On Avery Island (Merge, 1996)
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge, 1998)
Everything Is (Orange Twin, 2001)
Live at Jitter Joe's (Orange Twin, 2001)
In the Nineties, the cadre of bands who comprised the Elephant Six collective turned out albums long on psychedelic retro-pop and neohippie experimentalism, channeling the Sixties for their own brand of joyful noise. Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control were among the collective's most active groups, but Jeff Mangum's Neutral Milk Hotel stood out as the most unique and visionary—and the most enigmatic. With Mangum (the group's only constant member) aided primarily by Apples chief Robert Schneider, Neutral Milk Hotel made an impressive debut with On Avery Island. Somewhere between the gloomy Smog and the classic-rocking Guided by Voices on the spectrum of notable mid-Nineties lo-fi indie sounds, the record succeeds in blending surrealist lyrics and Sgt. Pepper–like instrumental coloring with punk-rock urgency and nearly gothic atmosphere. Its production limitations and a still-developing songwriting voice were the only slight weaknesses of this terrific effort.
By the time Mangum recorded In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, he had put together something resembling an actual band, resulting in a far richer and more organic sound. What's more, the songwriting had blossomed far beyond the bounds of Elephant 6 (or indie rock as a whole), with Mangum etching out timeless transcendentalist pop steeped in a century of American music, from funeral marches to punk rock. Triumphant brass and quavery organs dress up Mangum's passionate acoustic-guitar strums, irresistible melodies, and lyrics that rarely feel obtuse even when they're nonsensical. There are no weak tracks, but there are standouts—particularly "Holland, 1945," a warbled banger about life during wartime on which a catchy, fuzzed-out melody balances out some monstrously sad, if somewhat whimsical, lyrics. As a whole, Aeroplane is a fragile, creaky, dignified, and ballsy record—one that would spawn its own passionate cult.
Aeroplane would be hard to top, and Mangum hasn't really tried. While he was making field recordings in Bulgaria, the Elephant 6–affiliated label Orange Twin finally interrupted his absence with a pair of archival recordings. Everything Is, which reissued Neutral Milk Hotel's 1995 European-only EP plus a previously unreleased track from the same period, features material that wouldn't have sounded out of place on On Avery Island. The second is a live solo recording by Mangum from a 1997 performance in an Athens, Georgia, coffeehouse. The set combines material from both albums, plus a cover of Phil Spector's "I Love How You Love Me" and previously unreleased Mangum songs. In the late 2000s, Mangum would occasionally perform live or make a guest appearance on a friend's record, but it may be a while before Aeroplane fanatics get a new Mangum LP.
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