You’ve GOT to Hear This: “Mary’s Voice”

Mary’s Voice by The Music Tapes

My first introduction to Julian Koster was at a Neutral Milk Hotel show. During Mangum’s encore, Koster joined him in the middle of the crowd, adding in the singing saw accompaniment to offer a version of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea close to the studio one. The banjo on the studio track is also a Koster addition, and he sold that instrument via Kickstarter earlier this summer, making a total of $17, 793. That money is going towards funding his tour, The Travelling Imaginary: An Evening with The Music Tapes. The venue will be a circus tent, which isn’t too surprising once you find out that much of Mary’s Voice was recorded in a circus tent, or that Koster’s caroling tour of 2009 consisted of him playing holidays tunes at personal residences across America. No less strange are the sounds of Mary’s Voice, as Koster draws on obscure instruments to create a composition different from anything I’ve heard recently.

The album opens with The Dark is Singing Songs (Sleepy Time Down South). Just as the lyrics say of the darkness, Koster’s voice is “soft and slow,” at times nearly lost under the heavy sounds of the organ and the string instruments. But Koster seems to be doing this on purpose—compare it to the clarity of his voice on track 6—inviting the listener to drown with him in the dreamscape of sound.
Then there’s a shift from this dreamscape right into a nightmare, with Saw and Calliope Organ on Wire sounding like an abandoned carnival scene. The lack of lyrics only adds to the eerie and airy feeling, the itch to ask, what is this? And what is a calliope organ?
S’ Alive (Pt.1) and The Big Beautiful Shops (Its Said That It Could Be Anyone) aren’t particularly memorable, repeated lyrics filling nearly six minutes of album space. Then again, part of Koster’s goal is to comfort the audience, and repetition certainly lulls. If that’s not enough, there’s Koster’s thick voice crooning “Go to sleep, oh you’re alright” over and over in Spare the Dark Streets.
Tolling church bells open To All Who Say Goodnight, before Koster and his banjo take over. The singing saw then makes a re-appearance, with drums and a thick bass closely following. You’d think it’d be cacophony, but Koster pulls it off, easily tugging the song through moments of simplicity and complexity. Even the abstract lyrics—“Wait for the world inside, to all who say goodnight. Outside it’s outer space, the whole world fills with space”—are well executed, strange enough to keep listeners guessing and spatially confused, but balanced nicely with simple, nostalgic lines about summer days.
Intermission Pt.1 and Intermission Pt.2. are both eight seconds of silence. If listening to the album sequentially (which you totally should) this blank space makes the singing saw on Kolyada all the more haunting. Given full acoustic space, you can appreciate the delicacy of the instrument’s sound, and Koster can quietly remind you of the nightmarish Saw and Calliope on Wire. The following track (10) is the closest thing to pop on the album, while marking a shift into denser, trippy lyrics, where song titles are harder to extract. It takes a second or third listen to find, “took your shadows home for playing evening,” to fully realize how Koster is mixing up holiday comfort with the creepiness of carnivals.
The album lags with tracks eleven (Go Home Again) and twelve (S’ Alive to Be Known [May we Starve]). If at The Travelling Imaginary, this is when you could let taking in the venue precede taking in the music. But that down time ends when Koster offers up, Untitled.
Only 16 seconds long, filled with a quiet singing saw and a soft drum beat, calling attention to itself with the minuteness of sounds, and perhaps cueing the audience to listen closely and carefully to the masterful, Takeshi and Elijah.
There aren’t any direct references to the holidays, but as Koster sings of snow and swing sets and Grandma’s storm cellar, it feels like it could be a Christmas song. If not, it at least signals that he’s ending the album with comfort, that it’s come back to the softness and slowness of track 1. And for fans of Neutral Milk Hotel, it’s tempting to assume that Koster is making references to his involvement in the band; as he sings, “dressed in sheets of white, at dizzying heights,” there are echoes of NMH’s warm, white sheets in Two Headed Boy, Pt.2. Perhaps more directly, Koster sings, “Ghosts of the old friends we all used to be” and “Pointing hands / We all played in musical bands, that toured through the lands.”
Besides nostalgia for the Elephant Six, the song succeeds in its crescendos and decrescendos, perhaps mimicking the life of bands themselves, building up to Pitchfork fame and breaking down into dusty vinyls.
The use of obscure instruments, lyrics that range from simple and repetitive to strange and abstracted, and the mix of lullabies with nightmares makes Mary’s Voice an album you’ve GOT to hear, even if you’re not in a circus tent.
Leah Edwards

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