[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at
1998's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Monday, April 13.]
SAN FRANCISCO -- It was in the dark morning hours of Easter Sunday
in a small San Francisco nightclub that Neutral Milk Hotel leader Jeff Mangum
found himself fighting to stay on his feet.
But no matter how hard he and bandmate Julian Koster bounded into each
other on the Bottom of the Hill stage, or tried to trip each other up, Mangum kept
his balance and his footing, however precariously.
It was the sort of controlled chaos that seems to fuel NMH and their music. They
move in bursts of awkward energy and create a sound that is at once grating
and gratifying. "I just want to get up onstage and play," Mangum had said as he
waited anxiously offstage for the set to begin.
Neutral Milk Hotel are this year's Guided By Voices, a cool combo of
idiosyncratic musicians who have won the respect of rock critics throughout the
land and who are now working to find a larger audience for their off-kilter pop 'n'
The group's debut album, 1996's On Avery Island, made many a critic's
"Best Music You'll Probably Never Hear List." Now this year's amazing follow-
up, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, is drawing comparisons to the
Beach Boy's legendary Pet Sounds.
About 30 minutes into his performance, Mangum led his ragamuffin ensemble --
which more resembled a badly disorganized high-school band than a rock outfit
(RealAudio excerpt), with its timely lyrics, "I love you Jesus Chrii-iist. Jesus
Christ I love you, yes I do."
The decidedly secular sold-out crowd roared its approval and pressed toward
the stage even tighter in anticipation of the explosive third part of the song,
which breaks from a dirgy religious anthem into a manic punk epic. When the
band finally built the triage into its raucous finale, all seven musicians careened
off each other in ecstasy, horn knocking into accordion, guitar cords entangling
legs, microphones scattering about the stage.
Inspired by the chaos, the crowd began their own mini riot. Only 15 minutes
before the mayhem ensued, Mangum, dressed in a plaid shirt and corduroys
taped together at the ankles, opened the show with a haunting solo
performance of "Oh, Comely," off In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. This
segued into "The Fool," a dirge-like number that cued the rest of the band
While dirges seem a poor choice to open a show, Neutral Milk Hotel are not a
band used to following conventions. Whether they are creating strange noises
with pre-recorded tapes, blasting their funeral-march-styled melodies or pulling
sad, whining sounds from a bowed saw, their arrangements are improbable
and yet perfect.
They challenge every convention in music with a look that is as anti-commercial
as it is refreshing, a collection of rock-'n'-roll misfits who make beautiful music
together. Their sound at times seems more suited for a funeral or a three-ring
circus than a rock show.
Yet there is no question of the commitment to their sound and to music in
general. Twelve hours after they rang in Easter at the club, members of the
collaborative attended a service at the Church of St. John Coltrane, an African
Orthodox church on Divisadero Street that uses Coltrane's jazz treatises as
hymnals and his improvisational style as a credo.
Keeping with the participatory nature of the church, bandmembers -- including
Koster and his bowed saw -- joined in with the house band from their respective
pews. When they weren't clapping and dancing along to a saxophone solo or a
jazzy bass lick, the bandmembers were dancing from their pews.
It all fits nicely into Mangum's musical philosophy.
With his lanky good looks, intense, almost possessed delivery and modest,
though self-assured stance onstage, he among his bandmates looks the most
like a rock icon. Bobbing his body up and down in a Neil Young-like spastic
frenzy, he clearly is the conductor. The rest of the crew seem to whirl around
him, performing a strange but beautiful dance. NMH and the two opening
bands, the Gerbils and Elf Power, all record on the Elephant 6 label, a sort of
family of musicians -- mostly from Athens, Ga. -- who guest on each other's LPs
Adding to their untraditional approach to making music, NMH frequently
swapped instruments between and sometimes during songs, moving from
accordion to bowed saw to banjo to French horn over the course of the 90-
minute set. While the constant maneuvering gave the band a disorganized
look, the sound that they produced was focused and expertly arranged. And
Mangum's kaleidoscopic lyrics only added to the psychedelic sound collage.
With stream-of-consciousness lyrics that are as evocative as they are riveting
(Two-headed boy/ Put on Sunday shoes/ And dance round the room to
accordion heals/ With the needle that plays in your heart/ Catching signals that
sound in the dark), it was not uncommon to catch audience members as well as
Mangum's own bandmates mouthing the words to his songs.
With the exception of a handful of cuts on both Aeroplane and its
predecessor, On Avery Island, most of NMH's sad-core material would
not seem to be suited for live performance. But by stringing together up-tempo
songs such as "Holland, 1945," "Naomi" and "Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone"
and by infusing others with newfound vigor and stage antics, the band traded its
studio subtleties for live enthusiasm.
Adding another bizarre twist to the already strange atmosphere, Mangum
introduced the tune "Song Against Sex," off Avery Island, as "a song I
wrote in my friend's attic. It's about someone who took a lot of acid in a donut
shop. Well, then it's about my mom and dad and floating in space."
As the band began the number, Koster -- who originally appeared onstage
wearing a bike helmet with a chime set taped atop -- sprawled on the stage floor
and rolled around, doing everything he could it seemed to bowl over Mangum.
But Mangum kept his footing, stepping haphazardly around the prostate
As they continued their duet, the band cut loose on an untitled instrumental
track from Aeroplane, a gleeful, Celtic carnival-like number. Koster
quickly leapt to his feet to join the other six members, who by this point were
bouncing off each other like bumper cars.
And then it happened. Mangum and Koster collided head on and both fell, with
Mangum toppling a tower of amplifiers and Koster taking out half the drum set --
cymbals crashing to the stage.
Yet, as it had all night, the seeming disorder again found its focus in the music
that poured like a rushing stream through the crackling PA.