Neutral Milk Hotel still rocks

A legendary freak folk album that still resonates almost 16 years later.

Neutral Milk Hotel still rocks

Very few bands have ever reached “legendary” status, but one of the few bands that have is Neutral Milk Hotel. The pioneering a sound that can only be described as “freak-folk,” this band fronted the Elephant 6 collective (An art collective based around their homegrown record label Elephant 6) along with Elf Power, The Apples in Stereo, and Synthetic Flying Machine (Which became The Olivia Tremor Control shortly after Jeff Mangum, lead vocalist Neutral Milk Hotel, left the project to start his own.)

All of these bands had a distinct approach to creating their music, and each have their own individual sound. Neutral Milk Hotel specifically embraced the 90s and 80s lo-fi (Low Fidelity recording) sound, that bands such as The Violent Femmes popularized, and combined it with early psychedelic rock.

The band took a few years to develop the sound that is present on this release, but the time was put to great use. This album has an atmosphere like no other, featuring accordions, fuzzed-out bass and even singing saws (average hand saws, being played a bow). This unique use of instrumentation creates an experience that is unique and has never been replicated since.

The album kicks off with a three part song called “The King of Carrot Flowers.” Part 1 is one of the tamest songs on the album, featuring minimal use of the varied instrumentation present on the rest of the record, but aside from that, it displays lead singer Jeff Mangum’s intense vocal ability.

Part two of the three parts starts off with a slow guitar and Mangum’s chant “I love you Jesus Christ,” but it soon picks up in speed and intensity as part three begins, adding in horns and walls of distortion. Also present are pounding drums that feel like they could have been lifted straight out of an 80’s punk song, this track is one of the fastest and most intense on the album and contrasts nicely with Part one and part two.

A distinct aspect of NMH’s music, is Mangum’s surrealist lyrics. The next two songs, the title track, and “Two-Headed Boy” are both very surrealist feeling. “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” features a singing saw, and is the closest thing to a love song on the album. It is a bittersweet song, like most of the album.

The next tracks are “Two-Headed Boy” and “The Fool.” These are our first true examples of Jeff Mangum’s surrealist lyrics. In “Two-Headed Boy,” Mangum sings of accordion keys, and bodies in jars. He uses these seemingly odd and outlandish topics to convey a hidden meaning.

This song exemplifies his truly unique lyrical talent, as does “Holland, 1945” and “Communist Daughter.” These songs bring in the recurring theme of Anne Frank and World War II. This is one of the aspects this album is most known for.

The next, and arguably most well-known, track is “Oh Comely.” This eight minute and 18 second monster was recorded in one take. This song is the driving force of the album, showing of Jeff Mangum’s raw vocal talent and lyricism. This song kicks off as an acoustic track, but builds and builds into a beautiful song with horns and saws. “Oh Comely” has been covered by many artists, including Brand New.

In the final stretch of this album, we’re given “Ghost” and “Untitled.” These songs serve as wrap ups for the hectic experience. “Ghost” features one of the most driving and hard hitting bass lines on the album and it is distorted beyond recognition, causing an odd mixture when presented with the horns and accordions.

This album wraps up with “Two-Headed Boy, Pt Two.” This track is a continuation of an earlier track of the same name, returning to the chorus of Part one, and finishing up the storyline of that song and the album. This acoustic track wraps up the album very nicely, and gives us a chance to breath and comprehend what we have just heard. It contrasts nicely with the mostly noisy and abrasive 40 minute album.

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is often considered one of the best albums of the 90s, and is a modern classic. As the band approached their 15th anniversary of their hiatus/break up last year, they announced a worldwide reunion tour, which is stopping in Indianapolis (At the Old National Centre) on March 27. If you want to experience a live band like no other, then do not miss this show. The singing saws, accordions, and fuzzy guitar create an atmosphere so unique and distinct to this band, that it has never, and probably will never, be recreated.

Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was released on February 10, 1998, and they are playing at the Old National Centre on March 17.