Thursday, September 24, 2009

Book of the Month

Each month we will take a look at a book dedicated to deepening our understanding of music or musicians in some way. This month I've chosen Kim Cooper's, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.

Neutral Milk Hotel was an indie-rock band that sprung out of the Athens, Georgia scene in the mid-nineties. Their first album, On Avery Island, won critical acclaim but never garnered much of an audience. The second and final release by Neutral Milk Hotel in 1998 was a little album called In The Aeroplane Over The Sea that changed lives and made the world safe for crappy imitators, (The Decemberists) and wonderful innovators (Arcade Fire).

The album is an emotional tour de force; a trip through the mind of the deeply troubled, saddened and yet somehow hopeful, Jeff Mangum. The songs are acoustic in nature but give way to larger sound experimentation, fuzz bass, acrobatic drumming and New Orleans funeral style marching bands. Mangum was inspired to write most of the music for the album after reading Anne Frank's Diary, and many songs revolve around an imagined love affair with Franke, destined to be torn apart by the Nazis. The album deals with lost love through fiercely poetic lyrics, many of which border on the sexually graphic (sample lyric: "Your father made fetuses with flesh-licking ladies/while you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park") but alas, Anne as well as the other cast of characters - ghosts, two-headed boys floating in glass - make their way back to us through reincarnation ("Now she's a little boy in Spain /playing pianos filled with flames") or become one with each other when they are eaten by wild animals ("Feel ourselves inside some strangers stomach/let your skin begin to blend itself with mine"). Not surprisingly, it took quite a while for many fans to warm up to this album, but they did eventually, and Neutral Milk Hotel was filling small clubs every night in college towns across the country. But just as the band began amassing fame, Mangum had a nervous breakdown, disbanded the group and disappeared off the face of the earth.

In the wake of the absence, Neutral Milk Hotel has built a fanatical, religious-like cult following who wake up every morning wondering if today will be the day that Jeff Mangum starts to record a new album (or is that just me?).

Enter Kim Cooper's pocket-sized book titled after the album that inspired it. Cooper traces back the roots of Neutral Milk Hotel to the unlikely town of Ruston, Louisana where the group who would become the Elephant 6 Collective, sparking bands such as Apples In Stereo, Elf Power, Of Montreal, and of course NMH, first met. From there, the book details their slow rise to college-rock domination, tracing their steps from Athens, to Denver, to New York and several places in between.

Cooper, who was clearly allowed access to Mangum (no small feat) and many other close friends from Elephant 6, follows the ever changing mental state of Mangum during the NMH heydays - often fueled by a mix of drugs, depression, hyper-intellectual conversions, night terrors and girl trouble. It tells the story of the band's eventual rise, its overnight obliteration and the ever growing number of listeners who continue to discover the band every day.

Over the last eleven years, Mangum has emerged here and there - onstage with Olivia Tremer Control, or making a guest appearance as drummer on Circulatory System's new album - each time sparking hope that it is a signal of his return to music. Whether or not that ever happens might not be all that important anymore. What he left us with was one of the greatest records in the history of rock music, and that's more than just about everyone else on the planet can say. Still, when someone makes something that really moves you, it's hard not to hope for that person to return. Cooper's book probably isn't for the casual fan, with its detailed accounts of the goings-on behind the scenes in the recording studio and description of every instrument on every song, but then most Neutral Milk Hotel fans aren't casual about their devotion to the band.


  1. Anonymous24/9/09 07:58


    I, too, share an affection for the buttery-sweet taste of neutral milk, but to call The Decemberists "crappy (NMH) imitators" seems like an arbitrary attack on a creative and decidedly different group of musicians!

    Are there no bigger fish to fry??

  2. Fair enough. My problem with the Decemberist, who certainly would not exist without NMH, goes much deeper than their huge debt to Mr. Mangum. I thought their first album was refreshing to a point, but find their inability to do anything other than sing the same songs about chimney sweeps and pirates over and over again, a bit much. I don't hate them, and you're right, it was probably a little harsh to just call them crappy imitators, but they feel like too much of a shitck to me and I tire of it quickly.

  3. Anonymous24/9/09 08:33

    You mentioned the issue of the "first" album. Many, many bands suffer from a strong freshman/sophomore showing and then come to a stark realization that they are only capable of reproducing the same sound over and over again with a different title.

    An audience wants to see growth. We want to feel like bands are making progress from album to album, because in some sense that shows us that we too are moving along and evolving in life. It's a vicarious journey, but an important one.

    The Decemberists definitely plateaued from albums one and two, but Neutral Milk Hotel did even provide us with anything beyond that point. So, I ask you:

    Do you think that this pressure in affected Mr. Magnum's lack of a sequel/ consequential breakdown? Is "disappearing off the face of the earth" a brilliant plunge into martyrdom, or simply a way to avoid the challenge of topping arguably one of the greatest indie albums of all time?

  4. You pose a fascinating question (anonymous person) and one that I can't say I have a satisfying answer to.

    Is the Decemberist's path of striving for greatness in the face of their own limits more noble than say, creating one or two absolutely brilliant works and then walking away... Yeah, probably.

    That said, I'm not sure that that's why Jeff Mangum walked off the scene - b/c he 'knew he'd never be able to top what he'd done.' I mean, he pretty much had a breakdown while touring for the record, long before it ever became the influencial album it is today. I don't think he had any sense that he'd done something people would worship 11 years later. I just think he was person with an unstable mental life and what he was doing took its toll. Certainly, at this point, it is possible that it's all too overwhelming to return but I think he said what he had to say and if/when he has the urge to express himself again, he will.

    The reason why I will always choose two great NMH albums over 15 mediocre Decemberist albums is this: The Decemberist are no doubt very intelligent, literary, possibly brilliant people. They take a very similar approach to song writing as Mangum did, fixating on past events or characters of the past and making them relatable to a modern day listener. The thing about the Decemberists is - they do it with a wink/nudge. It's over the top melodrama that is meant to poke fun, in a way, at that type of story/character - mother's being raped by sailers, father's killing their children, love-lorn barrow boys and such. I'm not saying that it doesn't work and that those types of stories aren't ripe for it. But what Neutral Milk Hotel did was straight-up, heart on the sleeve, mellowdramatic, non-ironic, pure emotion - words that would usually make me think, emo, and commence stuffing my ears with cotton, but they pull it off. They more then pull it off. I mean, the opening acoustic guitar on 'King of Carrot Flowers' is enough to move me in a way that the entire album of most bands couldn't do. Being unironic is not a commodity in modern music and Mangum could've given a shit less. That's a lot harder to do successfully, in my opinion then be snarky.

    I really do hope that The Decemberist someday make an album like that but I don't think it's going to happen until Colin Meloy stops reading Dickens with a satirical eye and actually tries to express himself. But hey, that's just me.

  5. I think it's funny that Travis keeps on writing The Decemberist as though he really just hates one of them...I'm assuming that would be Colin Meloy.

    Love the debate!

  6. Hello. My name is Colin Meloy. You might know me as the lead singer from such bands as The Decemberists and, El Deciemberichtos.

    I wanted to chime in on this hearty discussion and let the world know that I don't JUST write songs about pirates...

    I also write tunes about ocean dwelling scavengers, melodies regarding sea bound buccaneers, and even one little ditty surrounding a naval battle between a mercenary and a raider.

    I think that I have soundly proven my point. Now, I encourage all of your readers to go on out today and purchase our thirteenth and latest album: Shiver Me Timbers.

    Arrrgh. (thank you).

  7. Colin,
    I think I just became a fan of The Decemberist(s) Awesome.