By JAMES RAINIS
The unfettered and eclectic brilliance of Neutral Milk Hotel is, at this point, one of those truths Internet indie rock nerds hold self-evident. Few groups from this side of the Atlantic have inspired such a devoted cult following with so little music released (the UK’s penchant for the sudden coronation of guitar groups as “the best thing ever” has been well noted). Sprung from the head of Jeff Mangum, originally of Olivia Tremor Control, the group released two albums and a handful of tape-based singles.
Neutral Milk Hotel’s body of work is impressive not for its sonic progression, but for its homespun inventiveness and heartfelt scope. Their debut album, On Avery Island, provided the blueprint for the band’s psychedelia-tinged fuzz folk, burying Mangum’s earnest songwriting in feedback, toy organs and brass. Their sophomore effort, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, however, is the albatross: supposedly a concept album about a series of dreams Mangum had about a Jewish family during the Second World War. Many of its songs are said to be about Anne Frank and Mangum’s desire to rescue her in “some sort of time machine.” On Aeroplane, Mangum sings in an almost preposterously full-bodied roar while mixing nostalgic recollections of childhood abuse with obtuse sexual imagery (“Semen stains the mountaintops,” anybody?) and thinly-veiled Holocaust references. It’s starkly emotional music that does an incredible job of inviting listeners to dive into its insular world. In my experience, you’re either turned off by Mangum’s bare-hearted excavations of his jumbled consciousness or you fall hopelessly in love with it, your eyes welling with tears as Mangum assures us that “God is a place where some holy spectacle lies.”
The story goes that the underground success of Aeroplane drove the band into hiatus and Mangum into seclusion. As Neutral Milk Hotel remained silent, the legend of Aeroplane grew. It has had an undeniable influence on the early music of Grammy-winners Arcade Fire and experimental bedroom folk-pop acts as disparate as Jens Lekman and Bomb the Music Industry!, while rock publications like Rolling Stone wrote revisionary reviews that changed lukewarm sentiment into universal praise.
At this point, you know the narrative: the reclusive genius took some steps out into the public eye in the form of a solo tour in 2013 and got the band back together, The Magnificent Seven-style, to claim the glory that was rightfully theirs. This move was followed by some serious accomplishments: Neutral Milk Hotel scored a big-text booking at this year’s Coachella music festival, a world tour and a Jan. 13 headlining spot at our own Ithaca State Theatre.
During opener Elf Power’s tight set of ’60s-inspired pop, the excitement for Neutral Milk Hotel’s imminent arrival was high. Nerdy men in flannels primed themselves for a nostalgia-trip with the record that sound-tracked their first kiss while couples prepared themselves for the insane sway-fest. And of course, the indie try-hards of the world discussed their favorite song, many of them mentioning what was likely a one-off pressing of an improvised ditty about farts that Jeff Mangum sang for his middle school talent show. Being the sort of obnoxious fan who doesn’t really have the patience for “assigned seating,” I crowded to the front in order to witness rock and roll greatness at arm’s length, only to be rebuked by a security guard. Luckily, as Neutral Milk Hotel took to the stage and the Ithaca State Theatre lost its collective shit, a bearded Jeff Mangum asked why nobody was standing near the stage. Soon enough, a small mob assembled in front of the orchestra seats.
Take that, security guard.
As the band launched into all three parts of “The King of Carrot Flowers,” the audience sang along reverently. Neutral Milk Hotel’s onstage presence isn’t much to talk about — save multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster’s goofy gait and some impressive facial hair — but the band plays like it’s exorcising some serious personal demons. Mangum’s voice is a instrument of power and beauty. During his solo performance of “Two-Headed Boy,” his voice hit the back of the theatre and resonated in a way that Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger’s couldn’t. Then, when the band returned to play the elegiac “The Fool,” I realized how integral the band’s brass was to conveying Neutral Milk Hotel’s underlying contradictions. Horns are typically punched into a song to add a sense of jubilation. It’s why, at their worst, the stale major-key horn arrangements of the ’90s ska revival felt overly saccharine and cloying. But I forgot how death-related horns are: from brassy Nawlins style funerals to military trumpeters playing “Taps” on Veteran’s Day, there’s something distinctly sad about a brass melody, regardless of key.
Neutral Milk Hotel mines this masterfully. The descending horn melody in th
e chorus of “Holland, 1945” is eerily funereal and the player’s wavering tremolo could stand as evidence for the unfiltered inventiveness and character of the self-taught musician. Even on songs from On Avery Island, often merely considered Aeroplane in chrysalis, the band had me reconsidering whether the wanderlust of “Song Against Sex” made a stronger album opener than “King of Carrot Flowers,” something I would have deemed sacrilege mere hours earlier.
The encore was a thing of beauty. Starting with the last three songs from, the band ran through all its iterations, from the chaotic folk-punk of “Ghost” to the somberly ornate arrangement of “[untitled]” and the melancholy epilogue “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2.” The set-closer was “Engine,” a song significantly less canonized but made buoyant by Julian Koster’s harrowing singing saw and Mangum’s own resigned vocal.
If an indie rock band on a reunion tour is expected to force audiences to reconsider their legacy, Neutral Milk Hotel is absolutely nailing it. Not only is it reminding people of its masterpiece’s immense influence, it is affirming its discography as a worthwhile document from back to front and reestablishing itself as a devastatingly powerful live act. As fans stuck around, hoping to get a glimpse of Jeff Mangum as the band packed up, I felt that, far from some crass cash-in, the Neutral Milk Hotel reunion was a band reclaiming its rightful reputation as one of music’s most independently-minded and idiosyncratic entities.