Left of the Dial: Neutral Milk Hotel

I’ve been writing these music articles sporadically for about a year and a half and have shed some light on some rather interesting artists. I’ve gushed over an obscure 60’s folk singer, a forgotten 80’s relic, and a guy who made a career by mashing pieces of different pop songs together. Some of them have held influence in their own rights, but when you look at today’s musical landscape, specifically in the realms of indie rock, there is one band whose influence is undeniable. That band is Neutral Milk Hotel.

The mere mention of those three words is guaranteed to generate one of two reactions in certain music circles. Some think of them as the most brilliant and underrated bands of the last twenty years, while others see them as unlistenable hipster garbage. In layman’s terms, the reception is a mixture of “ZOMG BEST BAND EVAR!!1!” and “What is this I don’t even?”. Granted, while I don’t think of them as the second coming as certain fans like to build them up as (you know who you are), but they have their strong points even if their music may require multiple hearings to sink in. I was first introduced to them twelve years ago by my cousin and disliked them almost immediately. (Granted I was 9 years old and listening to The Backstreet Boys at the time, but what can you do?) I rediscovered them again after I developed a more refined and varied taste and was amazed at just how adored this band really was. Their landmark album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is one of the most celebrated albums of the 90’s (right up there with Nirvana’s Nevermind and Radiohead’s OK Computer), and rightfully so. But who exactly is this merry band of weirdos that came out of nowhere, blew our minds with songs about two headed boys, angels, and the girl with flowers in her eyes, only to disappear into the ether?

Neutral Milk Hotel begins and ends with singer/guitarist/songwriter Jeff Mangum, who formed the band in the early 90’s as a solo project in his hometown of Ruston, Louisiana. He, along with a few childhood friends, formed the Athens based Elephant 6 Collective, a group of like-minded musicians that collaborated on each other’s projects and spawned several influential indie bands including The Apples in Stereo, The Olivia Tremor Control, and of Montreal. Heavily influenced by The Beach Boys, The Zombies, Pink Floyd and Sonic Youth, Neutral Milk Hotel’s sound was a mixture of noise rock, psychedelia and folk music, utilizing heavily distorted bass, hard hitting drums, unusual horn lines, Mangum’s distinctive, nasally voice, and surreal lyrics that are both romantic and nonsensical. It’s a sound that perfectly marries aggression and noise with beauty and tenderness.

After enlisting Apples frontman Robert Schneider (no relation) as producer and forming a solid lineup (Julian Koster on bass, Jeremy Barnes on drums and Scott Spillane on horns) NMH recorded their first album, On Avery Island in 1996. It’s a window into Mangum’s mind that can be equal parts inviting but also alienating. It features all of the NMH signatures listed above, creating a massive jubilee of sound and emotions, from the bottle rocket opener “Song Against Sex”, to the mopey “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone”, to the achingly romantic “Naomi”. Some songs are done with a full band, showing off an explosion of sound, while others are simple acoustic tracks where Jeff Mangum strips himself down to his bones for all the world to see. The only thing that was missing was an overlying theme.

But you don’t want to hear about that, do you? No, you want to get to the good stuff.

A lot of the experimentation Mangum did with On Avery Island was all leading up to his sophomore effort, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,an enigmatic album whose reputation has only grown more notorious over time. Today it has gained a cult following and is considered a masterpiece, influencing a wide array of artists like Arcade Fire, Franz Ferdinand, Beirut and Amanda Palmer, just to name a few. If On Avery Island is a parade, then In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a funeral march. There’s a lot of energy in certain songs but overall this is an incredibly somber album. Most of these songs were inspired by Jeff Mangum’s fascination with The Diary of Anne Frank, and after listening to songs like “Holland 1945”, “Communist Daughter”, and “Oh Comely”, I can kind of see why. Not only do the songs flow meticulously together, but each one has overarching themes that coincide with the Anne Frank story. With songs about spirituality (King of Carrot Flowers Parts 2 & 3), love (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea), sexual anxiety (Two Headed Boy), genocide (Holland 1945), death (Ghost), and mourning (Two Headed Boy pt. 2), it’s pretty easy to see the parallels.

For a while it looked like Neutral Milk Hotel were poised to take the underground by storm, but alas, some things were just not meant to be. After Mangum went through a mental breakdown in 1999 after the pressures of touring took their toll, the band canceled all tour dates (including an opening slot for R.E.M.), eventually announcing that they were going on hiatus. Before disappearing into the ether, they released one more song, “Little Birds”.

Each member of the band soldiered on afterward. Julian Koster performed solo work as The Music Tapes, Scott Spillane formed The Gerbils, and Jeremy Barnes joined Beirut. Jeff Mangum popped up to perform solo every once in a while, but for the most has remained reclusive. (There were even rumors that he was once spotted working at a Target.) That is until 2010 when he showed up at New York to play for protesters at the Occupy movement. After this rare public appearance went viral, Mangum embarked on a nationwide tour. Just to show that there is a line to every horizon, Neutral Milk Hotel announced that they were reuniting and embarking on a world tour on April 2013, causing millions of hipsters around the world to simultaneously  cream themselves in ecstasy.

Whether you like them or not, Neutral Milk Hotel is undeniably one of those bands that only comes around every once in a while. A band that made simple music with big emotions. A band that paved the way for bands like Arcade Fire, Mum ford & Sons, Bon Iver and The Mountain Goats among others. For more information, check out this website: http://walkingwallofwords.com/ This has been Left of the Dial, I bring you the music because the radio won’t.

 

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