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And Now For Something Completely Different

October 20, 2008

I’ve been focusing a lot on politics, which is good and I’m glad people have been responding to it, but one’s gotta mix it up at some point. So today is about music.

One: Two Saturdays ago I was riding into the city on the JMZ train at 7pm and was reading The Onion’s concert listings. All of a sudden I see this Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour thing, organized by former Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster (now performing under the moniker the Music Tapes), along with members of the Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, and more. “Oh man,” I think to myself, “this is great! When is it? I have to go!” (Elephant 6 is an old Athens, Georgia-based record label, on which some of my all-time favorite bands recorded.) The bad news: The show was that very night at the Knitting Factory, and I was headed to something I couldn’t cancel.

Oh well. “I grow old, I grow old. I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.”

But then on Monday I see a post on BrooklynVegan about the show, and I kick myself even more: Jeff Mangum, lead singer of Neutral Milk Hotel, was there, and sang on a few songs including Olivia Tremor Control’s “The Opera House.” Now, I don’t feel as bad as I might have, as I got to see Olivia Tremor Control a few years back at Bowery Ballroom, when Jeff came out and sang on a couple of songs of theirs, including “I Have Been Floated” (which he sang on back in the day on their record), but I still felt pretty bummed out. Why?

In 1998, Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel released their second album, called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which quickly became a cult classic. I first heard it in the fall of my sophomore year at school, and it is one of the very few albums that I have loved from the first notes (one other being Yankee Hotel Foxtrot).

After touring on that album, though, Neutral Milk Hotel disbanded and Jeff Mangum more or less disappeared. Stories would surface about him having serious mental problems, about him playing a weird show at a pub in Australia—all adding to the myth of Neutral Milk Hotel, which by that time was legendary.


But so for any of you out there in TV land who haven’t heard In the Aeroplane, I highly recommend you go out and buy/find it immediately. It is simply one of the best 39+ minutes of music—a real album—that I’ve ever heard. It’s weird, and joyous, and very sad, and angry, and all the stuff that life at its very best is. Strangely, a ribbon of Anne Frank runs through the album, alongside an earthy, sticky-sweet sexuality. See these lines from the song “Oh Comely,” for example:

Your father made fetuses
With flesh licking ladies
While you and your mother
Were asleep in the trailer park
Thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums
The music and medicine you needed for comforting
So make all your fat fleshy fingers to moving
And pluck all your silly strings
And bend all your notes for me
Soft silly music is meaningful magical
The movements were beautiful
All in your ovaries
All of them milking with green fleshy flowers
While powerful pistons were sugary sweet machines
Smelling of semen all under the garden
Was all you were needing when you still believed in me

And I know they buried her body with others
Her sister and mother and 500 families
And will she remember me 50 years later
I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine
Know all your enemies
We know who are enemies are

So beautiful and strange. And Jeff’s voice was (is!) so distinctive: adenoidal, almost (at times) unhinged. But sometimes he just sounded sweet. And that’s where I come back around to the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour. I read today on BrooklynVegan that, in Pittsburgh this Saturday, at the end of the show, Julian and Jeff came and sang in the middle of the crowd a simple song called “Engine.” I first heard “Engine” on Oh, Merge, a 10th anniversary album for Merge Records, which label Neutral Milk Hotel was on, and it grabbed me immediately—a lament with singing saw and Jeff’s voice, about a dreamtime sort of ship:

For I am an engine and I’m holding on
The world is all bending and breaking from me
For sweetness alone who flew out through the window
And landed back home in a garden of green

You’re riding alone in the back of a steamer
And steaming yourself in the warm shower spray
And water rolls on off the round captain’s belly
Who’s talking to tigers from his cafeteria tray

And sweet babies cry for the cool taste of milking
That milky delight that invited us all
And if there’s a taste in this life more inviting
Then wake up your windows and watch as those sweet babies crawl away

Here is video (dark, with only intermittent flashes of camera-flash) of the two of them performing the same song the following night in Columbus, Ohio. (Video exists of the Pittsburgh performance, but the crowd is loud and talking and the sound quality is much worse than this one.) Just put it on in the background—You don’t have to actually watch, the video is nothing—and listen to the song:

And then finally, this one goes out to my brother Jacob, who I know—with as much certainty as I know the sun will rise tomorrow morning, or that Obama will win on Nov. 4—will love this song. I am sort of ashamed to say that I heard this song last night during an Axe Chocolate Body Spray commercial (a product which I still don’t entirely understand), but hey—You get older, you gotta catch as catch can; otherwise you end up sitting on the JMZ at 7pm, rucking over the Williamsburg Bridge and wishing you kept up with music like you used to.

Dig, cats:

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jake Freedom permalink
    October 20, 2008 2:47 pm

    Hell yeah!

    Dude – that song is like Stevie Wonder meets the Band – so awesome!

    That’s some foot tapping happy music. Thanks for the shout out.

    Also – excellent post about music – I know the feeling of seeing the music scene slip away as the years go by.

  2. Sully permalink
    October 21, 2008 1:51 pm

    I’ve never actually seen a picture of him. He is so much more attractive than I ever thought. The years have, strangely so, been good to him. Voodoo Fest and Lil’ Wayne countdown (4 days and some hours. He’s starting his set, of course, at 4:20 that afternoon!!)

  3. Joe permalink
    October 22, 2008 1:23 am

    Jake, did you (or Hunter) know that Allen Toussaint did all of the horn arrangements for The Band? That information can be found in the sweet narrative of the band as told by Levon Helm: “This Wheel’s on Fire.”

  4. Jake Freedom permalink
    October 22, 2008 2:37 am

    No I did not know that. But it makes perfect sense now.

    I also found out that he wrote a song called “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley” that Robert Palmer recorded and Phish often covers. Great song. Check it.

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