It was just after 10 p.m. last Tuesday night when I got word that The Music Tapes were playing in Hyde Park. Actually, it was the last of three thirty-minute sets in three Chicago homes as part of the band’s Lullaby Tour, and it would begin in less than 30 minutes. There was no way I could make the ten mile bike ride in that time, so instead I comforted myself by listening to The Music Tapes' discography, enjoying a few beers in my warm apartment, and re-sparking an old obsession.
The amorphous Athens, GA-based experimental collective has been making albums since 1999, but my particular obsession began in 2008 when I came across their third album For Clouds and Tornadoes entirely by accident during a Pirate Bay search. The seeder to leecher ratio was pleasing, so I snatched it up, took a listen, and fell in love with its strange and emotional sound - lead man Julian Koster’s endearingly quavering croon, the warbly rhythms of his singing saw, and the vast collection of unusual instruments, such as tape organ, flugelhorn, clarinet, accordion, and euphonium.
I was lucky enough to catch them live a few months later at the AV-aerie in Chicago’s West Loop just before the venue was closed down due to zoning and licensing issues. They performed a long and remarkable set that incorporated sprinklings of each of their four albums. Much of the show was like story time in kindergarten - the audience sat on the floor encircling Koster as he performed holiday songs from The Singing Saw at Christmastime, off-stage and without amplification.
Toward the end of the night, we played a game: everyone in the audience wrote a memory on a piece of paper, folded it, and dropped it in a bucket. We followed Koster outside where he lit them on fire, and one at a time we jumped over the fire while concentrating of our specific memories. What the point was, I don’t know. But it was fun, no one caught on fire, and Koster ended the night with an improvised song based on a memory he pulled out of the flames. When the show finished and the band began packing up, I of course took the opportunity to drunkenly profess my love for Koster and though clearly creeped out, he obliged me with a hug.
Before I came across The Music Tapes, I was already familiar with Koster’s other collaborations, Elephant 6 and Neutral Milk Hotel, who seem to have lately come out of hiding and are inspiring long-time fans to rediscover old favorites. But The Music Tapes take prominence in my collection, specifically For Clouds and Tornadoes, which I find myself returning to again and again, particularly during winter when the warm, cozy melodies offer comfort from the biting Chicago cold.