No Neutral Milk Here: A Magnificent Ice Cream Cone Of An Album

"We used a lot of old-timey equipment and fed every sound through a partially broken 1950's four-track with huge tubes," Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel says. He explains that not just the sound, but the content of the new album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is derived from the era of the '40s and '50s. But before you start thinking that means retro, keep in mind that it is unwise to apply labels of any kind to the NMH/The Apples In Stereo/Olivia Tremor Control crowd who comprise the Athens, Ga.-based Elephant Six collective (a group of musicians and artists united by their DIY values). They've been called everything from pop to indie to lo-fi to psychedelic Radio Shack, but none of their projects are like anything you've heard before.

Neutral Milk Hotel employ an unusual technique of aural collage based

on Mangum's catchy but anguished songs, set one minute

in a layer cake of pure, patented fuzz, horns and pop instrumentation

and literally the next in the lone strumming of a guitar.

Atop the whole is Mangum's extended Ray Davies whine, singing

lyrics that run together in a continuous stream through the album -- "... your mom would stick a fork right into Daddy's shoulder

and your dad would throw the garbage all across the floor as

we would lay and learn what each other's bodies were for"

("The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One"). No

Pet Sounds-nostalgia pop-romp, this! Fans of Mangum's lyric

rush will be pleased, yet anyone can think long on the succinct

loveliness and seriousness of lines such as "... God is a place where you will wait for the rest of your life" ("Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two").

The singing and percussion are sharper, more upfront than on

the group's earlier album -- a measure of increased ambition. The aim

seems to be the evocation of a midcentury American spirituality,

but it is not at all a sepia-toned, sugary picture, hence the

disturbing dream-contours of songs such as "Communist Daughter"

("the sweet communist daughter standing on the seaweed water")

and "Two Headed Boy."

The album clocks in at under 40 minutes, yet because of its detailed

construction, employing everything from tapes and shortwave radios

to a euphonium and uilleann pipes -- and Robert Schneider's bizarre

production techniques -- it seems, and this is a very good thing,

longer. The shifting textures, the frequent changing of instruments,

and the fact that one "song" leads directly into another make this

more a song-cycle -- or even what classical music folks call program music -- than just another indie/pop album with bright ideas.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is magnificent and unusual

-- hey, what other record do you own that has a zanzithophone on it?

It's a musical high-wire, tight-rope act, a whole aural circus, and it's headed for your living room.