Faingold at Large presents: Rocktober - Part One: Neutral Milk Hotel last night in Urbana
This week, as a busy autumn concert season kicks into high gear, Faingold At Large will be taking several detours from the well-trodden path of Springfield music and arts to attend and otherwise report on shows in the surrounding region, including forays into the scenes in St. Louis, Chicago and Bloomington. First, a quick jog up I-72 to Urbana's Canopy Club.
Neutral Milk Hotel ca. 1998. Back row, l-r Julian Koster, Scott Spillane; front row l-r Jeff Mangum, Jeremy Barnes
To call recently resurrected indie-rock band Neutral Milk Hotel "legendary" is a bit misleading. "Mythical" may be a better fit. The Athens, Georgia-based band, led by oddball singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum, only released two full albums during its original run. The second of these, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, received a measure of acclaim and cultivated a small but rabid cult upon its release in 1998. Almost immediately afterward, Mangum went silent. There were no new recordings or live shows for over ten years.
In most cases, a musical act with such a small catalog and virtually no commercial impact would simply sink like a stone tossed into the endlessly capacious, constantly replenishing, trend-driven tide-pool that is modern popular music, with any ripples soon faded and forgotten. Not so with Neutral Milk Hotel. In the intervening years, the band's recordings have been passed around like a semi-precious treasure among an expanding cadre of music fans. Mangum, purely by virtue of his absence, evolved into a mysterious figure in the imagination of his audience. Like J. D. Salinger or original Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, Mangum created a small but revered body of work, then disappeared, holed up somewhere, anonymous and incommunicado.
By the time Mangum almost surreptitiously contributed a newly recorded solo song to a 2009 benefit compilation, most fans had long given up hope of any new music from him. Soon, though, the former quasi-recluse began making sporadic live appearances and eventually undertook a one-man tour earlier this year which made a stop at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis. I was at that show and, as a fan from the band's original late-1990s run, was surprised at the extreme youth of much of the audience, many of whom could not have been much older than toddlers at the time of the Aeroplane album's release in 1998. The other surprising thing about that concert was the fact that it seemed the entire audience was singing passionately along with Mangum on every word of every song, something which the singer encouraged. The experience was like being situated within a giant choir rather than a passive spectator at a show. In addition, Mangum's lyrics often tend toward the surreal and disturbing, and a roomful of people singing, for example, "Your father made fetuses with flesh-licking ladies / While you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park" (from the song "Oh, Comely." Watch video of a 1998 performance of the song here) was more than a little disquieting.
This is a band whose music does not invite casual or background listening. One common thread among many NMH fans I have spoken to is that they often initially became enamored of the band's music during chance moments of private listening, sometimes on headphones or on a car stereo during a long trip, contexts where Mangum's nasal, emotionally abject voice can become compellingly, uncannily intimate. The instrumentation on the recordings seems to hearken from another era, or perhaps another time-space continuum. The sound registers as somehow antique, but if there was another time in musical history when fuzz bass, singing saw and flugelhorn regularly gathered behind an alternately plaintive and feral storyteller, I missed out on it.
All of these odd and compelling elements were present onstage at the Canopy Club last night. As at the St. Louis show, the shaggy, corduroy-clad Mangum sang with almost fearsome intensity, but this time he was accompanied by a ramshackle and constantly shifting wall of unhinged sound, provided by a seeming revolving door of multiple musicians who assembled, came apart and reassembled in different configurations throughout the evening, sometimes delicately melodic, just as often deafeningly cacophonous. Most valuable (and colorful) players were original members Scott Spillane, whose white neckbeard and portly frame make him look like he would be more at home in the 18th century than the 21st, alternating among an unlikely coterie of brass instruments (trombone, tuba, flugelhorn, french horn) and elfin Julian Koster, who switched between banjo, bass, moog, accordion and singing saw, depending on the requirements of the song at hand.
It should be mentioned that this colorful sonic craziness was not for its own sake, but rather in clear service of the songs, creating a palpable level of sonic and emotive impact. From the moment Mangum opened the set with "Two-Headed Boy" my face was wet with spontaneous tears, which transformed to chills up the spine when Spillane blew his first notes in demented, gorgeous duet with Mangum's wordless vocal coda. When powerhouse drummer Jeremy Barnes slammed the band into the anthemic racket of "Holland 1945" I was jumping for joy, only to find myself eventually reduced to tears again during the closing song, "Engine." The audience around me seemed to be experiencing an emotional roller coaster similar to my own (Some perhaps more than others - while Mangum was pausing to tune his guitar, I heard a young man behind me call out "You're the reason I didn't kill myself.")
Seeing this band live after so many years of living with and through their sparse recordings felt like a precious and unlikely privilege, and it seems just as unlikely to be repeated. Not quite like witnessing a faun emerge momentarily from a wooded area only to retreat instantly and forever. But almost. Like I said: Mythical.
In the next edition of "Faingold at Large presents Rocktober" : The Shondes take Chicago
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