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Neutral Milk Hotel


Everything Is [EP] (1994)
On Avery Island (1996)
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)

Everything Is (1994)

Album Score: 9

I thought I was being so clever when I found this little-celebrated pre-On Avery Island Neutral Milk Hotel EP to review. But I quickly discovered that Neutral Milk Hotel had recorded three full, unreleased albums prior to this. They're pretty easy to find if you want to scour the Internet for them, but I wouldn't bother if I were you. They've been universally panned by everybody, even by a solid majority of nutty people. I'm not even sure I'd bother with this four-song EP, Neutral Milk Hotel's first official release.

The most potent strike against it is it's so poorly produced with so many hisses that it sounds like it was recorded on an answering machine tape. What's more, the quality of these compositions aren't particularly great. That limits the interest of this EP strictly to anyone who loves In the Aeroplane over the Sea so much that they can't contain themselves. (And these are the people who probably already have copies of those three unreleased demos!)

According to the Internet, Neutral Milk Hotel at this point was basically a solo project for Jeff Mangum. He would assemble a more functioning band later on. (Every time I spell his name, it seems to come out “Magnum.” I'm going to try to catch it, but there's bound to be one or two that slip through the cracks! I apologize in advance for that.) Mangum seems to be quite a creative character, and if he was only around 30 years earlier, he could have become something of an experimental hippie-guru. But, as it stands, he was living in the grunge era, so what could he do? Well, he could completely ignore grunge and just go on doing whatever he wanted to do. That's what he did.

The only thing grungy about this EP is that he likes FUZZY guitar. I mean, this guitar sound is so overpowering that the drums and the acoustic guitar patterns are barely audible. That's a shame, because I really liked what I thought I was hearing out of that acoustic guitar in “Tuesday Moon.” That riff is very, very complicated but somehow catchy too. That's quite rare. At least the vocals are mixed pretty well in these songs, and that's good because Mangum proves to have quite a knack for vocal melodies. That's also pretty rare. Also, that brief 10-second segment tacked on at the end of the track could have been turned into a mightily interesting full-fledged song of its own. He must've been overflowing with ideas!

Sometimes Mangum's invention gets the better of him. “Aunt Emma Blowtorch” can be classified as a psychedelic sound collage. Those things had gone out of style in the late '60s, and there was no compelling reason to reanimate that evil zombie again! ...Alright, I'll fess up that I'm generally interested to listen to hear this sort of pretentious art-music! But this song isn't so much *music* as it is a random collection of sound. Sometimes these sorts of collages work if when they create creepy, mind-rewiring atmospheres, and it flows so well that it hypnotizes you. But this is mostly plodding and uninteresting. Bleh.

“Snow Song, Pt. 1” is a rather straightforward and slow-paced composition, but that subtly menacing way he sings it absolutely captures my attention. The melody sounds disconnected from reality though it's somehow engaging. In that respect, it's reminiscent of solo-Syd Barrett compositions. The title track is pretty good, too, apart from the general complaints I've already expressed about the mixing. The melody is good! My only new complaint about it is the tape recording of a kid talking at the beginning. That little boogar identifies Kiss as a punk rock band!!!! That was a no-no, little man! Johnny Rotten will eat you for lunch for that transgression! Other than that, it's a good song.

I'm not sure why I wrote so much about an EP that's seven minutes long, but I did it anyway! Again, Everything Is sounds a lot like cassette demos, and I wouldn't even bother seeking it out unless you're nuts about this band.

Read the track reviews:
Everything Is [EP]

On Avery Island (1996)

Album Score: 10

After spending years of self-releasing demo cassettes of albums, Jeff Mangum finally assembled a group of musicians to collaborate and perform his ditties. Just like the EP Everything Is, this album is full of creative and nicely melodic sloppy guitar songs. Mangum likes fuzzy and dreary guitar tones so much that he drenches them all over this album. Sometimes it works beautifully, creating such unusual and exotic textures (on a low budget, mind you) that I can understand why so many hipsters out there have been screaming the word “genius” into his ear. But other times, it's absolutely tedious.

Is it just me, or does this album start off really well, and then taper off into mind-numbing dreck by the end? The opening song “Song Against Sex” features mostly fuzzy guitars in its foreground, but it's kept punchy with a bouncy drum and bass rhythm. It's nothing more than a two or three chord song, but he manages to keep a catchy and free-flowing melody going and I can do nothing else but happily tap my toes with the party! As icing on the cake, he brings in a festive though earthly trombone that toots around mildly. Yes, that's a good song, and if that's the only reason that Neutral Milk Hotel has such a high reputation among hipsters, then it's fine with me.

But compare that to a song like the folkish two-chord “Three Peaches.” Those very deep, extended notes that he provides in the background could not have made the song more deary and unbearable. I'm all for giving these songs weird textures, but not if you're just going to drown my ears with these plain, extended and pointless drones of noise, then what's the point? I mean, the only way you can listen to this song and not go utterly mad is if you wear noise-canceling headphones. (Ironically, I just got some of those in the mail today. I put it to the test, and it works well!!) Making it worse is Mangum's singing voice. He is not a very good singer, and he stuffs that fact right down our throats. He sings loudly, straining his voice to make it sound passionate, but his voice is so damn plain and ugly that he would sound far more genuine if he'd just sing normally. Get with the program, Mister!

If that song put me in a bad mood, then all I have to do is replay the tune “Someone is Waiting.” That's another example of a song that's filled to the brim with overpowering, fuzzy guitar noises, but the textures they create actually evolves throughout the song, and it's interesting. The real appeal of that track, however, doesn't happen until the very end. Have you ever heard anything as freaking demented as that tinny electric guitar duet in the final third? It's weirdly alluring stuff like that that Mangum should have tried to create more for this release.

All that said, they don't commit any major transgressions until the very end, where they did the worst thing imaginable: a 14-minute atmospheric instrumental. To add insult to injury, they called it “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey's Eye.” I'll concede that the weird, jangly texture is absorbing for the first two minutes, but after that point it starts to make my brain throb. I know exactly what they were trying to achieve with that one... I believe Brian Eno is generally considered the master at creating absorbing, hypnotic soundscapes... but the only thing Neutral Milk Hotel succeeds at doing is making me want to take a pair of knitting needles and pop out my ear drums. Technically, I suppose, that song is interesting since they only use low-fi guitar tones to create their atmosphere. But it's a bad atmosphere, and it needed to be more hypnotic.

Luckily, they also have the weirdly optimistic “Naomi” that's strong enough to put me back in the right mood. Fitting with the rest of the album, the instrumentation is loose and the melody is carefree, but it's nice to know what they sound like when they're not trying to act like miserable assholes the whole time. “You've Passed” is also rather heartening in that it has some of the most powerfully epic, ultra-distorted windmill-style guitar chords that probably exists on an indie album. (If I ever run across one more epic, then I'll be sure to inform the world.) If you want to get yourself a load of some amazing low-fi guitar textures, then you needn't look farther than that clever piece of work. It's a real shame that there is so much other material here that makes me want to bang my head very hard on my desk.

In concussion, there are two types of songs on On Avery Island: The awesome low-fi, sloppy guitar songs and the unbearable low-fi, sloppy guitar songs. Despite the extreme differences, I didn't find listening to On Avery Island truly disgusting until I got to that dreadful 14-minute “soundscape.” That puddle of llama spew can drop off the face of the planet for all I care.

Read the track reviews:
On Avery Island

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)

Album Score: 12

Neutral Milk Hotel's final release onto the world was initially met with lukewarm-to-positive reviews, but it had generated such fanfare over the years that the “offending” publications ended up retracting them and issuing more glowing reviews. I guess that's what happens when the public-will makes an album into a “landmark.” Not that I'm doubting that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a landmark album, as I think it probably is. In many ways, I'd imagine it helped lead the way for other prominent indie groups such as The Decemberists and Arcade Fire whose sounds are remarkably similar.

However, despite the “importance” of this album, I'm going to have to say that I tend to agree with some of those original lukewarm reviews. The most prominent criticism of this album had to do with Jeff Mangum's singing. His singing voice is distinctly mediocre (which isn't inappropriate for folk-inspired music, if you'll forgive my double negative), but he frequently sings as loudly as he can, pushing the limits of his voice such that he's nearly screaming. Sometimes, that can be interpreted as passion, and I can get caught up into it. But other times, I find it half as grating as scraping fingernails across a chalkboard. The other complaint that I have is the overuse of the fuzz guitar. While, they do tone it down compared to the more nightmarish On Avery Island, there is more than one occasion when I wish they would just SHUT IT OFF!!!! I'm apparently one of the few who holds that opinion... and, that said, there are actually a few *good* examples of how to use that instrument with more positive results here. More about them later.

Otherwise, this is a good album. Nay, a very good album. I wanted to start this review out detailing my frustrations with it, because I'm sure that's what everyone wanted to read first to explain my less-than-perfect rating. Nonetheless, this album does deserve a high rating in my book, and I'll tell you why.

The songwriting is loaded with hooks. What's more, these songs are terribly distinctive. They sound exactly like the album cover looks. They have very brownish-gray tones and have an old-timey musk about it. (Does that make sense?) The acoustic guitar is the principle instrument, and there is the occasional horn, accordion or bagpipe (and fuzz-guitar). Mangum's imperfect voice sounds almost torn sometimes, and I could easily picture him traveling with an early-20th century circus singing some of these songs to people. Sure, the fuzz-guitar and an array of other strange, noisy instrumentation were not invented in the early 20th century, but they surprisingly don't seem out-of-place. I don't always like them, but they do go to express how ugly and rough life was/is that I'd imagine he's singing about.

Speaking of the lyrics, these are famously cryptic. I don't know what they mean, but I like some of the imagery. (“What a beautiful face I have found in this place / That is circling all 'round the sun / When we meet on a cloud / I'll be laughing out loud / I'll be laughing with everyone I see / Can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all.”). I'm not big on lyrics almost as a rule. (If a melody is catchy and other aspects of the songs are interesting, I could care less about what the lyrics are.) But these songs are loaded with a lot weird poetry that arouses my curiosity.

OK, let's finally talk about some of the individual songs. My favorite is “Two-Headed Boy” for the melody. He sings very loudly there, but he manages to pick up some momentum, and I'm actually able to get more caught up with his bold enthusiasm. The same can be said for the excellent album opener “The Kings of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One,” which has such a catchy and memorable melody that I'll probably never forget it. That's contrasted with the more nerve-wracking, eight-minute “Oh Comely” that doesn't have as interesting of a melody, and he doesn't quite generate that awesome build-up to warrant this loud singing. “Holland, 1945” is about the only excellent use of the fuzz guitar in this album, treating it more as a rhythmic instrument, and it's put in its proper place waaaaaay into the background. That song also has an excellent melody, and I particularly enjoy those raw but festive trumpets that are prominently featured to give a highly distinctive, low-fi touch. The fuzz guitar is probably most annoying in “Ghost,” while a good song in its own right, that instrument just gets in the way of me completely enjoying it. I'm sorry. It still got a B+, so most other things about it were certainly done right.

So, despite some of my harsh words, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is an excellent piece of work loaded with catchy melodies and its own distinctive sound. I like listening to it, but certain aspects of it annoy me slightly. I might not be the world's biggest fan of this album, but I like it, and I can definitely see why it has such ardent supporters. I think this is an excellent album. I'm sorry if my words were a bit harsh at the start of the review, but they sorta had to be said.

Read the track reviews:
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

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