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The Music Tapes - Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes

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Artist: The Music Tapes

Album: Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes

Label: Merge

Review date: Sep. 4, 2008

The way we investigate a phenomenon – the research program a person designs –structures our understanding of that phenomenon. This doesn’t mean, though, that any research program at all will do, nor that you can contort the furniture of the world into any old configuration, but rather to point out that there’s a bounded relativism to the way we understand art (or science or history, etc.). There are a couple different ways to understand things, each one legitimate in their own right (at least relative to a practical concern), and then there’s lots of ways that misunderstand either the phenomenon or our relation to it or how we’re supposed to investigate or whatever.

The point of bringing this up is to directly confront the way we as an audience can listen to Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes. There are a number of conscious choices we can make that will affect the meaning that we tease out of the album. Some choices don’t fit the material so well and will therefore be outside of our investigation. These range from the obvious – say comparing The Music Tapes to, I don’t know, Philip Glass – to the more subtle, such as calling Julian Koster’s music timeless, that is, of any era. To call Clouds and Tornadoes timeless is to conflate the recording techniques that were used to create the album with the way the recording techniques are employed, that is, in service Koster’s nostalgic strategy. And even then, timeless makes little sense as Koster is affecting the sound of a very specific time and thus binds it directly to a certain era. Composed of singing saws, banjos and primarily, if not exclusively, acoustic instruments, the album evinces an olde-timey feel simply through the choice of instrument. Along with anachronistic recording techniques that reinforces this aesthetic, Clouds and Tornadoes might as well be an uncovered relic, if it weren’t for Koster’s obvious pop pedigree. A musical retcon job, if you will.

However, this nostalgic strategy is what’s up for grabs, as there are two live interpretations that are both equally valid (although I don’t think one of them is useful and will argue against it). The first is that Koster is a cultural conservative and that his fondness for radio drama and wax cylinder crackles is a wish to return in some way to prior days. This is good possibility – though, I don’t like the implications – as these kinds of pure nostalgic beliefs are endemic of a lot of indie music these days. It can be either explicit or not, but in every past-historical pastiche, in every musician that patterns herself after some former folk hero, in every romantic longing for the way things were – regardless of whether the past was actually like that or not – there’s a negation of the present and the future. This isn’t necessarily bad, as there are always musicians inventive enough to do something interesting with even the most anti-progressive ideas, but I can’t help but believe that people that really subscribe to this somehow cordon off their musical nostalgia from the rest of their lives. And pure nostalgia is a damaging way to live, if that’s the primary mode of being, mostly because nostalgia, almost in every case, warps the past to such a large degree that the longing is a longing for something that never was. This creates a positive feedback loop of constantly comparing an imperfect present to a perfect past until you end up as the person whose best days were in high school. The romantic never-was is both an aesthetic and existential trap.

I like something Woody Allen said in his recent Onion AV Club interview when asked about his policy of never watching a film once it’s finished. “There’s no point in looking back, because there’s nothing you can really do to improve the film. You can only aggravate and wish you had done stuff better. And so I just put it out and move on, and as I say, I’m a couple of films ahead of the one that’s about to emerge now….[Rewatching my films is] a pleasure I deny myself, because then you get into nostalgic self-involvement, and I don’t think that would be good for me. I don’t like to reminisce much, and my walls don’t have photographs of me and the actors I was with, or any of that stuff. If you were in my house in New York, you wouldn’t know I was in the movie business. It just looks like a regular house, like the home of a lawyer or something, and I try and keep that disciplined, and just work. There are so many traps you can get into, and looking back on your own work is certainly one of them.” Pure nostalgia then isn’t just a longing to return to the past but can also be an impotent wish fulfillment, a way of getting continually caught in the what-could-have-been, a snare that keeps one from ever growing as a human being.

So this is a real possibility for Koster, but I think there’s a better way to understand The Music Tapes, or at least a more interesting or more meaningful way to regard his albums. Koster’s nostalgia isn’t a longing for a real past or even a distorted one, but rather it’s a longing for a past that never existed and never could exist. This is the fractal nostalgia: a backwards glance to a past that follows recognizable patterns but doesn’t follow a recognizable path. It’s the methodology powering Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg or Benjamin Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer. Actually, if anything, The Saddest Music in the World seems like something Koster should have been a part of, and now that I think about it, it would be interesting to see the two collaborate on something. I’ll call my agent.

Fractal nostalgia creates an interesting effect in Clouds and Tornadoes. The audience, mostly made up of 20-40 somethings, has no recollection of the past Kostner references, though we can certainly recognize it. We see the legacy of it preserved today in bits and pieces all around us; we can watch Allen’s Radio Days or a Marx Brothers film and get what’s going on, but at the same time it’s unfamiliar because none of us have had these experiences. There’s the dialectic between the familiar and the unfamiliar, but wedded to it is a third level of unrecognizability: a surreal past that no one could ever be familiar with. Clouds and Tornadoes ricochets back and forth between these three levels: the familiar, the unfamiliar but recognizable, and the unfamiliar and unrecognizable, and like Maddin and Katchor, it’s this tripartite feeling that gives the music its uniqueness while still feeling like an unearthed artifact.

By Andrew Beckerman

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