Julian Koster, former member of Neutral Milk Hotel and singing saw enthusiast (among other things), is not revivalist. Koster and his music seem to both exist in a time far away, a time that may not have ever really existed, something murky and partially imagined and yet all the more genuine for its fantastic elements. Mary’s Voice, his new record with the Music Tapes, is another clash of ancient recording methods and current ones, and the result isn’t lo-fi so much as it is earthly and covered in so many layers of dust.
The album follows the solid Music For Clouds and Tornadoes, and continues and expands upon that album’s steps into more accessible (dare we even call it pop?) material. It’s an album that immediately establishes its own geography, with the heat-stroked, sweating sway of opener “The Dark is Singing Songs (Sleepy Time in the South).” It’s a sweet if forlorn dusk-light lullaby, the kind of music for porch sitting of a summer night, a sweating cold drink in the hand, someone slowly rocking in a rocking chair, everyone “hear[ing] the banjos ringing.”
It’s an effective opening for Koster, especially with his keening voice. Mary’s Voice, though, becomes more interesting when Koster dips out of the circus-y nostalgia folk into different genres. Despite the tuba humming along, “The Big Beautiful Shops (It’s Said that It Could Be Anyone),” sounds like stripped-down and blippy electro-pop. “Playing ‘Evening'” is tensed-up, skronky rock music, and one of the best songs here, a fiery new turn in Koster’s usually fading melodies. Even “Takeshi and Elijah,” the closer that poses as banjo ballad, opens up into deep horns and strings and a general squall of noise to fill up its triumphant close.
Or at least it seems like a triumphant close. As much as this feels like the most complete Music Tapes album, it also shows the limitations of this recording approach. As Koster gets more and more accessible, as the hooks become indelible — and they are impressively so at times here — these songs required a clearer fidelity than they get. The songs feel too thin in spots, and that thinness strips them of some of their power, preferring to bury them under the dust of an imagined history rather than letting them shine on their own terms. The clattering roll of “To All Who Say Goodnight” — with its crisp moments of just voice and banjo — should be an album highlight (and nearly is) but it feel muffled under an aesthetic that feels just a bit forced in spots here.
Koster’s songwriting and arranging is growing by leaps and bounds, and Mary’s Voice is his most assured batch of songs to date, it’s just too bad that the production can’t catch up or exude the same kind of progress and confidence. This stuff is bound to sound great on tour, but on record it sometimes plays second fiddle to the gauzy film of a long-ago yesterday.