss, Koster’s wail is sometimes subdued into little more than a whisper; even when he’s belting out impassioned lingering syllables from deep in the gut with Mangum-like intensity, his voice is a little softer, a little more considerate than on For Clouds and Tornadoes, where he valiantly sought nearly-impossible-to-hit notes (and sometimes connected).
And then there’s the otherworldly waver of the poor man’s theremin, the musical saw. Used as a quirky contrivance in things like Jeunet’s Delicatessen, the saw — as well as the implementation of found objects as instruments — now threatens to connote an almost artificial, try-hardish whimsy. To Koster’s credit, his selection of instruments — as potentially gimmicky as they might appear — never comes across as forced. For The Music Tapes, the combinations simply work to achieve their goals: the saw pairs well with the calliope (of roaming 19th-century fairs) to establish a dreamy, ethereal atmosphere that sets the tone for the entire album. Even if the 3rd Imaginary Symphony never materializes, the contemplative Mary’s Voice may win over listeners who couldn’t stomach the unrefined energy of The Music Tapes’ older work, with artistic integrity intact.