The Return of Neutral Milk Hotel, Live in Boston @ The Orpheum Theater, 1/16/14

by on January 25, 2014

Posted in: Concert, Gypsy Music, Show Review

Neutral Milk Hotel’s official discography clocks in somewhere around the one hour and forty-two minute mark. That’s about half the time it takes to drive to Boston from Middlebury.  Which is why when I drove to Boston with WRMC biz wiz Charlie Mathon to see them in concert, we listened to “Naomi” 3 times (intentionally),  “April 8th” twice (accidentally, in fact I think it was twice a row), and twenty seconds of an aptly titled Neutral Milk Hotel demo called “Noisy Racket”.  I got tickets to Neutral Milk Hotel’s reunion tour in August, the minute they went on sale.  I had no idea what I’d be doing in 5 months, who I’d go with or how I’d get there.  The one thing I knew was that I absolutely needed to see Neutral Milk Hotel in case they disappeared of the face of the earth for another decade.

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Sporting a spectacular beard, cozy sweater, and a Cuban army hat, Jeff Mangum cut an unassuming figure in front of the anxious audience at Boston’s Orpheum Theater. The cult of Carrot Flowers had shown up in full force, ravenously hanging on to every lyric, note, or bit of banter that flew across the stage like it might be the last, with good reason.  In 1998, right as Neutral Milk Hotel was riding In The Aeroplane Over the Sea’s critical high, they abruptly, albeit amicably, disbanded following an exhausting tour.  Neutral Milk Hotel burned out in their prime, evaporating into the indie rock ether as quietly as they had come in, and in turn affording themselves a cult status of perfection.  My, my, hey, hey, blah blah blah—at this point you might ask, what in Jeeeeeeeeesus Chriiiiiiiiist’s name has Mangum been doing for the past 15 years?

Here’s a brief recap of what is known:

  • At some point, he grew a glorious beard
  • In 2001 he released a collection of Bulgarian folk recordings consisting of one thirty-three minute long track.
  • The same year Mangum released Live at Jittery Joes in response to inflated Neutral Milk Hotel bootleg prices on eBay.  (Read more about that here)
  • Broadcasting under the moniker, “Jefferson”, Mangum hosted a 3 am, 3-hour weekly show for a few months on freeform NJ radio station, WFMU. (Step up your graveyard shift game WRMC DJs.) He played an eclectic array of music accompanied by some of his own sound collages, one of which was titled: “To Animate The Body With The Cocoon of the Her Unconscious Christ The Mother Removes Her Death Body of 1910 Only To Be Reborn In The Same Spirit as a School of Blow Fish Believing in the Coming of the Milk Christ”.  It was a chart topping mega hit, obviously.
  • He got married.
  • He and bandmate Julian Koster rallied fan support to save a crumbling Avery Island-esque carousel from further dilapidation.
  • He appeared on a 2009 tribute album covering New Zealand indie punk/stroke survivor Chris Knox’s song “Sign the Dotted Line”.
  • In 2011 Mangum remerged into the spotlight to embark on an extensive solo tour, complete with an impromptu Occupy Wall Street protest, an Animal Sanctuary Benefit concert, and a show in Jersey City that I was lucky enough to see.
  • Coinciding with the tour, Neutral Milk Hotel also released an 8-track EP called Ferris Wheel on Fire, which included old and previously unreleased songs written between 1992 and 1995.

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The myth of the artist recluse is an alluring trope in the age of overflowing web content and relentless micro-blogging rehash media culture.  Mangum’s private lifestyle reads like that of a crazy hermit when compared to the ranks of Yeezus and other self-obsessed celebrities, earning him the title: “The Salinger of Indie Rock”.  Like Salinger, it’s possible that Mangum has been hording a life’s worth of scrapped and unfinished material.  But if he is, there’s no sign of it in his live performances, which are steeped in the old songs Neutral Milk Hotel fans know and love.  In a 1998 interview with Puncture magazine, Mangum mentioned at least “four records’ worth of stuff that’s not out and may never come out ever…” Although the reunion brings nothing new to the table, the tour is a much needed reminder that Mangum is more a human than a hermit who abandoned his music.

sourced from May, 1998 issue of Option, a now defunct music magazine
                                                                sourced from May, 1998 issue of Option music magazine (now defunct)

            In a 2002 interview with Pitchfork, one of the few he’s ever agreed to do, Mangum described some of the realizations that led him to take a long hiatus from writing and performing:

“I guess I had this idea that if we all created our dream we could live happily ever after. So when so many of our dreams had come true and yet I still saw that so many of my friends were in a lot of pain… I saw their pain from a different perspective and realized that I can’t just sing my way out of all this suffering… So I realized that even though I believe with my whole heart in the power of music… it didn’t provide any solid answers on how to heal myself and heal others so that they could overcome what had happened to them. I realized that I wanted to take a deeper look at life in order to be some kind of truly healing force in people’s everyday lives.”

The full interview is a revealing testament to the incredible amount of pressure Mangum imposed on his creative output, and  it’s clear that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was the ultimate product of these perfectionist pains.  While the acclaimed masterpiece continues to carry a nostalgic and emotional significance as a formative cornerstone of any disaffected youth’s music library, Mangum’s dream world failed to relieve his own anxieties and concerns about reality, leading to an emotional collapse and subsequent retreat from the public eye.  (See “My Dream Girl Don’t Exist” for more crushing life realizations.)

With Mangum down for the count, band mates Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, and Jeremy Barnes scattered themselves amongst the Athens, GA based Elephant 6 collective, remaining active in reminiscent but incomplete iterations of the Carrot Flower Kingdom. While Mangum dabbled in the larger music community, occasionally joining friends on stage and guesting on albums, Neutral Milk Hotel’s existence was reduced to recordings, memories, and the wake of their influence.

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Despite Neutral Milk Hotel’s prolonged hiatus, the Elephant 6 community it helped spawn is still alive and kicking a decade and a half later. Elf Power, a fellow Elephant 6 band, opened the show Thursday night, playing a fuzzed-out set of songs both old and new from their 12-album catalog aided by a 12-string guitar.  Elf Power seems to be Elephant 6’s prolific antithesis of Neutral Milk Hotel, churning out albums every 2 or 3 years, and nailing it every so often (namely on 2002’s Nothing’s Going to Happen). However, the highlight of the opening act came when Elf Power played more recent song called, “A Slow Change” off last year’s Sunlight on the Moon LP.  The lowlight was seeing the majority of the audience file in for the last 10 minutes of Elf Power’s set, beer in hand.

Mangum walked out on stage alone.  The set up was simple, with plenty of room to accommodate Neutral Milk Hotel’s “the more multi-instrumentalists the merrier” approach to making music.  The only piece of décor was a plastic nativity lamb that glowed as the stage’s centerpiece.  The crowd sat, anxiously glued in their seats as if any movement or loose cough would throw the whole thing off. The first few chords of “Two-Headed Boy” broke the tension, but the audience remained seated and nobody sang along.  It was a warm-up, an icebreaker after all these years.  Had the whole band come storming on stage all at once it would’ve been an overwhelming circus parade.  “The Fool” proved to be the perfect slow marching instrumental transition from Mangum’s solo to the full band playing a frantic and fast paced version of “Holland, 1945”.

In concert, Neutral Milk Hotel are anything but rusty. They played all three parts of “The King of Carrot Flowers” like a well-oiled machine.  By the time Mangum was yelling, “Up and over we go,” the band was already hurtling at full speed.  They seemed to be tripping over their instruments to play the song even faster than the fusillade of lyrics could leave Mangum’s lips. But somehow throughout the swelling chorus of horns, pounding drums, wailing vocals, and distorted noise, the cohesive bunch always manages to achieve a controlled chaos rather than a sonic mush.

Immediately following the carrot flower segment, they played “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, featuring Julian Koster center stage on the singing saw.  The irrational audio-visual juxtaposition of Koster coaxing a saw to “sing” in a high-pitched, ethereal wail is a holy spectacle best experienced in concert.  In addition to the saw, Koster played the bowed banjo, bass, accordion, moog, and occasionally dangled a hanging microphone above a collection of speakers to create Neutral Milk Hotel’s signature distortion laced sound.

A little over halfway into the set, the band stepped off stage, leaving Mangum alone to sing over the lonesome chords of “Oh Comely”.  Now this was great, like every other thing I had heard come out of Mangum’s mouth that night, but what made it stand out among the rest of the highlights was what happened halfway through the eight minute long epic.  Allow me to introduce you to Neutral Milk Hotel’s resident horn hero, Scott Spillane.  If Jeff Mangum is the Salinger of indie rock, then I propose that Scott Spillane is the Henry David Thoreau of indie rock neck beards.Scott Spillane x Henry David Thoreau

I watched Scott Spillane quietly emerge from the curtains, horn in hand, eagerly watching Mangum for his cue. Not that he needed it.  Well-placed horn solos are this guy’s modus operandi.  Have you ever felt like your life was missing a well-placed horn solo?  Well at this moment in my life I was really, really craving a horn solo, and Spillane went ahead to fill the void and steal my heart.  I can’t tell which made me happier, when he played the horns or when he wasn’t playing them at all.  Because when he’s not blowing soaring and sorrowful solos, Spillane can be found  rocking back and forth or jumping around stage with his horn and a jolly grin, faithfully singing along to every word.

Neutral Milk Hotel’s set was a career spanning mix of tried and true favorites paired with obscure gems like “Ferris Wheel on Fire”, “Ruby Bulbs” and “Snow Song, Pt 1“.  After “Snow Song”, on which Mangum sings “She says, “Please stay a while / Like ice cream floats and dreams”, the entire band made a graceful exit off stage.  Though Mangum had filled our hearts with “boats and bells / And beams and candy-appled everythings the dream appeared to be winding down.

But the fleeting reverie continued when the band came back out to play a four-song encore.  Before launching into “Ghost”, Koster gave a shout out to the spirits that haunt the Orpheum Theater, saying he hoped “they liked this [song] too”.  The soaring instrumentals of “Untitled” led beautifully into “Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2”, to bring the concert full circle.  They ended their set with “Engine”, a “children’s song” Mangum wrote when “his life was in the shitter” according to his banter on the Jittery Joe’s tape.  It’s a slow and simple lullaby I’ve heard Mangum play countless times, but never before had I heard it get the full Neutral Milk Hotel treatment, complete with lightly tapping drumsticks and the rich sound of Koster on the accordion. The whole band was there from beginning to end, bringing “Engine” to its full potential with the orchestra that the song always deserved.

Of the few bits of banter Mangum offered up to the crowd that night, one question he posed could not have been simpler.  He paused between songs to ask the crowd, “Are you happy?” But not in a sarcastic, “here I am on stage and that’s what you get” kind of way.  He said it with a big smile, as if to say “Are you happy? Because I’m happy.” After all the years fans spent replaying the same two albums, devouring bootlegs, revering the classics and craving what they couldn’t have, Neutral Milk Hotel’s reunion put our engrained sensory and emotional expectations to the test.   Endless hype and speculation could’ve caused the illusion of perfection to underwhelm or shatter completely.  For Mangum, the dream didn’t last.  But for his fans, it did.

Neutral Milk Hotel @ The Orpheum Theater, Boston, 1/16/2014

Two-Headed Boy (Jeff Mangum Solo); The Fool; Holland, 1945; A Baby for Pree; Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone; Everything Is; The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1; The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3; In the Aeropane Over the Sea; Naomi; Ferris Wheel on Fire; Oh Comely (Jeff Mangum & Scott Spillane); Song Against Sex; Ruby Bulbs; Snow Song, Pt. 1; Encore: Ghost; Untitled; Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2; Engine