You close your eyes and imagine walking in a forest to a tent, and inside the tent is a present, and inside the present is… what? Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, as you kind of have to be at a Music Tapes performance to really appreciate their ability to immerse fully grown adults in worlds of childlike fantasies, although fantasies which are tinged with something dark that lurks just outside the red and yellow walls of their pop-up circus tent. That darkness comes from their haunting lyrics over a deceptively simple layering of instruments that the Music Tapes, led by former Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster (who’d actually sold his Neutral Milk Hotel Aeroplane Over the Sea banjo to fund the circus tent tour), along with Elephant 6 collective member Robbie Cucchiaro (who also sometimes played with Jeff Mangum’s band), have perfected. They’ve been a part of the Elephant 6 group since the 1990s and sound a bit like if you had an orchestra that suddenly found themselves with only a handful of members and a pile of instruments like saws and singing televisions to try to rebuild their music.
Earlier this month on February 2, I went to the Music Tapes’ “Traveling Imaginary,” their current roving performance/storytelling event supporting their new album Mary’s Voice, at the Church for All Nations in Manhattan, presented by Wordless Music. On entering the church we immediately saw a circus tent taking up much of the space, and were all encouraged to try our luck throwing a penny (while blindfolded) at a bell. If you won, you got a prize (like an old key). Julian Koster also gave a solo performance on his saw atop a rolling piano before we finally all crowded into the tent. Then they set off on a rambling set mixed with stories about a mysterious game called “Evening” that you play in your sleep as a child, and a poor clown and cow performing in a circus. It all sounds kind of silly, but the band is so committed to the whimsy that you end up falling for it, too, cheering for a fellow audience member to guide a snowman’s hand to throw a snowball through the moon (I’m not making any of this up and, no, there weren’t drugs involved). A seven-foot-tall metronome even backed the band, and an automaton-organist played along.
I’d seen the Music Tapes before when they opened for Jeff Mangum at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a performance that made me fall in love with their music, the giant set pieces and creative instruments somehow not feeling like gimmicks and their scrappy sound being as engaging musically as it was endearing. I have a ticket to see Jeff Mangum this coming Friday, and I hope to make it and see the Music Tapes open for him again, although seeing them in their own environment of the circus tent was something special. When we left the venue a soft snow was falling on the New York streets, and the fragments of lyrics from their song “Takeshi and Elijah” came into my head: “somehow we all played in musical bands/that toured through the lands/oh, they will wake you/and cover your form with old clothes/oh, they will take you into their arms/tell them the secret to snowing,” and I thought about the fake snowy glitter that had fallen in the tent and tried to evoke for us the same magic.
From another performance of the Music Tapes’ in another of their favorite venues: a stranger’s living room near Christmas: