Thursday, February 6, 2014
Neutral Milk Hotel at the Pageant
In the midst of Neutral Milk Hotel's performance at the Pageant last night, I had what I can only refer to as a "Radiohead moment." As the group segued from the ferociously strummed "Two-Headed Boy" into the clamorous brass instrumental "The Fool" I effectively "lost myself." It was a span of 30 seconds at most, but then and there it felt like an eternity. I recalled the first time I heard their sophomore (and still most recent) record In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I remembered listening to it from the backseat of a Dodge Caliber on my way to a family member's funeral, thinking this was the only thing I could make sense of. And a blur of times during my collegiate career smeared together where I turned to the band when nothing else would suffice. And as I drew out of this malaise, I couldn't help but wonder what loves and losses it'd be soundtracking down the road in my life.
Only with a band like Neutral Milk Hotel, where past/present/future commonly intermingle is this sort of experience even possible. A melange of processional music, punk rock, Appalachian folk, and globe-hopping experimentation the band itself embodies the "time-machine" frontman Jeff Mangum warbles about in "Oh Comely".
That time-machine approach came remarkably fast and fresh during the Athens-based group's run-throughs of tracks from the less-heralded On Avery Island. The energy and abandonment the band played with on "Naomi" was an attempt to reckon with the demons of expectations In the Aeroplane Over the Sea left behind. Multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster with an accordion in tow, spun around on-stage like an out-of-control carousel as Mangum found guitar chords with steely intent. Jeremy Barnes' drumming was controlled but spastic. He'd malevolently glare at a crash cymbal only to flail wildly across the toms. By the time the track wrapped up, Magnum's simple reminder "this song's called Naomi" would not be forgotten.
This same energy threatened to bleed the band dry in "Baby for Pree"/"Where You'll Find Me Now". For a band that's set a certain stake on cacophonous music, it still scanned as the one of most sweeping numbers of the night. A vital component of the cacophony is that lack of distinction between times. Koster's short-circuiting Moog synthesizer in "Ferris Wheel on Fire" pointed to a mechanical future where everything fails, while the bleating horns brought to mind 1920s New Orleans.
Even still some of NMH's best material stands outside of time or place and last night's set was no different. The raucous "Holland, 1945" creates an alternate timeline where lyrical folkies drop acid and beat the Sex Pistols to punk. "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" swipes chords from the Penguins "Earth Angel" and retreats to a mystic locale "circling all 'round the Sun." When "everyone's waiting" as Mangum suggests in the galloping "Song Against Sex", chronological details stop mattering.
The acoustic meditation of "Oh Comely", which came late into the set killed all forward momentum. That any howls were elicited during the rabid epic spoke more to audience excitement to hear NMH that their enthusiasm over girls being lowered into graves. And as the enthusiasm died, the greatest aura of the band stay behind. There was Jeff Mangum alone on the stage, one of "popular" music's few remaining enigmas. Now masked by a forest of hair his movements are impossible to discern. The band reformed after more than a decade of dormancy with no stated motives. Though they tell of "holy spectacles" in the final whispered fragments of "Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2", the band (and Mangum in particular) have always avoided any sort of spectacle.