In February 1998, All Music Guide summed up the second album from Neutral Milk Hotel, "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," as "either the work of a genius or an utter crackpot, with the truth probably falling somewhere in between."
Fifteen years later, we're really no closer to that truth. If the band were now releasing its 10th album, there would be a body of work with which to weigh in on genius/crackpot frontman Jeff Mangum.
It didn't work out that way at all, as Neutral Milk Hotel never even made it to a third album, and there were no proper solo albums from the mysterious Hotel keeper.
Like Kurt Cobain or Nick Drake before him, Mr. Mangum wasn't wired to embrace the notoriety that comes from making great music. Fortunately, unlike them, the 42-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist, who performs at Carnegie Music Hall tonight, came out of his seclusion alive and, if all goes well, could be on the verge of a second act.
Although he came too late to be one of the pioneers of indie rock or even lo-fi, for some he was the voice of that late '90s post-grunge generation, making a huge impact on the music of the past decade and a half.
Mr. Mangum began his musical pursuits in high school bands in the late '80s in his native Louisiana, influenced by a combination of '60s psych-folk (think Donovan) and '80s fuzz (Sonic Youth). Neutral Milk Hotel would become the premier band of the Elephant 6 Collective (with Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, et al), starting with the 1996 debut, "On Avery Island," which was recorded in Denver.
"On Avery Island" established the groundwork for the masterpiece to follow, with its tattered, fuzzed-out, baroque folk-pop topped with the surrealistic bellowing of its emotive frontman, who seemed perfectly willing to paint over the borders with his vocal style. It was hard to find an easy comparison, but NME gave it a shot: "think Butthole Surfers if they'd grown up listening to nothing but Four Volts." OK, that might not be real helpful.
NMH backed that album with its first tour in the summer of '96 as the baby band with two more established Merge labelmates -- Butterglory and the Karl Hendricks Trio (Pittsburgh's own) -- stopping at the Beehive's upstairs club in Oakland.
"It didn't seem like a very big deal," recalls Mr. Hendricks. "I'm guessing maybe there were 40 people there. I think at some of the shows we played last, which is insane to think about now. Nothing about the brief tour indicated the legendary status they would achieve. It felt like they were another band on Merge. I don't think that I had any sense that we and Butterglory would fade into obscurity and they would become one of the biggest bands of the '90s."
Launching NMH on that course was "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," recorded at Pet Sounds Studios in Denver in the summer of 1997 with Elephant 6 producer Robert Schneider and released in February 1998.
It has one of the strangest and most beautiful openings of any album ever made: just 10 seconds of a strummed F-C-B-flat pattern and the line "When you were young/you were the king of carrot flowers/And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees/In holy rattlesnakes that fell around your feet."
Instantly, we're thrust into some kind of Alice in Wonderland fantasy, but then Mr. Mangum abruptly pulls us out into hyper-real physical world, "And your mom would stick a fork right into daddy's shoulder/And dad would throw the garbage all across the floor/As we would lay and learn what each other's bodies were for." Enter a gorgeous accordion fog.
It's an exquisite piece of what later would be called freak folk, and it set the tone for a record that gets progressively more weird, wonderful, magical, confessional and altogether mind-altering.
What lyrics could better speak to young lovers coming of age than these from the title track: "And one day we will die/And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea/But for now we are young/Let us lay in the sun/And count every beautiful thing we can see"?
Among its many delights is the way each song flows seamlessly into the next -- in the manner of Beck's "Odelay" or Radiohead's "OK Computer," two strong contemporaries. Whether you know that it may or may not be a concept album loosely based on Anne Frank's diary doesn't matter. There's a staggering beauty and energy to the whole messy affair.
Pitchfork wrote " 'Aeroplane's' radiant weirdness works, and is so oddly life-affirming, because it looks right into the face of the heaviest of heavy historical evils."
Lucinda Williams' "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" and "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" were the overwhelming critical favorites that year, but "Aeroplane" landed at No. 15 on the Village Voice's Pazz and Jop Poll of the nation's critics. From there, the record's prestige and legend has only grown.
In 2003, Magnet placed it No. 1 on the list of Top 60 Albums between 1993 and 2003. Pitchfork ranked it the No. 4 album of the '90s and Amazon labeled it the No. 2 Greatest Indie Rock Album of All Time (after Guided By Voices' "Bee Thousand").
Its impact on the indie scene is immeasurable.
James Hart, who fronts the local indie-rock band The Harlan Twins, recalls being blown away the first time he heard "Aeroplane." "The tunes sounded like pop songs, but they were recorded like hardcore, and the lyrics sounded like ecstatic ramblings, like he was at the ends of language, like he had this need to express these powerful feelings of joy and awe and confusion -- like a friend with a headful of acid trying to explain how overwhelmingly beautiful existence is -- 'how strange it is to be anything at all.' It changed my mind about what you were 'allowed to do' in pop music, and showed me that a clean performance and an immediately accessible lyric weren't the end-all be-all -- and, in fact, make a connection between artist and audience harder."
Jesse Hall, who leads the Pittsburgh-formed Americana band Bear Cub, says, "When I started Bear Cub I wasn't extremely confident in my own singing abilities, and I revisited 'In The Aeroplane Over The Sea' and was instantly reminded that you don't have to have a perfect singing voice, just a believable one. Jeff Magnum certainly has that. Of course I enjoy the weird instrumentation throughout the album, as well as the many intimate sexual references," he adds with a laugh. "He also inspired me to use trumpet and theremin whenever possible."
Mr. Hendricks, who worked at Paul's CDs in the '90s and now owns the space as Sound Cat Records, says, "I would say that indie-rock has become a much more folky and poppy genre, moving way from the punk-oriented or heavy-rock-oriented college rock of the mid-'80s and from grunge to what it is now. I think it's rare to think of an indie-rock band as kind of a heavy band, and I wouldn't say Neutral Milk Hotel is exclusively responsible for that, but I would say records like that for sure changed the landscape.
"I wouldn't be surprised if 'Aeroplane Over the Sea' was the biggest-selling record of the Paul's era, because that record we would sell some every week. It's hard to think of a record that is so monolithic in terms of its influence on people who might be into slightly more indie music."
Neutral Milk Hotel toured exhaustively throughout 1998, including a date at the former Graffiti Showcase in Oakland.
And that was it. Mr. Mangum pulled the plug and retreated from the spotlight, as his band members ventured off into other Elephant 6 projects. They turned down an offer by R.E.M. to tour together in 1999.
Mr. Mangum came back three years later with a compilation of field recordings of Bulgarian folk music, "Orange Twin Field Works, Volume One," and he issued a live acoustic album from 1997, "Live at Jittery Joe's." That's where his discography ends, other than a few contributions to friends' records, and an EP of unreleased tracks in 2011.
In a rare 2002 interview with Pitchfork he explained that "when we started doing the Elephant 6 thing, we had a very utopian vision that we could overcome anything through music. The music wasn't just there for entertainment: We were trying to create some sort of change. We had a desire to transform our lives, and the listener's lives."
He went on to explain, however, that he was troubled by the experiences of various friends in pain, including a dear one who was coming to terms with being abused and molested as a child.
"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."
He continued to write but wasn't happy with the results and never released any of it. In 2008, he made surprise appearances on the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour -- including a show at the Brillobox -- playing Neutral Milk Hotel songs publicly for the first time since 2001. He's made scattered appearances since then, including a stop at Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and Coachella and All Tomorrow's Parties festival in the U.K. last year.
Ben Harrison, who books the Warhol Sound Series, says, "I was talking to his agent and we were talking about Belle and Sebastian, a group I was actively trying to get to Pittsburgh. He said, 'What would you think of Jeff Mangum?' I said, 'You mean solo?' He said, 'He feels like it's time to get back into the mix.' His long-term plan is that if the tour goes as well as expected, next year he would do a tour with a full band."
Judging from the fact that it will sell out Carnegie Music Hall, all indications are that the tour, which started Wednesday night in Buffalo, likely will go well.
"It's interesting, considering that he's been out of the loop for so long, how rabid his following is," says Mr. Harrison. "He didn't miss a beat."
The feedback from fans and critics on his shows leading up to Coachella last April was mixed, in part due to his relationship with that audience. They want to sing every word with him! On top of that at least one poster on the SF Weekly site complained that by recycling 15-year-old material, it felt like the onetime indie-rock maverick was leading a feel-good nostalgia trip.
The obvious response is that with most of the fans having never heard a shred of "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" live, it's hard to complain about hearing a classic for the first time.music
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. First Published January 10, 2013 5:00 AM