Artist: Cloud Cult
By late 2009, for reasons I’m about to explain, it became impossible for me to ever be objective about the Minnesota alt-rock-plus-strings band Cloud Cult. So I’m happy that I still have on file my old ballots in Tris McCall’s Critics’ Polls for the years 2007 and 2008, where *at the time* I voted their the Meaning of 8 and Feel Good Ghosts the 4th- and 3rd-best, respectively, albums of their year. Lower than I’d rate them now, but if you’re not new here, you’ve seen the amount of enthusiasm I manage to spend on even the 20th or 30th best albums of a year, let alone higher. I was, in other words, excited about Cloud Cult even before the summer where I introduced my then 2- and 0-year-old sons to the world of music videos. (Caution: if you’re here for the album review and don’t want to hear this story, skip to the asterisks below.)
We didn’t watch TV. There’s a lot of worrisome research about the effects of TV on young kids’ brains, and I’m inclined to something between caution and paranoia about it. But music videos are short, and the kids enjoyed letting me point out events in the videos, narrating everything that happened: it was vocabulary lesson, it was music-listening education, it was highly active parenting. If it was also a chance to enjoy favorite songs while claiming to be On Duty, and if at times I was still saying “music videos are short!” as we watched eight of ‘em in a row, I wasn’t averse to that either.
Donovan, my older kid, had been essentially mute through his second birthday, and was in speech therapy; his vocabulary that summer probably wasn’t more than ten words. He communicated choices of videos by pointing, where possible, and by inventive vocalizing. He’d request Crazy Train by going “I! I! I!” like Ozzy at the start of the song; Jane Siberry’s Ingrid and the Footmen, similarly, by imitating the “yah-dee-yah-dee-yah-dee” bit. He’d request the Sparks’ Dick Around by putting on a particular facial expression and asking “cats?” (although a year or two later, inevitably, Dick Around became the first song he learned to request by title). But in those first ten words — and easily the most difficult to say — was the most special request of all: “Cloud Cult”.
I don’t know quite how they grabbed his imagination in such a particular way. Most of his favorite videos, then and now, are full of imaginative things happening; Cloud Cult, like a couple of other exceptions (Amy X Neuburg in particular), we saw instead in a live setting, building up, say, No One Said It Would be Easy layer by easily identified layer. The kids learned to identify singer Craig Minowa and his guitar pick, Shannon Frid and her violin and her high harmonies, Sarah Young and her cello, Arlen Peiffer’s cymbals and kick drum and timpani and part-time beard, and Connie Minowa’s live painting during the concerts. I shared some of the band’s bio, too, the Meaning of 8 being the only album I ever bought because of an article at the environmentalist web site Grist, where the personable eco-journalist Dave Roberts praised the music to the skies while telling about how Cloud Cult recorded their music on Minowa’s organic farm by using geothermal energy, and packaging everything in recycled materials. My family and I do much-simpler eco stuff of our own (we’re vegetarian, we have solar cells, we get the rest our electricity — including for our electric car — through wind turbines using Arcadia Power). Maybe even at 2 Donovan noticed a resemblance. Maybe he just noticed the music’s gorgeous, which it is.
Shortly after turning 3, Donovan started having behavior trouble at his Montessori school — hitting kids, for example, with no apparent malice; not doing his work. Now, we resolved the issue through straightforward pragmatic actions — getting artificial dyes out of his diet, sending him to preschool five mornings a week instead of two, persuading the school to give him visits to the next higher level so the work would be more interesting to him, letting time pass so his language skills would grow and his frustration at muteness would shrink away. But day to day we were resorting to What Would Cloud Cult Do? It was his idea: he was the one getting behavior notes by asking us “Are Cloud Cult vegetarian?” (“yes”), “Do Cloud Cult like green peppers?” (“I don’t know, but probably”), “Do Cloud Cult like to play Go Fish?” (“I have no idea, sorry”). Cloud Cult certainly wouldn’t get frustrated and hit a 2-year-old. That one we knew, and it made enough sense to him to get him, sometimes, through the day.
In June 2010 we were visiting relatives across the river from Philadelphia when Cloud Cult, who never seem to tour the Confederacy, were playing in Philly. We couldn’t take him, because seriously you don’t take a 3-year-old to a concert with a listed start time of 8:30 p.m., but I’ve never felt sadder to miss a show. By August, meeting his new teacher, she asked him “What kind of music do you like?” and, thinking over his now-larger vocabulary, he answered “Tori Amos”. But when Cloud Cult released Light Chasers that September, it was his first direct experience with having brand new music from a band he loved. All three records, by now, are permanently imprinted on my mind. Fortunately, they’re full of worthwhile details that I’m delighted to have there. (The Meaning of 8 has, I think, the largest quantity of terrific music, being long; Feel Good Ghosts the highest average-per-song quality and the most interesting experiments; Light Chasers the most structural ambition and prettiness. If you like one you’ll probably like all three.)
Love follows faithfully in the footsteps of the Cloud Cult albums before it. Donovan was 6 when it came out, half a lifetime older and with many more interests, so I haven’t been asked to play Love a hundred times; it strikes me and the boys as excellent, not as a magic talisman. By describing it in broad strokes I can also describe its predecessors. As mentioned, it’s pretty and ‘90s “alternative”, rock fully integrated with keyboard/ cello/ violin. It’s sweet and earnest. Even when they rock out hard — raggedly like Complicated Creation, darkly like 1x1x1, frantically and with chime-and-xylophone-led ominousness on Sleepwalker — they have zero interest in being edgy, and they’re rebellious only by calm example. Ingredients are usually added one at a time, giving a feeling of constant momentum, except in the innocuous little acoustic guitar songs (You’re the Only Thing in Your Way, Good Friend). One comparison I like, for anyone it helps, is with Flaming Lips, if their highly orchestrated Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots had maintained more guitar rock; Craig Minowa, for one thing, sings like a Wayne Coyne who managed to keep his high strained voice on the aimed-for notes.
Some of the arrangements are genuinely unusual — for example, It Takes a Lot’s assemblage of vocoder’d singing, tingling keyboards, constantly shifting live and electronic percussion, rusty-tuned-swingset noises, and bowed strings — but none of them are flashy. Even when the Show Starts Now closes the album with a soft ballad of encouragement, and suddenly the band are singing together over thunderous drums, the volume’s been turned down enough that the thunder is clearly in the next room.
Despite the band’s passionate environmentalism, the songs are apolitical, focused on the individual-level challenges of trying to be a good person, face life’s challenges, love the people around us, and stay motivated in a universe that too often seems indifferent to our concerns. If we’re honest, Cloud Cult are not my usual sort of favorite band. Oh, the sophisticated arrangements are, but I love flash, and wordplay, and giddiness, and jokes, all of which are much easier than being a good and motivated person. But like the Agony Family, whose Earth was my favorite album of 2012, Craig Minowa and company just wouldn’t be any fun *not* to like. There are people in the world who defy all our hard-won irony by being, I suspect, every bit as nice and good and useful as they seem. They’d be too easy as targets, and they’re not smug so there’s no joy in resenting them. Sometimes they make wonderful music, with the best of intent. As my kids (too young for irony anyway) know, we might as well enjoy it.
– Brian Block