The tale of Neutral Milk Hotel has long been cloaked in a certain amount of mystery and wonder. Part of the Elephant Six core that also sprouted Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel was short-lived and reserved in its output by comparison to its peers. The band only released two full-lengths, 1996’s On Avery Island and 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, before Jeff Mangum, the group’s braintrust, decided to put the band in mothballs.
With Aeroplane garnering the attention of a small group of fans, critics and fellow musicians like REM, who asked Neutral Milk Hotel to open a tour for them (Mangum said “no”), the singer and songwriter turned his back on music. Mangum suffered a nervous breakdown and went into hiding, refusing all interaction with the music press save for a 2002 interview with Pitchfork. He has truly been indie rock’s JD Salinger and Aeroplane, whose popularity has only grown with each year since its release, his Catcher in the Rye.
That analogy is apt for more than just the obvious reasons. While Mangum has said the album was inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank, Aeroplane shares Catcher’s themes of confusion, angst and alienation, not to mention its favoring of a brusque delivery over subtlety. And like Catcher, Aeroplane is the great coming of age work for those whose adolescent heartstrings it once tugged with its heavy-handed poetics.
Unsurprisingly, Magnum’s reappearance over the past two years has had indie geeks the world over abuzz. With the looming threat that he may yet go back into hiding, Mangum easily sold out three shows at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, with this one being the first of those. Making these performances all the more remarkable was that Mangum’s old bandmate Julian Koster would be leading each night off with his Music Tapes. Rock poet laureate Thax Douglas introduced them with a poem, “Music Tapes #6,” before the band played a wondrous set that incorporated a mechanized organ-playing tower, a gigantic metronome, a singing television and other gizmos.
Mangum also received an introduction from Douglas (“Jeff Mangum #2”) before taking a seat surrounded by four guitars. Aeroplane’s “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two” began the night and revealed that all the time off hasn’t diminished his pipes as he sang lines about teeth and radio wires. The performance leaned heavily on the lauded sophomore release, much to the pleasure of the crowd members, who seemed to be pissing themselves in their seats as Mangum proceeded through his setlist. But this was still just a man with guitar, very much like many others I’ve seen and heard, and the mystique soon dissipated to let the songs and performance be appreciated at face value, even if the vague sense of hysteria never completely evaporated. The songs did resonate as Mangum, who was not to be photographed, played the hell out of them. “Oh Comely,” with its lyrics about flesh-licking ladies stuck out as did “Engine,” on which Koster accompanied Mangum on saw. The rest of the Music Tapes would emerge for “The Fool,” an instrumental that benefitted from the inclusion of horns. Mangum encored with Aeroplane’s title track, whose poppy refrain soared amongst the opera house’s high ceilings. The evening, while not as transcendental for me as it no doubt was for some, wasn’t short on highlights. They just didn’t seem as out of the ordinary as their backstory made them be.
It’s hard not to feel a little forsaken when something you once loved turns into something else entirely. While that could be said of a number of girlfriends I’ve had, in this case, I’m thinking of Califone, the Chicagoan purveyors of a very unique blend of steelwool-scraped blues, left-of-center folk and rustic experiments. Since morphing out of the remains of Red Red Meat more than a decade ago, the band has shaped several brilliant records out of this unique silt, albums that still hold a distinct place in my musical psyche.
But after the band started strongly with tracks like “Don’t Let Me Die Nervous” and “Electric Fence” from their 2000 self-titled EP (not to be confused with their self-titled debut from 1998), as well as their cover of Psychic TV’s “The Orchids” (the highlight of 2006’s Roots and Crowns), I began to remember why it had been at least five years since I had last seen Califone in the flesh. “Michigan Girls” (from 2003’s Quicksand/Cradlesnakes) remained beautifully obtuse and the rendition of “Fisherman’s Wife” (from 2001’s Roomsound) was perfectly craggily, with Jim Becker tapping his violin to elicit distorted tones. But midway through their set, the band began to show why it now attracts the kind of fans who collect tapes of their performances. While I’m not one to begrudge Califone the ability to make a little cash by luring some of Phish’s audience, “Pasty Sharp” was stretched to a tiresome length. As I stood there wanting the song to finally end, I had flashbacks to the show in Ohio when I had last seen the band and had been equally nonplussed.
Likewise, pedestrian sounds cramped “Polish Girls,” which favored rockist figures over Califone’s once slanted approach. The encore was similarly patterned, with “When Leon Spinx Moved Into Town” and “Your Golden Ass” flattened to appeal to the lowest common denominator. “Silvermine Pictures,” which ended the show, was slightly better—almost like a last spark of what first captured my attention—but I think it’s safe to say that Califone and I are done. Bring on the Red Red Meat reunion.