Music critics tend to focus on whatever is new and fresh in print, but their personal time is often spent with old favorites and newly discovered obscurities. We asked a few of our critics – Rob Sheffield, Jon Dolan, David Fricke, Jody Rosen and...
Born out of the acid-pop collective Elephant 6 and the mind of singer-songwriter-guitarist Jeff Mangum, Neutral Milk Hotel were one of the best and most distinctive indie bands of the Nineties. With their second album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the group produced a bona fide rock classic, only to quietly disband and withdraw completely from the public eye just as they were gaining a sizeable audience.
Ruston, Louisiana, native Mangum formed childhood friendships with schoolmate Robert Schneider and locals Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss. The foursome began playing music together as teenagers, experimenting with home recordings, making up bizarre band names, and marking their homemade tapes with a logo that proclaimed "Elephant 6 Recording Co." Though Schneider moved to Denver in the early Nineties, the three others relocated to college town and noted music hotspot Athens, GA, and began playing live dates under the moniker Synthetic Flying Machine (later Olivia Tremor Control).
Mangum continued recording on his own, releasing a series of demo cassettes that blended proper songs with tape-loop sound collages under the name Milk, and later Neutral Milk Hotel. The first official Neutral Milk Hotel release was the 1994 single "Everything Is" b/w "Snow Song Pt. 1," on Seattle label Cher Doll Records. The title track is the kind of injured, acoustic fuzz-rock that would populate the band's debut album; it posited Mangum as an indie-rocker in the vein of Sebadoh or Guided By Voices, but didn't reveal any of the emotional complexity that would overwhelm his music within five years.
Mangum ventured to Denver to live and record with Schneider, who was honing his own complex and catchy pop sensibilities as well as producing other artists' work. Schneider oversaw the recording sessions that would become On Avery Island (Merge), Neutral Milk Hotel's 1996 debut, in his own home and a nearby studio. Schneider contributed organ and fuzz bass to the album, and also wrote arrangements for noted trombonist Rick Benjamin. Mangum played mostly everything else (guitar, drums, keyboards) and sang. His evocative vocals on first blush gave the impression of atonality but soon showed their range, from the rollicking carnival stomp of "Song Against Sex" to the more subtle, heartfelt "Naomi." Mangum played around with theme variations on the album -- two songs have the exact same melody -- and also paid special attention to the transitions between tracks, which were alternately abrupt and smooth.
After the release of On Avery Island, Neutral Milk Hotel became a full band for the first time, as Mangum recruited multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster (Chocolate USA, Music Tapes), drummer Jeremy Barnes and horn player Scott Spillane, an old friend from Ruston. The foursome relocated to Koster's hometown of New York, where they began to practice together and start working on a handful of new Mangum compositions that would eventually form the bulk of the band's sophomore album.
Neutral Milk Hotel made its live debut as a quartet on April 28, 1996 at Brownie's in New York, and then embarked on a modest tour including some west-coast dates. Following the outing, the band relocated again, this time back to Athens, where Olivia Tremor Control and other like-minded bands were gaining steam of their own. Mangum continued working on the music that would become In the Aeroplane Over the Sea during his time in Athens, in between playing shows with various bands around town. In summer 1997, he headed back to Denver with the full band to begin recording the new album with Schneider.
For 1998's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea Mangum and company stewed together most of the crucial touchstones of rock & roll for a stunning batch of transcendentalist pop, tied together with recurring themes, both lyrically and musically. Mangum's lyrics draw much inspiration from "The Diary of Anne Frank" and the Jewish holocaust, spreading repeated references to sex, death and innocence within a cryptic wordscape. Musically the album is steeped in a century of American music, from funeral marches to driving punk.
Triumphant brass and quavering organs dress up Mangum's passionate acoustic-guitar strums, irresistible melodies, and lyrics that rarely feel obtuse even when they're nonsensical. The rousing "Holland, 1945," which evokes a punkier R.E.M. with horns, is a spiritual paean to Anne Frank. "The only girl I've ever loved was born with roses in her eyes," Mangum affirms, "But then they buried her alive with just her sister at her side." Later Mangum imagines her reincarnated as a piano-playing boy and then as a free soul who "rides a comet's flame."
The band supported the album by touring small clubs for almost all of 1998, with multiple legs across the U.S. and a set of European dates in early autumn. Meanwhile, Aeroplane, while initially met with so-so sales, continued to gain momentum through the year and ended up on many critics' end-of-year top-10 lists (and a year on, Aeroplane was a staple of online best-of-decade polls).
Aeroplane's accomplishment would be hard to top, and in fact Mangum thus far has not even attempted a follow up. The effusive critical reception to the album and the exhaustive touring was apparently stressful for the band leader, who announced a band hiatus at the end of the year. While Koster, Spillane and Barnes have each continued their musical career in other outfits, Mangum has been largely out of the public eye in the decade-plus since. He has declined interviews and most requests to perform since 1999, and appears to not have any stated intention to continue a professional recording career.
Athens-based label Orange Twin Records (run by longtime Neutral Milk Hotel touring member Laura Carter) in 2001 released "Orange Twin Field Works: Volume 1," a set of field recordings made by Mangum at a Bulgarian folk festival, as well as "Live at Jittery Joe's," a recording of a 1997 Mangum solo performance featuring songs from throughout his career as well as a cover of Phil Spector's "I Love How You Love Me."
In February 2001, Mangum played a show in New Zealand with Carter and Tall Dwarfs frontman Chris Knox. In October 2008, Mangum joined Cullen Hart, Koster and Doss on their Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise tour and performed the pre-On Avery Island song "Engine" at a few shows, as well as playing with Circulatory System, Cullen Hart's post-Olivia Tremor Control outfit. In December 2009, Mangum contributed a cover of Knox's "Sign the Dotted Line" to "Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox," a tribute album to New Zealand musician, who suffered a stroke.