November 1998
s m u g
ear candy
by Joshua Allen

Neutral Milk Hotel


OK, a semi-brief disclaimer: The album I'm going to write about is not brand-spanking-new, not burning up the charts, not spinning in the pricey multi-disc stereo systems of hipsters around the world, and a quick call to my psychic friend Renee, the one who always seems to know it's me when I ring her up, reveals that no one is currently fucking to this record, and no one is low-riding and pumping their hydraulics on Crenshaw whilst pumping the bass of this album.

We're talking about the album entitled In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by the band entitled Neutral Milk Hotel. As I sat down to write this (well, if we're going to open up and share then I should probably admit that I am dictating this from a prone position and my words are being transcribed verbatim by my multitalented and [what us executives at the racquetball club refer to euphemistically as] "multi-tasking" personal secretary), I realized there was only one album in the past year that I really cared about and that moved me enough to make me spread its gospel. "I know I steered you wrong with that whole Meredith Brooks thing," I'd say to my loved ones, head bowed, "but this time is different."

Neutral Milk Hotel crept up on me. I went through a heavy Guided by Voices phase a year or two ago and as I was searching for info about them, Neutral Milk Hotel kept coming up as a kindred spirit, so I picked up their first album, On Avery Island. It had the same crappy four-track lo-fi sound and odd lyrics as GbV, but that's about where the similarities ended. It was less about rawk and more about dense arrangements and weird instrumentation; darker, creepier, folkier. But it didn't click for me. It was too ambitious for the cheap sound quality and so all the trombones and xylophones and organs and such kind of merged together in the murk. I have since gained a strong appreciation for that record, but only after the next one slapped me around and showed me what exactly was what.

In the Aeroplane follows the same blueprint as Avery Island, but takes it to a much more powerful level. The fuzzy production is still there, but this time around the vision seems a lot clearer. This is pretty much Jeff Mangum's show, who, for the most part, writes the songs and sings and plays way too many instruments. He also calls on his buddies from the Elephant 6 collective (an ever-expanding and -changing group of bands that is generally centered around Athens, GA, with the most prominent group probably being Apples in Stereo) to pitch in with weirdo instruments like the singing saw, zanzithophone, euphonium, and of course the wandering genie. The music is centered around Mangum's acoustic guitar, however, which he strums with speedy violence, and often there's only the guitar and his voice each challenging each other to increase the intensity yet another notch. But the album is also filled with blaring horns and scary bagpipes and is always unexpectantly bursting into epiphanous and almost-chaotic-but-still-tightly-organized noise. At times, the record sounds like an apocalyptic and celebratory funeral march.

Which is appropriate, because death lurks everywhere in the lyrics, and it's these words that take this album to a sublime level. They've been described as surreal and psychedelic and stream-of-consciousness, and they are, I guess, but they're not haphazard or empty, and they have a rich meaning that rewards close attention. Howsabout this: "Catching signals that sound in the dark / we will take off our clothes / and they'll be placing / fingers through the notches in your spine." Wha? And then this: "God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life." These are the kind of obscure-yet-meaningful lyrics that twist my kilt, stuff that happily walks the line between trite and inscrutable. Mangum creates a world of churning physicality and cloudied spirituality, and demonstrates how there is horror in everyday beauty and beauty in everyday horror.

Mangum's singing is pure and loud and idiosyncratic, stretching out syllables to the breaking point - surely one of the more distinctive and intriguing voices I've ever heard. His passion gives extra power to lyrics that could, in the wrong hands, come across as meaningless.

Aeroplane is eccentric and startling in all the right ways, and is so firmly entrenched in both the long, varied history of American music and the current mishmash of colliding genres that it really feels timeless, as if it could be dropped in almost any era and still manage to succeed on its own terms. It is wholly original, something that's increasingly difficult to come by these days. Obey me for once and go check it out.


in the junk drawer:

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