By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Here is what Jeff Mangum is like: He is friendly. He stammers sometimes, as if struggling to find the right words to express his ideas. One imagines that he is not entirely comfortable coping with conventional situations, conversations, ideas. He talks about how he only recently began to read with regularity, because before "my head was always going so fast." He speaks for 10 minutes about Zen, then qualifies and disclaims everything he has said, because he "couldn't presume to speak for it; I don't know that much." He claims he'll have to stop writing songs eventually, because he "won't have accomplished anything"--even though he's already accomplished quite a bit. Awkward. Unaffected. Contradictory. Real.
Here is what his band, Neutral Milk Hotel, is like: All that, and also really good. Really good, hell--great. NMH's 1996 debut, On Avery Island, was rightfully lionized by a handful of onlookers as one of that year's finest offerings. At the record's core was, in the most reductive sense, folk music: one guy singing and playing an acoustic guitar. But Mangum layered his minstrelsy with so many disparate ornaments (lots of guitar fuzz, organs, bells, xylophones, trombones, drums) that he turned his songs into whimsical snippets of folk-pop bricolage--the perfect combination of melody, experiment, and an atypical imagination. And the brand-new follow-up, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is even better, its songwriting more accomplished, its breadth more ambitious, its pleasures equally memorable. The record overwhelmingly confirms what On Avery Island had suggested: that this low-key unit has developed into one of rock's most singular, and singularly worthwhile, bands.
Neutral Milk Hotel is one of several groups that compose the Elephant Six recording collective, a loose confederation of experimental pop musicians and friends that play on each other's records. Pretty much any story about an E6 band has focused heavily on this angle, mostly because it's the sort of endearing tale one rarely hears in the context of modern rock music. The four central Elephant Six figures--Mangum, Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider, and Olivia Tremor Control founders Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss--grew up together in the tiny cultural backwater of Ruston, Louisiana. Mangum and Schneider met in the second grade; by high school, all four found a common bond in music. They listened to the Minutemen and Robert Wyatt. They traded homemade tapes of original music, trying to outdo each other's length and conceptual breadth. They played in bands together.
And one by one, they left. Schneider moved to Denver, where he still lives. Hart went to the Virgin Islands with his girlfriend, lived on a beach for a while, and ultimately ended up in Athens, Georgia, with Doss. Mangum wandered--Athens, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, Austin. But the four kept in touch, still trading tapes, still playing in each other's bands. And that's where it remains: Their bands often tour together, each guests on the others' records (Schneider produced and played on Aeroplane, for example), and each speaks of the others with unflinching affection. (The current Neutral Milk lineup includes another childhood friend, horn player Scott Spillane, alongside Mangum, drummer Jeremy Barnes, and multi-instrumentalist Julian Barnes.)
And here is why all of that matters: The Elephant Six story isn't instructive just for its feel-good ending; there's also a certain aura of innocence and charm here that's reflected in each band's approach. "I feel like the whole magical process is really amazing," Mangum says with an absolutely straight face. "It's just weird--you can take this magnetic tape, and you can put all these sounds on it."
Which isn't to say that they're cloying or simplistic; rather, they balance an almost total lack of irony and cynicism with an unmistakable intelligence and ambition. They're smart without being cute, catchy without being obvious, influenced without being derivative. Mangum is easily the darkest lyricist; where the Apples are sugary and childlike, the Olivia Tremor Control literate and surreal, Mangum offers stream-of-consciousness spiels in which something is almost always not quite right ("Then they buried her alive/One evening 1945," say, or even more explicitly, "I gave everything to a lie and a farce and a fake") as the storytelling and imagery unfolds. Even at his most troubled, though, Mangum remains loath to simply chronicle despair.
"People getting an emotional impact is more important than understanding what I'm singing," he says from his current home base of Athens. "I'll write a song and wonder if anyone will know what the fuck I'm talking about. But when people react, I know that they might not understand specifically, but they understand the emotions. There are some songs that I've hedged on releasing because I wasn't sure if it was clear enough that there was some beauty and hope between all the sad, crazy shit. I think that there's beauty in everything; I want that to come through. More than anything, I would like people to come away with a really good feeling. This record was kind of written during an emotional freak-out and me coming out of it. Hopefully, someone will get something out of that."
Though one hesitates to propagate romantic notions about the correlation between a frail psyche and worthwhile creativity, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea would appear to confirm such a connection; Mangum's "sad, crazy shit" and "emotional freak-out" (which he declines to elaborate on) has translated into an admirable collection of songs.