Music Review: Cloud Cult's Re-Released "They Live on the Sun/Aurora Borealis"

12/12/2009 Posted by Admin

By our guest blogger, Britt Sondreal

Describing Cloud Cult is a difficult endeavor, not unlike attempting to capture on paper the complete experience of a multi-noted wine or a gourmet, internationally pan-everything dinner. This band’s complexity can work in and against its favor--at times, they overwhelm their listeners with well-blended variety; at other times, they lose us to sonic chaos and over-saturation. Their latest offering, released by Rebel Group on December 8, 2009, is a new interpretation of older works. This is the marriage of two albums, 2003’s “They Live On the Sun” and 2004’s “Aurora Borealis,” re-edited and re-mastered together into one experience and released at a national level for the first time. The effort has given some happy boundaries to a wealth of solid material.

Cloud Cult is an 8-member band based in Minnesota and fronted by Craig Minowa. Named for a grouping of ancient prophecies from indigenous North American cultures, Minowa started the group in 1995. After a few self-released albums and local performances that gained them notoriety, the original “Aurora Borealis” won them a Minnesota Music Awards “Album of the Year” nod and launched them into their first national tour. While Minowa’s songwriting concerns are spiritual, historical, anthropological, environmental and political, the deeply personal common thread running through the bulk of his work is the loss of his 2-year-old son. He and wife Connie, one of the band’s visual artists, were faced with the death of Kaidin in 2002 and Minowa subsequently turned to music, writing more than 100 songs to cope with the loss. 2007’s “The Meaning of 8” is a particularly poignant tribute to Kaidin and one of the band’s most ambitious, well-unified projects. It's a cornerstone album that marks a turning point in refining and sharpening Cloud Cult’s unique sound.

Cloud Cult has been placed in the “alternative” category, one of a few frequent catch-all musical labels for artists that elude a more specific definition. They’ve drawn the occasional comparison to Radiohead, Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse, though they maintain a distinct musical brand of their own. Their sound contains infinite references and styles, including but not limited to electronica, classical, jam rock and pop. As the band's identity evolved on later albums, one is frequently surprised by moments and suggestions of a country jam or sweeping symphony--discoveries that would be jarring in less capable hands, but which here provide a welcome invitation to musical challenge and innovation.

The re-mastering of “They Live On the Sun/Aurora Borealis” has rendered these eclectic sounds crisper, cleaner, more beautiful--each individual strand has been teased out into a place where it better supports the overall effort. Minowa’s wavering voice, reminiscent of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, rings out in emotional desperation and sincerity over the cacophony of instrumentation beneath--an especially notable difference on the opening track “On the Sun.” Where the original is muffled and fuzzy, fine-tuning has allowed separate music and lyrics to emerge from blurry static. For all the moments of subtlety and sophistication that Minowa offers when confronting difficult truths, there also is the occasional song that sits too heavy in the lyrical hand.  An example of this is the track “Turtle Shell,” which flirts with cliched metaphor and preachy message.

While this synthesis album plus bonus tracks offer an exciting improvement on some great material, it will best engage listeners who already have a familiarity with and fondness for their work. For those uninitiated readers looking for an introduction, start with “Advice From the Happy Hippopotamus,” “Meaning of 8” or 2008’s “Feel Good Ghosts.” Once your ears are better trained to the complexity of their music, then dig further into their catalog and appreciate the roots.

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