A few weeks ago I attended a show at the Cats Cradle that is (probably) the closest I will ever get to seeing Neutral Milk Hotel live. Both Nana Grizol and The Music Tapes are two Athens based groups comprised of a few of the original and touring members of one of the most influential yet short lived indie rock bands ever. This epic show inspired me to do a series of Elephant Six postings, and there’s no better place to start than a Friday Favorite on NMH’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.
You can’t talk about this record without giving a bit of a bio on the mysterious NMH frontman, Jeff Mangum. Before there was NMH, there was the Olivia Tremor Control – Mangum’s group with high school cronies Will Hart and Bill Doss and was one of the three founding groups of Athens’ Elephant Six Recording Company (we’ll go more in depth on the label on Monday). Mangum didn’t stay with Tremor Control for long, and started putting out tapes under a solo name, Milk. Milk was a highly experimental project for Mangum, but in 1996 things turned more serious with his first full-length release, On Avery Island, where we first saw the name Neutral Milk Hotel being used. Although the release started as a solo album, Mangum brought on board Julian Koster (see: the Music Tapes), Scott Spillane, and Jeremy Barnes (cousin of Kevin Barnes).
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was the bands follow up, their second, most popular, and last recording effort. Though the band is known for living in Athens, Georgia, this record was actually recorded in Denver, Co, before the group lay (temporary) roots in Georgia. The album was inspired by WWII and Anne Frank, thanks to Mangum’s reoccurring dreams about a jewish family in hiding during the Holocaust. The album has a more acoustic folk sound, though still holds some of the experimental sounds of Avery and Milk’s earlier recordings.Album opener, “King Of Carrot Flowers Part 1” kicks off with a thick and sharp acoustic intro and Mangum’s unorthodox vocals. The minimal intro is soon joined by an accordion and a number of noise-making instruments I’m not cool enough to name. (The albums boats: guitar, vocals, organ, floor tom, bass guitar, tape, shortwave radio, drums, organ, trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, euphonium, Wandering Genie organ, singing saw, bowed banjo, accordion, white noise,zanzithophone,trombone, saxophone, and Uilleann pipes). This is one of the two big standout tracks on the record, and well loved for its strange and staggering lyrical content.
“King of Carrot Flowers Part 2 and 3” is half experimental noise, and half Magnum waxing over Mr. Jesus Christ, and flows seamlessly between the two album standouts. “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea” is the title track and easily the song NMH is known for. The lyrics are touching, Magnum’s vocals go from soft to screaming, and Kosters singing saw rings along dotingly in the background. “Two-Headed Boy” is a dark, minimal track in which you can just imagine Mangum wailing the simple chord progressions on his acoustic. The song suddenly slips into “The Fool” an instrumental track that plays host to a myriad of brass instruments and a rolling percussion background. “Holland 1945” is a fast song where Mangum’s vocals sound murky under the pressure of all the backing noise.
“Communist Daughter” is a short tracks, where Mangum’s vocals are gentle and sound unlike anywhere else on the record (is it even him?), there is a beautiful trumpet outro before ten seconds of noise. “Oh Comely” is another slow, minimal acoustic track and Magnum’s voice is thrown back to center stage without any noisy backtracking. “Ghost” is a driving track that has a hooking melody and is the perfect marriage of the albums two sounds: the acoustic Mangum and the noisy band of backers. The next track is “Untitled” though on the liner notes the song is called “10”, and is a catchy instrumental track boasting organs and a mystery instrument that sounds like a bagpipe. The album closes on “Two-Headed Boy Part 2”, which opens with a noisy opener and drifts into lovely lyrics delivered with the album’s hero, Mangum, sitting with his acoustic center stage.
After ITAOTS Neutral Milk became touring legends for their wild stage antics but beautiful performances of their songs. But just as mysteriously as they came, they were gone, with Mangum calling for an indefinite hiatus and the many members entangled with the band going their separate musical ways. Since then Mangum has mysteriously disappeared and is sometimes sighted at random shows across the country. although Neutral Milk may have teased us with only two albums, ITAOTS has gone done in indie rock history.