Neutral Milk Hotel the forefathers of indie

By Patrick Wagner

I always tend to listen to music in cycles. I’ll listen to one group consistently for a while,… I always tend to listen to music in cycles. I’ll listen to one group consistently for a while, get interested in something vaguely related, then return to the original group worthy of my affections just every once in a while after. An amateur history buff, I tend to channel that vaguely related category into the seminal musicians that inspired the artistic fire of my favorite bands.

With my first musical love, punk rock, it went all the way back to the Velvet Underground’s transcendental atmosphere. With my later high school musical interests in a genre I still find hard to define — indie rock — my research went back to a group who channeled three chords of noisy folk into magic. Before there could be an Arcade Fire or Good News for People Who Love Bad News, there had to be Neutral Milk Hotel.

Though you could argue all day about who created the now Grammy-winning and Platinum-selling genre of indie rock, it came out of two conditions: the demise of alternative rock’s integrity with music fans — as the industry marketed that genre into oblivion — and an increasing interest among musicians in sound outside of its rather rigid confines.

Neutral Milk Hotel’s plaid shirt-clad leader Jeff Mangum certainly channeled those ideas when he founded the group as essentially a solo project in the early 1990s, releasing cassette tapes that combined auditory art with his seemingly simple songs. The Louisiana native eventually moved his recording toward more conventional releases with an unset full band, producing an EP entitled Everything Is in 1994 and an album entitled On Avery Island in 1996.

These releases feature rays of Mangum’s connective songwriting. The Everything Is title track is a distorted burst of Kinks’ melody with an avant-garde backbeat, whereas “Song Against Sex” from On Avery Island is a chugging rock number propelled by two guitars and a trombone solo. Each has lyrics that are introspectively free-associative while Mangum’s articulate voice propels them like words of Gospel. Despite the power of these early creations, each seems to be held back by lack of a finished musical concept.

It took the creation of a true band, rather than a collective of musicians, to take the group from another set of people trying to create something meaningful to the forefathers of the biggest musical movement of the 2000s. Multi-instrumentalists Jeremy Barnes, Scott Spillane, Julian Koster and Robert Schneider joined Mangum after the release of On Avery Island, and in the summer of 1997 they recorded Neutral Milk Hotel’s magnum opus, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

Mangum begins the album with “King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1.” From the startling power-strum of his acoustic guitar to the warbly croon of his voice, it’s easy to tell that Neutral Milk Hotel moved somewhere few had ventured. Lyrically, while describing domestic quarrel, the song’s speaker delivers dynamite pieces of perspective. “I sank into your soul / Into that secret place where no one dares to go,” the lyrics read.

The sixth track on the album, “Holland, 1945,” isn’t just Neutral Milk Hotel’s most famous single song, but also one of the clearest indicators to the album’s underlying lyrical theme: the life of Anne Frank. “The only girl I ever loved / was born with roses in her eyes / But then they buried her alive / one evening 1945,” the lyrics read.

After Mangum introduces himself with a count off, Barnes’ hypnotic intensity on the drums and the rest of the group’s orchestrated grid of overwhelming colorful noise takes his song from the earth into the stratosphere.

As the music is delivered in some form of raw feeling, the lyrics spring from the track like petals from a flower, constantly reminding the listener of human emotion. Each perfect morsel connects in a way that not only reminds you of Anne Frank’s story, but of your own.

Shortly after Neutral Milk Hotel completed the tour in support of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the band broke up. As is often the case, increasing stress over its success was too much for the group and particularly for Mangum, who has made sporadic live appearances and released a few low-key albums. The other members have moved on to other musical careers.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is probably considered a masterpiece by those mildly pretentious music lovers in your life, but beyond what the admittedly hip have to say, it’s a great album and Neutral Milk Hotel remains more than the Abraham of some musical hipster religion. As indie rock dominates the world, new listeners continue to flock toward one of the originators, Jeff Mangum, and his sound that launched a thousand Pitchfork reviews.

Gift suggestion:

Rather than searching for a perfect new CD or concert ticket for that special someone this holiday season, maybe you should look for a musical gift in the form of the “obsolete” vinyl format. The 33.5 RPM record has gotten its second wind as amateur audiophiles have clamored in the last few years for its authentic sound and more substantial artwork. Record players can still be found for relatively cheap at most flea markets, but even without these devices the records themselves are great gifts, whatever your budget. Classic rock staples (Black Sabbath, The Rolling Stones) and indie releases (Neutral Milk Hotel) can sometimes cost more than a new CD. However, used records easily found at many local music shops for less than $5 can offer a diverse set of quirky musical (and visual) experiences to whomever might be on your list.