You fly in thunderclouds

(photo by morethanreal)
Sometimes all it takes is for someone, somewhere to mention a band and your ear is immediately transported to a particular song, a particular sound. For instance, the minute a colleague refers to Big Red, a pub up the road from my workplace, I instantly break into a doo-doo-doo rendition of Frank Black's song of that name. You'll understand, if you know it.

Today, all it took was a controversial Pitchfork review. Some bloggers have had a whinge because the 'fork have taken a potshot, others don't really care. I'm in the latter camp. But this is all immaterial - the point is, they reference Neutral Milk Hotel in the review, and immediately my mind's ear was cast upon the beautiful Ghost, from In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.

She goes and now she knows she'll never be afraid

One gets the impression that everybody who reads a blog like this on purpose owns a copy of this album. And they all love it, and they all have their favourite parts, and they all treat it like a child. I know I do. I was first aware of NMH some years ago, but paid little attention, what with being distracted by Incubus, A and the like. I can't explain it either. Since then my palate has refined and 2005's reissue saw the record fall neatly into my lap, opening up a world of glorious noise, and an emotional connection with a vocalist that is unfeasibly rare. On first listen it's easy to dismiss NMH - clearly, I did. There's a lot of American indie bands, both pre- and post- this band, that have that lo-fi, fuzzy acoustic, whiny singer thing going on. If I wanted lo-fi I could pick up some Sebadoh, for whiny singers I could raid Zach Braff's iPod, and so on.

A hole where no one can escape

But Neutral Milk Hotel have something beyond the ordinary. They have a DIY sensibility that's evidenced in acoustic battering and the occasional massive whallop of fuzz, that's a given. They have quirky, oblique songs that probably have deeper meaning than we can understand. They have Jeff Mangum, a singer so untutored that it's at times painful to listen to him. But if you do, you come to realise that its probably painful for him too, and the fact that it's painful isn't related to his wailing, off-kilter vocal tone, but that he's boring into your very soul.

I know that she will live for ever

Alright, that's kind of dramatic. Let's not get carried away. But the truth of the matter is that Mangum's words and voice carry on into your soul like few other singers have ever done, and for that NMH are worth listening. Of course, this would mean little, Mangum would be one of a million struggling singer-songwriters if he didn't have the music to back it up, but the Spillane/Koster/Barnes arsenal produced a noise like nothing else has ever matched. Mangum's guitar at the beginning of Ghost thrums purposefully. The bass, when it enters, has far more distortion than a basically should really have, according to the rulebook, then the vocals enter and tenderly, but brutally, Jeff sings apparent nonsense, sweet nothings to a girl that only he knows if she's even there or no; the drums enter, they perpetuate the propulsive, rhythm that drones and bores into your head, the third chord seeming just on the right side of relevance in creating this driving, head-nodding track where full major chords replace the expected power chords to clash and whine against each other, where harmonics are created quite by accident, plucked out of the ether as note collides with note and Mangum soars and cries above the whole glorious din, as the huge bass frequencies threaten to overtake your every waking thought, as Mangum trails off into a slew of meaningless sounds that contain more meaning in themselves than most bands manage in a career...


To a far too large number of people, a segue is something with big wheels you ride about on and don't fall off. In theory. In reality, it's become one of those words (along with 'eponymous') that make perfect sense but are only used by music critics. Here is a fine segue: Ghost into the untitled instrumental that follows, a song very different but I think equally influential - a melodium, an organ, a trombone, these are all good. Wonderful, bouncy, chirpy music, set so unbelievably well against the bleakly romantic beauty of Ghost that really you imagine them to have been written at the same time, as a foil for each other, a few words of Ghost here, a few bars of Untitled's melody there, a thwacked chord here, a smiley organ trill there. Listen to the two together, no, I insist.

You know I don't think either is my favourite track on the album. That would probably be the title track, destined to be a deal-breaker if I ever take up busking. Maybe the painfully stark closer, Two-Headed Boy Pt.II. But this is an album apart, I get to post like this.

The Music
Neutral Milk Hotel - Ghost
Neutral Milk Hotel - untitled

The 'fo
Artists: Neutral Milk Hotel
Recommended: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Label: Domino
Buy: Amazon
More: Hype Machine; elbo.ws; Stylus' commentary
If you like this, you might like: The Essex Green - Cannibal Sea
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Jeff said...

Well done! I wouldn't listen to NMH for years because their name was too goofy. What a mistake, most of their songs are outstanding and Mangum's voice is right up my alley. Thanks for taking to the time to think this out and post it.


Evangeline said...


The Daily Growl said...

Fantastic. Ghost is too good. By the end of the day I will have this album!