Music Features

Neutral Milk Hotel

Like the hula hoop, the horseless carriage and every immortal love story, Neutral Milk Hotel is a concept that looks ridiculous on paper. The band is out of step with every page of the Indie Rock Handbook, coloring its timeless odes with accordions and trombones in place of sarcasm. Next to the streamlined chic of Stereolab or the clever ennui of Pavement, the group is an awkward circus of psychedelic hippiedom, spiritual fever and high school band cacophony. After unleashing one of the most acclaimed and transcendent albums of the nineties, 1998's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge Records), the band fell silent and has remained so, save for a few releases of previously recorded material from its founder and songwriter, Jeff Mangum.

Neutral Milk Hotel has no other permanent member and no mission aside from being Mangum's creative vent. He and the band, however, are part of a larger whole, one that's grown to the size of, well, an elephant. Largely based in Athens, Georgia, The Elephant Six Collective emerged from a desire to create music with a few like-minded friends. Mangum and some of his high school buddies in Ruston, Louisiana - a southern town half the size of a major U.S. university - coined the name Elephant Six to refer to their homespun musical projects. Self-made cassette tapes gave way to 7" singles on teeny imprints and, finally, to full-lengths on some of the U.S.'s best-loved indie labels. What was once maybe half a dozen kids is now a few dozen bands (most of whom swap members like baseball cards) that spearheaded a new psychedelic movement in the mid-nineties. Despite the underground success of several of them - notably initial groups Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control, the bunch remains an casual one, playing on each other's albums and recording songs in friends' homes.

But don't mistake such informality for a lax attitude toward their craft. Mangum is arguably the most intense and personal of the bunch, and - though he wouldn't admit it if you lit a match under his chin - the most talented. The next time you're feeling clever, try pulling off a concept album about Anne Frank, the loss (and recovery) of innocence, sex, angels, love, death and the search for God over the cumulative bark and buzz of about 20 instruments (give or take a singing saw). All of it six seconds shy of the 40-minute mark. Although you may have to walk a few miles to find someone who owns In the Aeroplane, it's likely a disc you will have to pry from their cold, dead hand.

Its predecessor, 1996's On Avery Island, is purposely rougher and less cohesive, with a darker take on similar themes. While wonderful and more experimental musically in many ways - harsher textures and a few instrumentals that verge on art rock - it is comparatively overlooked. The way a large chunk of platinum would be overlooked if placed next to a fallen meteor. The funny thing is - no one seems to have counted, but there may be no more than seven chords on both albums put together, and God only knows if multi-instrumentalist Mangum is capable of plucking a tune. Does anyone care? Despite the stunning production (by Robert Schneider of The Apples in Stereo) and array of gifted musicians on Aeroplane, the most popular songs are often nothing more than a few guitar strums and Mangum's deafening wail.

If he were an instrument, it would undoubtedly be a bagpipe - a bleating, at times abrasive, bellowing thing that knocks the wind out of itself with every blast. Many folks prefer the polished brass of a sax. But the bagpipe, traditionally made of a disemboweled goat, is the only instrument that sounds as though, if you cut it, it would bleed (those in doubt are invited to sample the bagpipe solo on the tenth, untitled track of Aeroplane). Don't be fooled, though, for while Mangum seems an amiable guy, it is often you that ends up being eviscerated. His pipes are the perfect vehicle for poetry that will soften and slice those neatly tucked places you thought immune to such stuff. Ironically, it is his very sweetness that is deadly. "I know they buried her body with others - her sister and mother and 500 families. And will she remember me 50 years later? I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine," he sings of Anne Frank in Aeroplane's centerpiece, Oh Comely.

The bulk of such passions and ideas can only be the fruit of personal experience and a fertile mind. Still, Neutral Milk Hotel and Elephant Six in general are (too) frequently compared to Syd Barrett or thought to have one lip firmly planted on John Lennon's arse and the other on Brian Wilson's - a comparison so hackneyed in modern rock it is rendered useless, even when true. But there are other, more obscure influences that have apparently held as much sway - early twentieth century music, progressive rock and the experimental sound tapestries of the likes of Harry Partch and Pierre Henry (one of many such French artists).

It is particularly hard to miss the styles and themes of the Dadaists - some clearly influential, others probably coincidental (For you computer geeks and potheads, Dada was a rebellious art and literary movement that sprang up in reaction to World War I). Both groups utilize collages of words and images and childlike subjects; both are concerned with dreams, the unconscious, the enigma of the universe, and the horrors of world war and modern materialism. And both "Dada" and "Elephant Six" refer to an informal group of friends bonded by a determination to rise above life's torments through their art. But Neutral Milk Hotel and their cohorts part ways with the nihilistic movement (and with much of indie rock as well) in their bile-free optimism. Lines like "God is a place where some holy spectacle lies" (from Aeroplane's closing track, Two Headed Boy, Part 2) are hard to come by, and even harder to say. Much of Mangum's power rests in his refusal to believe otherwise, and in his shamanistic ability to impart such an ideal.

This is why the band's influences are far less intriguing than its influence. The first time I considered writing a piece on Neutral Milk Hotel was late 1999, when the music editor at the paper I wrote for cornered me and asked that I pick a band, any band. They were my only interest, though I couldn't pinpoint why, and I knew less about them than I did Aboriginal cannibalism. So I filtered my thoughts through my keyboard that night, and to my bewilderment, a thousand words about physics and God flew out. "Music" wasn't one of them. This was an accident. I also assumed it was some sort of an hallucination, until I began scanning reviews and comments on the band from a few journalists and fans and noticed that words like God, transcendent and universe popped up more often than guitar, fuzz bass and flugelhorn.

Writers and activists I had met online - who also happened to be zealous music nuts - chose In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as their all-time favorite album. Others penned dozens of short stories based on song titles or images, started bands, published long-hidden poems on the web, switched career aspirations in favor of things they were previously afraid to try. Some specified that certain songs be played (or the lyrics printed) at their funerals. I was surprised that people would tolerate albums peppered with the very things many detest about my other CDs (so-called coarse vocals and goofy instruments). When Hollywood bar chatter turned to What's My Line and I had to divulge my underpaid post as an arts writer, I recommended Neutral Milk Hotel's records to anyone who asked for "something new." This was soon a great way to earn admirers and gratitude. A web designer from San Diego was late to work on a Tuesday because he'd bought In the Aeroplane the night before and loved it so much he waited for Tower Records to open the next morning to get On Avery Island. Intrigued by these reactions, I created a web site where other folks could share their own stories and opinions. The experiences they post are similar, and I have had about 100 amazing discussions about everything from string theory and Buddhism to environmental policy and the transformative power of art - the band never really seems to come up.

No one knows, not even Mangum, if Neutral Milk Hotel has boarded its windows for good. Although the music industry has been known to destroy the very candidness and hope that makes the band so compelling, such an early retirement would be a shame. But the bigger shame is that, despite their apparent reputation within the indie world, no one else seems to know who the hell these guys are, which is why I agreed to look all this stuff up and write it all down.

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* Everything Is EP (Orange Twin, original release date 1995)

* On Avery Island (Merge Records, 1996)

* In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge Records, 1998)

* Live at Jittery Joe's - live solo show from 1997 (Orange Twin, 2001)