Cassette tapes and the avant-garde are what I call “play cousins.” They’re not necessarily related, but they work well together and have a lot in common. I use “avant-garde” here as a catch-all for experimental music, contemporary classical, odd films, and forward-thinking literature. I’m thinking of the new and unusual, a testing ground for ideas that might shift our perspective and understanding of the human experience if broadcast widely. At first glance, though, this stuff isn’t for everyone—I consider myself adventurous, and even I have moments when the voice of a skeptical geezer from the old neighborhood pops into my brain and says, “What the hell is this shit?”
Cassette tapes don’t appeal to everybody either, though (like experimental music) in theory they could. They’re like licorice, in that most people don’t care for them but those of us who do can carry on at length, telling you all about the warm sound of an older, slightly degraded tape, which is nearly impossible to re-create digitally. Cassettes also remain a handy tool for the visually impaired: you can stop a tape and take it with you to another player without losing your place. And of course lots of people love cassette tapes for the aesthetics of their cases and labels or the nostalgia they evoke about making mixtapes as gifts. I personally enjoy cassettes, even when the geezer in my head complains, “What the hell do I need that for?”
Chicago label Parlour Tapes puts out experimental music on cassette, bringing together these play cousins and basically guaranteeing that I’ll give them my money. In April, Parlour Tapes simultaneously released four albums, each one the solo debut by one of the label’s four founders and owners. All are available on cassette, of course, but also digitally.
The music here runs the gamut of emotions, from playful to mournful, but even if I hadn’t listened to it, the tapes’ art and packaging might’ve sold me. Jenna Lyle’s TAPE TAPe TApe Tape tape, a satisfyingly static-filled recording with three compositions for analog electronics, comes wrapped in a handmade duct-tape case that reminds me of a punk-rock wallet. And Deidre Huckabay’s Words for the Dead / Words From the Dead has gold leaf applied by hand to the J-card. You can also go for the gusto and buy Huckabay’s release in a “deluxe” version where the tape is sewn into a plush toy (meaning you’ll have to cut open a little teddy bear or something to get at the cassette).
Zach Moore’s Galloping Through a Wormhole arrives in a colorful cover from artist Geena Berry that draws you to Moore’s equally colorful compositions. Andrew Tham’s Tutorial Music, an experiment for spoken word and synthesizer, has packaging designed by artist and writer Miden Wood to resemble the kind of homemade language cassettes you might find at a garage sale, in keeping with Tham’s concept.
The four Parlour Tapes founders collaborated on a video they broadcast in April as part of Experimental Sound Studio’s online Quarantine Concerts series. The presentations (sometimes funny, sometimes just plain weird) weren’t an attempt to demystify or explain the music, but they provided the listener with insight simply by approaching the recordings from additional angles.
I gravitate most toward Moore’s bursts of energy on Galloping Through a Wormhole, especially the noisy, complicated “Thinking Is Easier Than Feeling” and the coral-reef fantasy of “Relaxing Is Justified.” It’s the most conventionally musical and least conceptual of these four releases, but I don’t mean by that to say it’s the best. On the contrary—the release that hit me the hardest emotionally on first listen was Huckabay’s, with mostly wordless compositions that feel like a meditation on grief. v
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