As if the Elephant Six family of artists wasn’t quirky enough, here comes the quirkiest of them all. For those who don’t know, Elephant Six is a collective of like-minded artists who play bright, happy, drug-induced pop music reminiscent of early Beatles records (if they were recorded at home on a tape deck). The core of Elephant Six are the critically acclaimed bands Neutral Milk Hotel, The Olivia Tremor Control, and The Apples (in Stereo). Many offshoots and side projects have sprung up in the last two years, and the Music Tapes are one of the offspring.
Julian Koster, the frontman of The Music Tapes, has recently made a name for himself as an eccentric multi-instrumentalist for Neutral Milk Hotel. Koster will often bounce about the stage wearing chimes on his head while pounding away on the accordion or even a banjo. Few, however, know that Koster was an accomplished frontman before his days as NMH’s sideshow began. Koster’s band Chocolate USA released two albums on Bar/None before Elephant Six had made its way onto the map. Since Neutral Milk Hotel offered limited outlets for Koster’s creativity as a singer and arranger, he decided to realize the dream he had been holding onto since the age of 16. Over the past three years, The Music Tapes released a handful of singles before plunging into a full-length album.
1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad straddles a very fine line between creative genius and utter nonsense. The traditional Elephant Six structure is at play: quaint pop songs are nestled in between strange noise experiments. But often the moments of melody are too sporadic and brief to even be noticed. Koster recorded the album using such truly ancient machines as a 1940’s wire recorder and an 1895 Edison wax cylinder recorder. Bits of odd old-time radio broadcasts add to the antique feel of the album.
Koster is obviously talented both as an arranger and producer, but 1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad would have benefited from some editing and refining. The concept is noble, and the record is as different as anything you will hear this year, but sometimes offbeat noise experiments become decreasingly wondrous and increasingly self-serving. The filler can be interesting, but in this case it’s just too much. I want to hear more of Koster’s abilities as a musical artist, and less as a manipulator of tape hiss and weird noises. But compared to the bulk of contemporary pop music out there, I’ll take this Symphony any day.