The Music Tapes

Mary's Voice

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It was only a matter of time before Julian Koster's strict adherence to dated recording techniques, oddball instrumentation, syrupy-sweet melodies, and relentless nostalgia would lead to a full-on circus sideshow. Bolstered by an ambitious Kickstarter campaign, Koster and his band of merrymakers plan to take their latest concoction, the typically lush, fractured, and kaleidoscopic Mary's Voice, on the road in style with "The Traveling Imaginary," a mobile big-tent event replete with music, games, stories, films, and amusements. It's a fitting notion, as the 14-track collection of new material, the band's first since 2008's well-received Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes, plays like a fire-twirling, tightrope-walking, funnel cake-devouring Sunday-afternoon performance with Koster wearing the top hat. Peppered with bursts of incidental music suggesting a surprised handshake between the Beach Boys' SMiLE and Tom Waits' Frank's Wild Years, Mary's Voice can sound much bigger than its 1930s Webster Chicago Wire Recorder and 1960s Ampex AG-440 four-track would imply, especially on standout cuts like the desperate and bountiful "The Big Beautiful Shops (It's Said That It Could Be Anyone)," the old-timey bard-pop ballad "The Dark Is Singing Songs (Sleepy Time Down South)," and the glorious last minute and a half of the sweet and sentimental closer, "Takeshi and Elijah." There's nothing new here for the established Elephant 6 fan, as all of the collective's notable idiosyncrasies are present and accounted for, but while Koster's childlike enthusiasm, meandering, impressionistic lyrics, and Anglophile steampunk posturing may be the very definition of twee (or tweed, in this sense), like Willy Wonka, it's hard not to admire his Luddite tenacity, especially in an age that prefers instant gratification to pure imagination.

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