Thursday, April 10, 2008

Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is Not That Great
by Mike Orme



Putting it mildly: Neutral Milk Hotel poisons everything.

A genre-spanning clusterfuck of traditional instrumentation working within the medium of ‘90s college rock, an indulgent yarn about an inspiring but complex WWII, a jewel in the crown of a much-loved Southern pop music commune, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea stamped a punctuation mark on the 20th-century underground and inspired emotional acres of musical prospectors. Its followers (we’ll call ‘em the ‘98ers) furiously mine the human condition while excavating from a rich quarry of disparate musical influences. To say that NMH begat the obtuse experimental folk movements which include Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom is not a huge overstatement. It’s a shame, then, that Aeroplane has wasted the time of so many worthy music lovers.

From the outset, Aeroplane declares alliance to simplistic usage of the American folk tradition and a vomitous affinity to Eastern European gypsy music. Frontman Jeff Mangum’s—d’oh—mangum opus, a loose concept album about, kinda, Anne Frank, has acted as a gateway drug for many into the beguiling and ill-defined world of indie music. But ten years later, his legacy remains the tacit permission to afford musicians the right to musical tourism. Mind you, I’m not a poseur hater: Everyone deserves the freedom to explore music for which the challenge is determined by their own willingness to open their ears and to traverse the intellectual continents—it’s just… where’s the respect for history? Culture? Why do we continue to think we have the mandate to belittle everyone else?

History puts the record’s excessively discussed beginning at “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1” and the blandest of acoustic chord progressions that seems to recall a pop pretender as transparent as Jack Johnson. Of course, Mangum develops the progression into a complex and memorable ditty, but one marred with the same kinds of problems that dot the entire album. Mangum, predictably, carries his nasal and quite grating voice somewhat like Bob Dylan fronting the Pixies: He picks rather obvious canonical folk hooks for his verses (for the uninitiated: they’re difficult to grasp, easy to apply, quick to be tired of), and then raises his voice an octave on each chorus (“Carrot Flowers” as an example, is just the first of many). Great, just what we need to close out the 90s—the vocal equivalent of Kurt Cobain’s (and Mike McCready’s, and Gavin Rossdale’s, and Daniel Johns’) DOD-brand “Grunge” distortion pedal. Seriously, was this not incredibly obvious to any old sad-sack open-mic singer-songwriter who came before him, let alone the Conor Obviourst-ish folks who copied him?

Well, whatever. As I said above, opening people’s minds to folk tradition is not a bad thing. Certainly the Athens, GA-based Elephant Six collective has opened doors not only to their Southern compatriots but to indie fans and dilettantes alike by rhapsodizing the canonical elements of capital-W Western pop. They did it admirably not from a well-funded Motown or Nashville recording studio, but as an ill-funded Dixie hippie colony recording out of their bedrooms. The Olivia Tremor Control, fronted by E6’s loose leaders Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, channeled the voracious musical appetites of the Brian Wilson and Paisley Underground types by probing for striking melodies in Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle while engaging in a conversation between psychedelic pop and ambient textures of the “Green Typewriters” suite. There’s no denying that the Elephant Six has reeled in a number of fans with the panacea of classic pop and has helped broaden listeners’ horizons by subversively injecting challenging elements of ambient music.

Yeah, so you could understand that people could immediately appreciate Mangum’s sparse folky wail—I mean, if decades of folk tenors did it and created an American songbook, and Dylan did it badly and became a legend, why not Mangum? What’s a shame is that his voice has become a mimetic signifier to dozens of well-known low-fidelity warblers, each of whom revels in their vocalic cacophony and each of whom expects the poetry and ambience to carry the song.

Well, never mind the poetry—I concede that Mangum is a starkly kaleidoscopic imagist, capable of claustrophobia and galactic poetry in practically the same breath. I’m currently concerned with Mangum’s gypsy fetish. This guy wears his Balkan horns like a badge. Seriously, how many mildly talented sackbut players do we need to bear before acknowledging that this is all an exercise of either boredom (likely in NMH’s case) or the paralyzing need for attention (as is the case for every horn-toting band following them)? Is it really important to lionize multi-instrumentalists who affect Renaissance airs, swapping instruments with glee, reveling in their own self-styled virtuosity, when only half of them can even play their four instruments?

The natural counter-argument here is that it doesn’t actually matter how well the players play their instruments. The music composed and played on this album contains elements from ambient and free jazz, and what’s more important than the ability to play the instrument is the ability to play the sound of the instrument, adding to the piece with texture more than virtuosity. And certainly Aeroplane, like all the great Elephant Six records, presents a varied palette of continent-spanning hues, from the dusty golds of American folk to tarnished Eastern Bloc reds. The record’s gypsy affinity actually brings up an interesting question—Did it predict the Bulgarian wedding music movement that has made so many waves in post-9/11 Europe? Or, more likely, did it beget that godawful gypsy-punk-tourist scene that has some New Yorkers named Gogol Bordello [Mike, you’re dead –ed.] and a New Mexican named Beirut the darlings of the nebulous haze of the blogosphere?

The fact that Aeroplane is even mentioned in the same sentence as these phenomena is testament to its tourist sensibilities and the quainster* ideology—that which seeks out the world’s facile pleasures and marginalizes them into semi-ironic indulgence. You all know that guy: the dude who studies abroad in Japan and only brings back post-apocalyptic comics about some sort of sexual nuclear war for cheap laughs with his buddies, not understanding the complex cultural and political theatre that has led to a society which condones it. Mangum has professed his love for old-time circus imagery—the cover for this particular atrocity was lifted from a European circus postcard—and songs documenting intricate plights like the overly charming “Two Headed Boy” only underscore his appropriation of the marginalized freakshow of the gypsies, the Jews, and other less-than-perfects that certainly would have been targeted by a Final Solution. But apparently now Lebanon can be reduced to a few horn spurts (as with Beirut), the millions lost in the Soviet fight can be summed up with a gruff voice (Gogol Bordello), and the Anne Frank’s tale can be channeled into a time-machine wish (N-M-friggin-H).

God, even my Holocaust argument is dubious: the 20th-century European plight is far too complicated for me to fix anything by stressing reverence for six million Jews (or the five million gypsies, or the 20 million Soviets). Perhaps, more importantly, the greater lesson of the 20th century is that it’s dangerous to use aesthetic as meme, even worse to use aesthetic as weapon. Much is made of Mangum’s gift for melody on this record, but what seems more appropriate is that it’s a record of outsourcing. The melody is lifted from the folk tradition, the story is swiped from 20th-century lore, and the horns lifted from the same peoples who had to endure that painful chapter in the heavy tome of European civilization. Granted, all indicators seem to place this as a heartfelt and soulful account of a bittersweet and, in retrospect, masterfully chosen subject that reflects Mangum’s own insecurities. That, in turn, has empowered the insecure public to embrace and strengthen the independent music scene.

I dunno. Perhaps the worst part of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is that it is actually a very good record, constructed with a certain reason and a worldliness that is almost unthinkable for those without an understanding of the intricacies of the Deep South, or more broadly, of our own human weakness. This may be the first real record to herald the everything-at-your-fingertips world of the Information Age, fer chrissakes. And yes, yes, I’m picking nits, because Jeff Magnum’s magnum opus is deeply flawed in its underlying selfishness, but more importantly, I just don’t (forgive me for a breach of objectivity) like it. All that I can be left with is faith that this record was constructed, by some sort of design, to make me unhappy about the smugly scientific future of music.

* Quainster = “quaint” + “hipster,” which equals SUCK.


Mike Orme has written for Stylus Magazine and Pitchfork Media, and currently works on technologies enabling you to have involved conversations with your car stereo.

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3 Comments:

Blogger baconfat said...

E6 was based in Athens, GA (as well as Denver and Ruston, LA). Augusta is the home of James Brown and that racist golf course - I'm surprised you didn't try to bring those elements into this diatribe.

April 11, 2008 at 7:45 AM  
Blogger kiss out the jams said...

fixed, thanks bf.

April 11, 2008 at 10:49 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

I fucking hate this awful cacophony of a record and always have. Nothing to do with the gypsy / folk / tourist outsourcing stuff; all to do with his hideous voice and grating guitar and unpleasant melodies. Uergh.

April 11, 2008 at 11:27 PM  

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