FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Jeff Mangum’s Ghost All Around

Neutral Milk Hotel

Neutral Milk Hotel

When I was seventeen, I was hopelessly infatuated with an eighteen-year old poetry major who scribbled Neutral Milk Hotel lyrics on various buildings throughout our college campus. While the school administration felt that he was deliberately destroying the aesthetic of our pretty liberal arts school, I used to glide my fingertips over the words scrawled in the stairwell of my dormitory, gushing over how beautiful they were. In fat blue sharpie, the words read: follow me through a city of frost-covered angels, / I swear I have nothing to prove / I just want to dance in your tangles / to give me some reason to move.

At the time, I was neither familiar with Neutral Milk Hotel, nor did I know that the same brooding poetry major who lived below me had marked them on the wall. I was just so enchanted with how these words came together, a cryptic message that I needed to decode. When I finally discovered they were lyrics to a song called “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone” from NMH’s debut album On Avery Island (1996), I became obsessed with trying to figure out why the poetry kid picked this particular section of the song. When I think about this in retrospect, it’s kind of funny and, admittedly, a smidge creepy that this was how I began listening to NMH. The thing is, by the time I’d memorized every word to “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone,” my ritual of playing the song every morning turned into something much bigger than my silly fixation on the idea that there was a secret message behind the words in the stairwell; I was developing a relationship with the song without even knowing it.

Shortly after I dove into the NMH anthology, a meager but nonetheless beautiful collection of two albums, I began feeling all of these emotions I didn’t realize I could feel—sadness, desolation, and yearning for something I couldn’t obtain because I hadn’t even realized what it was I was yearning for. I could easily write my emotional revelation off as being a young, hopeless adolescent discovering Life with a capital L. But even now, listening to NMH’s second full-length album (and unfortunately, their last), In the Aeroplane Over the Sea still recalls that sensation of desperately wanting to reconcile absolute joy and pain, living in a world that is both beautiful and, for better or worse, quite sad.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea came out in 1998 through Merge Records. While On Avery Island sounds like it was recorded in someone’s parents’ basement and is loaded with early 90s punk/grunge musical tropes—a fuzzy lo-fi sound, idiosyncratic riffs, quick upbeat chords, and low growling in place of singing—Aeroplane is a much softer and subtler album in terms of its sound, theme, and lyrical content. There’s a timeless quality to Aeroplane, having partly to do with the eclectic combination of instruments that NMH employs—accordions, trumpets, flugelhorns, drums, acoustic guitars, and a singing saw—and the ethereal, dream-like world that comes to life in this album is what allows it to transcend the fatal categorization of being just another good 90s rock album. Our ears perk up because of how obscure it sounds, and yet, there’s also a feeling of familiarity and comfort with hearing Mangum bellow like a 1960s British Troubadour over a smashing 1990s punk-rock beat.

To be straightforward: Neutral Milk Hotel is a weird band. They don’t make any sense. Pressed up against this collision of strange sounds and tough-to-identify instruments are phrases that reference synthetic flying machines and a world where “semen stains the mountaintops.” Not to mention the high-pitched whistle that reverberates in the background of each track like the creepy opening of The Twilight Zone. And much like The Twilight Zone, you’re never quite sure where and how to situate yourself when you listen to Aeroplane. What year is it? Who is Anna? Whose ghosts are we talking to? Part of what makes Aeroplane so wonderful is because you are displaced. You’re hearing familiar words and images, but it’s as if you’re meeting these words and images for the first time, because of how Mangum places them next to one another in songs. It’s like when you repeat a word aloud a hundred times and suddenly, you don’t know what the word means anymore; it becomes an empty and awkward two-, three-, four-syllable sound. In “King of Carrot Flowers, Parts 2-3,” the first half of the song is just Mangum calling out “I love you Jesus Christ / Jesus Christ, I love you, yes I do.” Although religious illusions are a common trope in certain folk music, Mangum’s voice is so shrill and unwavering, the allusion to an actual religious figure is almost imperceptible—it’s more like a character named Jesus Christ appearing at random in the song, which then becomes about the spiritual experience of hearing Mangum’s drawl and how it quietly hovers over the gentle strumming of a banjo, as if the song were a lullaby.

Mangum wrote Aeroplane after he read The Diary of Anne Frank. By mish-mashing words, imagery, and sounds, Mangum guides us through the surreal world of Anne’s diary, equal parts historical and romanticized. In “Holland, 1945,” Mangum shouts over a loud and exuberant drum pattern, “the only girl I’ve ever loved / was born with roses in her eyes / but then they buried her alive / one evening in 1945 / with just her sister at her side / and only weeks before the guns / all came and rained on everyone.” While we weren’t there when the concentration camps were liberated (mere weeks after Anne Frank was killed), we know how it feels to lose someone due to bad timing. What’s unexpected about this song, however, is the subtle hope contained therein. “Holland, 1945” is actually upbeat and lively, unlike the darker and more haunting songs that come later in the album like “Oh, Comely” or “Two-Headed Boy, Part 2.” Right after the song’s opening lines, Mangum continues, “Now she’s a little boy in Spain / playing pianos filled with flames.” Anne’s spirit is eternal; those feelings of acceptance and absolution come through in the song.

There’s a raw honesty and vulnerability that swims through the album, especially in Mangum’s quaking vocals, and his unabashed willingness to confront and accept loss propels the music. In the album’s title-track, Mangum sweetly sings, “And one day we will die / and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea / but for now we are young / let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see.” This earnest carpe diem philosophy permeates the album through and through. On the same track, Mangum continues, “there are lights in the clouds / Anna’s ghost all around / hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me.” Sometimes when I’m listening to Aeroplane, it’s not just Anne Frank’s ghost that I’m thinking about. There are the ghosts of old lovers and friends; the ghost of the poetry major who lived below me in my first year of college; Mangum’s ghost, which can be felt in every line of the music.

Like most rock bands, the frontman is the reference point to how we, as the listener, try to humanize or characterize the band into one person. With an album as poetically rich as Aeroplane, it’s difficult to not read the album as a direct bible or mantra of Mangum’s. And for many years, it was all fans had to go by—in 1998 after touring in support of Aeroplane, the band broke up, cementing the already strange album’s cult classic status. The more mystery there is surrounding something, the greater the appeal, right? Mangum continued to do sporadic solo shows, including a special appearance at Occupy Wall Street. But then last year, the band surprised everyone by announcing they’d be reuniting for a 2013-2014 tour. At first it was just a few dates, but this quickly expanded into a slew of festival appearances and several dates in the NYC area, including the “Celebrate Brooklyn!” summer concert series in Prospect Park. I was apprehensive about buying a ticket; this tour would be the first time in 15 years since Mangum, Jeremy Barnes, Julian Koster, and Scott Spillane all shared a stage together. Would the live renditions of these songs, which I’d only heard through computer speakers and record players, still be as poignant this late in the game? I bought tickets anyway.

Unfortunately, it rained on the date I went, so there was an unexpected 20-minute intermission. While the program’s organizers urged fans to evacuate or stay at their own discretions, it shouldn’t be surprising that most fans firmly stood their ground. And I’m glad I did too. I’ve never witnessed anything more beautiful than a grisly 43-yr old Mangum crooning “Oh Comely,” as lightning flared underneath the stratus, and the crowd, mostly dudes in their early 30s/40s (probably nostalgic of their angsty adolescence) crooned along. Maybe I cried, but that’s okay. A lot of people cry over the ghosts they know.

LIVE REVIEW: Pitchfork Music Festival 2014

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All photos by Ellie White Photography

Pitchfork Fest 2014 came and went in a flash. Literally. Peruse our photo editorial from the weekend, courtesy of  our photo editor, Ellie White, who snagged highlights from all of our favorite shows over the three day extravaganza situated in Chicago’s beautiful Union Park. Our personal faves from the spectacularly-curated lineup this year included sets from the ever-brooding black-metal gents of Deafheaven; glam goddesses in black, the Dum Dum Girls; headliners Beck (whose set topped the best of the fest list for me, hands down without question), Neutral Milk Hotel and Kendrick Lamar (though Danny Brown–who won best hair of all time with his forest green ombre–and Earl Sweatshirt battled it out for best rap performance in our opinion); a stunning, once in a generation set from shoegaze pioneers  Slowdive (Rachel Goswell’s dress looked like sexy, glimmering armor); a wildly exuberant performance from Tune-yards –whose addition of African Dance inspired backup choreography had everyone in a frenzy; Boundary-pushing electronic music from The Haxan Cloak and Factory Floor (um, can we please hear it for that badass drummer??); Intelligent ambient down-tempo from heartthrob Jon Hopkins and a performance from the Range that could put anyone else’s obsession with and knowledge of rap jams to shame. Oh and I think everyone is officially  in love with FKA Twigs and Neneh Cherry.

Honorable mentions include Majical Cloudz, whose keyboard broke after the second song. As a result, lead singer Devon Walsh performed an array of  songs sung acapella (at one point standing up on a chair to belt out Magic, leaving the entire audience in tears), stand up comedy and audience-participation fueled beat boxing. At the end of the set, keyboardist Matthew Otto, so adobrably contrite and just adorable in general, had us all count down from 10, and then proceeded to smash the defunct synth to smithereens for all the world to see. A lifelong dream of his come true, he proclaimed.

All in all it was an amazing, sunny weekend full of cantankerous, gorgeous, feisty, live performances from some of the very best and brightest talent that exists in music today. We can’t wait  to see what the fine folks over at Pitchfork have in store for next year. In the meantime, read on and enjoy.


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LIVE REVIEW: Neutral Milk Hotel 1/22

Neutral Milk Hotel

Neutral Milk Hotel announced their tour dates in July. The tickets went on sale on August 2nd at 12:00 pm. I bought my tickets at 12:01. I printed out the tickets at 12:02. By 12:05, I worked out that I had approximately 173 days and 8 hours and 55 minutes to wait. I have never been the poster child for patience, but this wait was especially excruciating.

Neutral Milk Hotel were/are playing a string of New York City events (two nights at BAM and two nights at Webster Hall), but experiencing a live performance at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester has been on my to do list for quite some time now (and I wanted some home-cooked food from my parents). Therefore, I decided to leave the city and take a train ride to Westchester.

The Capitol Theatre, for those who are unaware, is one of the oldest and most historic theaters in New York. The Capitol Theatre opened on August 18, 1926.  It was a major hub for rock and folk musicians touring in the 1960s (Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead to name a few). Unfortunately, The Capitol Theatre was shut down in the early ‘70s.  In 2011, the Capitol Theatre was renovated and re-opened. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, The Capitol Theatre is not only an important historic symbol, but a convenient place for Westchester kids to hear music without having to trek into New York City (being a Westchester kid myself, I am very sympathetic to this).

Seeing a band that has been pretty much dormant for 14 years in a venue that has been pretty much dormant for 40 years seemed appropriate. That being said, in reality Neutral Milk Hotel could have been performing anywhere and I would have paid money to see them.

14 years is a long time– more than half of my existence. We may have seen several wars begin and end and a few presidents come in and out of office, yet (despite Jeff’s beard), it doesn’t seem like too much has changed with Neutral Milk Hotel. Jeff Mangum still rocks the dorky Christmas sweaters, Julian Koster still looks like a child (that man does not age), Jeff’s voice is still nasally and thin yet surprisingly rich, and the band’s dynamic members still seem to have as much, if not more, chemistry as they did in back in the ‘90s.

I have seen Jeff Mangum perform solo before, yet experiencing the whole band together, was a completely different experience.  Julian Koster coaxed haunting melodies out of his singing saw, Scott Spillane anchored the horn section, and Jeremy Barnes propelled the music forward with explosive drumming, all while Jeff’s nasally voice shouted above the ruckus. This was a sonic experience that I did not expect nor had I prepared for.

Magnum opened the set by himself. Briefly after walking onstage, someone commented on his sweater, to which he responded, “What did you say about my sweater?” The first song that he graced us with was “Two-Headed Body.” Standing with his feet firmly on stage, Jeff Mangum played the song straightforward, almost exactly as it sounds on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The rest of the band joined on stage by the end of the song, and, like in the album, they transitioned into “Fool.”

For a band with the stature that Neutral Milk Hotel possesses, they were nice, gracious and humble. Jeff Mangum always seems surprised to find out how beloved he is. When he held the mic to the audience, and was confronted by a sea of audience members shouting every word and every inflection of his song, he seemed genuinely taken aback. One thing that Jeff Mangum wasn’t doing from 1999 to 2010: stroking his ego. That being said, Neutral Milk Hotel knew exactly what we wanted, and they gave it to us. Without messing around, they played pretty much every song that the crowd came to hear. Their setlist included: “Two-Headed Boy,” “Fool,” “Holland, 1945,” “A Baby for Pree / Glow Into You,” “Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone,” “Everything Is,” “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1,” “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3,” “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” “Naomi,” “Ferris Wheel on Fire,” “Oh Comely,” “Song Against Sex,” “Ruby Bulbs,” “Snow Song, Part one,” (ENCORE) “Ghost,”  “[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][untitled],” “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2” and “Engine.” Yes, they really did play all of those songs, all presented in a straightforward manner, almost exactly how they sounded on the recordings, yet here and there they would add small flourishes. For instance, Jeff would include a run or go a third up or down at the end of a phrase, or Julian would open the song with a different pattern. These variations were like priceless gifts that the band dished out and the audience grabbed at desperately.

The band was great, the venue was great, the night was great. Seeing the gang play live after all of these years thoroughly solidifies my belief that they were one of the greatest bands to ever grace the music world. There’s nothing much else to say, except, Julian Koster: will you please be my friend? I think we would get along well.

 “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (2013)


“Ghost”/”[untitled]” (1998)