Cloud Cult: Unplug
Cloud Cult: Unplug – Cloud Cult has been one of those not-so-secret secrets among the indie crowd for a long while. Their eclectic arrangements, painted performances and shifting album structure have built them a following garnering everything from amusement to awe and making them a mainstay in the great indie collective. Strip away their quirk, though – the artful arrangements, the pops, shrieks and shatters, the affectations and the accents – and what are you left with? As it turns out, something comprehensively different and rather inspiring.
Unplug strips away the grand sensation of Cloud Cult’s performances and brings it in to an intimate, acoustic arrangement that is still, in so many ways, more full of life than any of its studio counterparts. Recorded in the surprisingly vast Southern Theatre in the band’s native Minnesota, the live performance delves into the recesses of the Cloud Cult discography, pulling from their earliest days through their most recent, and re-imagining their vast songscapes as raw, strident compositions born of terse, resonating chords, ethereal choral melodies and a world of heart. Songs that were once defined by their heavy piano base are transformed in the sound hole and echo out as a completely different piece, worlds away from the recorded originals but every bit as engaging.
The stripped-down tracks do something else to the music, too, something subtle but surprising. Fronted for almost two decades by Craig Minowa, the band has experienced innumerable iterations, with the Owatonna throaty, sincere voice as the most concrete through-point in most of the group’s recordings. In taking away the more involved chamber arrangements that back so many of the songs in their original form, that through-line is also stripped down, allowed to crack, falter and fit the format. It’s a small but humanizing change in an ensemble’s normal projection that, likely inadvertently, creates a shift from focus on the larger concept of “art” to the more honed craft that is making music.
Throughout this entire do-something-different project, the group’s characteristic whimsy never dissipates, but instead transforms into a back and forth between philosophical discourse and laughter at skipped changes and false starts. Actively engaging with the audience, the album offers a more involved experience than many of the band’s live performances, which are known to be masked, choreographed and at times so focused on the actual performance that they are almost isolating. The album and its accompanying tour are setting a different precedent in the wake of these long-established traditions. It’s a simple move, and they’re not the first to do it, but with so many years of non-convention backing them, scaling back and opening themselves up as a band is both a surprise and a relief, reifying this larger-than-life presence that has come to surround the collective.
All that to say, Unplug is acoustic, it’s wonderfully done, and despite its unaffected nature, it’s completely true to Cloud Cult. With long-time sound engineer Jeff D. Johnson responsible for the recordings and Minowa integrating his incredible propensity for traversing the delicate subjects of death and loss as well as broader philosophical questions into even the most dissonant moments, it maintains those elements that have helped the band foster such a strong and rooted following over the years, and even while reinventing their sound, it stays remarkably true to both the introspection and the idiosyncrasies that have brought the group their greatest acclaims. True to form, this album marks a stark departure from anything they’ve put out before, and whether you’re familiar with the back catalog or a just a curious listener, it’s a remarkably worthwhile piece built on soul, spirit and just a bit of eccentricity…8.8/10