NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL
On Avery Island, the first record by Neutral Milk Hotel, sprang from recordings songwriter Jeff Mangum made at home, abetted by his friend Robert Schneider of the Apples in Stereo and a few other players from the Elephant 6 collective, many of whom grew up together in Ruston, Louisiana. It's a pleasant enough carnival of lo-fi psychedelic folk, but the band's second release, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is the best record I've heard this year, a hypnotic tapestry of surrealistic stories rooted in the southern gothic tradition. The new record establishes a formal lineup behind Mangum, and his clear, sharp, sometimes grating voice etches bleak images of romantic yearning and spiritual deformity onto a musical backdrop that jumps from stark acoustic strumming to muddy punk rock to somber brass instrumentals. The record tells, rather loosely, the tale of two young people trying to escape the carnal sins of their forebears and discover true love; the corrupted families Mangum sings of are worthy of Faulkner. On "The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One" he recalls, "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." The tangled web emerges even more clearly in "Oh Comely," a harrowing eight-minute epic near the end of the record. "Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies," the singer reveals, "while you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park." Mangum makes multiple references to The Diary of Anne Frank, another story of adolescent desire in the face of horror, and by the end of the tune the girl of his dreams has morphed into Frank: "I know they buried her body with others / her sister and mother and 500 families." Mangum and company had the nerve to open with this icy psychodrama at their last Lounge Ax gig, before a mob of impatient Superchunk fans, and they remained militantly sloppy throughout their awkward, highly charged set, stumbling around and trading instruments on nearly every song. But when they're on, Neutral Milk Hotel's shifts from extreme personal statement to wigged-out ensemble are so lovely you might not realize that you're waltzing with death. Saturday, 10 PM, Lounge Ax, 2438 N. Lincoln; 773-525-6620. J.R. JONES
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.