Tuesday, June 10, 2008

George Favorite Albums, #4 - Neutral Milk Hotel, In The Aeroplane Over the Sea

Album: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Artist: Neutral Milk Hotel
Released: 1998 (Merge)
Favorite Songs: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Oh Comely, Ghost, Two Headed Boy Pt. II

The All Music Guide review of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea describes Jeff Mangum as either "a genius or an utter crackpot, with the truth probably falling somewhere in between." The idealist in me scoffs at the notion of Jeff falling anywhere south of the genius label. I used to eat up those VH1 'best artists ever' or 'best song of all time' countdowns, because I was such a sucker for quantification and banner waving. "Zeppelin was rated the best hard rock band...of all time!" But with age has come practicality and rationality, and frankly I realize those lists are ratings cash cows, and more or less garbage. For example, Tom Waits was number 90, the Doors were number 20. Aside from record sales and dorm-room poster ratio, I'm thinking those rankings weren't based on much. Certainly not music. (Hipster note: I never had a Doors poster, but I did have a framed print of the artwork from Waits' Nighthawks at the Diner hanging in my apartment in college.)

So, suffice to say labels and rankings and other such gilded honors amount to little more than a Wikipedia bullet point. Therefore, I can embrace the fact that Jeff Mangum is probably not a genius. An idiosyncratic songwriter, lyrically gifted with a flare for the bizarre, and a voice that can soar to the rafters, frantic as a sparrow. But a genius? Frankly, who knows. I give him a ton of credit though and I do believe he favors the genius end of the spectrum, while perhaps not standing stoically at the front of the line. Each time I listen to ITAOTS, I hear some reference or make some connection that leads me to believe Mangum must have some deeper meaning inscribed in every last lyric, every saw-wail and wonky horn arrangement, and it all must interweave to decode a cryptic message. But do I really want this album to be a Dan Brown novel? I really don't...

So allow me to present my neat-and-tidy thematic conclusion: An album about sordid childhood memories, textured by bizarre minutiae, and presented vis-a-vis Anne Frank's tragic life and death, and the war-torn state of 1930s/1940s Europe in general. It'd be too easy to say the album is about Anne Frank. It's pretty clear that Mangum has canonized Frank in the context of the album. She is the ideal symbol of innocence, an angel with whom the narrator is hopelessly obsessed. And it would seem the circumstances of her death have irreparably crippled his faith in humanity. Songs like "King of Carrot Flowers" and "Oh Comely" describe such dark subject matter--domestic unrest, adultery, and general misery. The latter boasts the unsettling verse:

"Your father made fetuses
With flesh licking ladies
While you and your mother
Were asleep in the trailer park
Thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums"
--Oh Comely

And later in the song, it seems as if he considers Frank's senseless death to be a Pandora's box that is still causing the problems of today's world, lamenting "Will she remember me, 50 years later/I wished I could save her, in some sort of time machine."

The album starts with some fast, bassy acoustic strums and the puzzling line "When you were young you were the King of Carrot Flowers/And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees." It's a childish fantasy, a detail that plays into the theme of innocence and the corruption thereof, which is evident throughout the song. By the end of the first track, mother (an alcoholic) has stabbed father (contemplating suicide), while a loss of sexual innocence takes place elsewhere in the house. The song gives way to Part II, an impassioned declaration of love for Jesus Christ, which is hard not to interpret ironically. The slow build of rumbling guitars and drums explodes into Part III, the meaning of which is as much your guess as it is mine. It's a crazed and frenzied finale to the opening suite of songs, and perhaps the words are meant to be as chaotic as the music would lead you to believe.

The album's title track is scarred by odd noises, bowed saws and fuzzed out bass notes, yet at it's core is a love song. But this is the kind of love I'd imagine the narrator of this album believes in. I remember playing this song for a few friends on my acoustic guitar, after which a particular friend who isn't the best kind of music fan ('Forget lyrics, I'll listen to anything with a beat' she used to say) was quite impressed at what a lovely song it was. So I pulled out my laptop and played her the original version and she was disgusted by all the noises and distortion. I shrugged it off, but I realized that she, like many, didn't want to hear a love song that wasn't polished, perfect, flawless. But that's not the sort of love that exists in the narrator's world (and neither, I'd argue, does it exist in our world, but that's an argument best saved for another blog.) American pop culture has created a romantic-comedy, Disney princess view of love and, indeed, life that makes an album like Aeroplane so hard for many to digest. But I think there is much more to be gained from realism.

"Two Headed Boy" is a flurry of downstrummed acoustic chords backing a bed of lyrics ostensibly about a freak of nature, science experiments, and other such bizarre subject matter; ultimately the song humanizes the two-headed boy, slowing to a lullaby with the comforting stanza:

Two-headed boy
There is no reason to grieve
The world that you need is wrapped in gold silver sleeves
Left beneath Christmas trees in the snow
And I will take you and leave you alone
Watching spirals of white softly flow
Over your eyelids and all you did
Will wait until the point when you let go."
--Two-Headed Boy

Almost tragically, the song segues into the instrumental "The Fool", sounding like a mid-summer death march through a shantytown. But respite comes (if only a bit late) in the form of "Holland, 1945". Yet another obvious mention of Anne Frank, the lyrics reference (among other things) a death-camp casualty, who was buried a live "a week before the guns/all came and rained on everyone." The song thunders along, driven by raging guitars, triumphant brass, and a vocal melody that soars above the rest. The song ends with the pitiful couplet "...they'd rather see their faces fill with flies/All when I'd want to keep white roses in their eyes."

"The Communist Daughter" might be the strangest track on the album, if only because of the dichotomy between the beautiful music and the utterly twisted lyrics. Of course they're up for interpretation, but the repeated metaphor "semen stains the mountaintops" would raise even a casual listener's eyebrow. And the third verse seems to describe the need for a female to masturbate in an attempt to 'prove...that she must still exist'. One would shudder at the notion that he is referring to Anne Frank, but I'd think it wasn't out of the question given the rest of the album. Several times does Mangum write lyrics that would lend to the idea of a sexual fascination with Frank (whether his own or the narrator's), including a telling line from the album's closer "Two Headed Boy Pt. II":

"And in my dreams you're alive and you're crying,
As your mouth moves in mine, soft and sweet."
--Two-Headed Boy Pt. II

The epic "Oh Comely" is as dark and sinister as this album gets. Mangum's delivery is stern and foreboding, and the lyrics complement that sentiment. Cryptic as always, the words seem to describe a young girl who is raised into a unsavory adolescence that perhaps resulted in rape or abortion. It's hard to tell from the lyrics. One fascinating interpretation is that the first part of the song (near the end it changes pace and melody a bit) is sung from the perspective of God, Jesus, or even the devil. The chorus, "Say what you want to say, hang for your hollow ways/Moving your mouth to pull out all your miracles aimed for me" could plausibly suggest the narrator is some sort of divine being or savior. One thread of the song that I find interesting is the mention of enemies. "Know who your enemies are" is the conclusion of the first portion of the song. Certainly an interesting message, especially if the song is meant to come from the devil's lips.

The album's finest moment is "Ghost", a song that features an absolutely brilliant build, and the most attractive melody line on the album. The drums fight to remain dormant, bursting through in powerful rolls until the final verse, when they finally boil over into a steady gallop; the song codas with an instrumental flourish, repeating the melody line in a proud choir of sound. The lyrics refer to two different 'ghosts': The one being Anne Frank, and the other being that of a New York City suicidal, both of which, the narrator claims "will live for ever, all goes on and on and on and on". Several times throughout the album, Mangum refers to either the afterlife, or some continuation of life. Perhaps it's his only true faith that remains.

The untitled solo track that follows is a maniacal celebration, the fullest song on the album, a cry to the heavens that resolves nothing but somehow makes sense of everything prior. It's like a musical affirmation of everything that was wrong up to that point, a devilish reminder than even an air raid provides a fireworks display.

Some low drones usher in the tender album closer, "Two Headed Boy Part II". Mangum strums his guitar behind desperate vocals, singing beautiful and heartwrenching words to several different parties. The first verse is open for interpretation--perhaps lines directed to Anne Frank's father. The second verse, however, could be for Frank herself. A bit of backstory is necessary; apparently the 'brother' that is referenced several times throughout the album was a friend of Mangum's who passed away. He finds comfort in the idea of his deceased friend loving Anne in the afterlife, something Mangum cannot do in his earthly confines:

"Blister please, with those wings in your spine.
Love to be with a brother of mine.
How he'd love to find your tongue in his teeth,
In a struggle to find secret songs that you keep,
Wrapped in boxes so tight, sounding only at night as you sleep."
--Two-Headed Boy, Pt. II

The album ends with the reemergence of the Two-Headed Boy, with Mangum soothing the boy's nerves, telling him that 'she' (presumably Frank) will be "all (he) could need." The curious line "She will feed you...radio wires" might be a reference to the line in the first "Two-Headed Boy", "creating a radio play just for two." Perhaps she is the second party in the equation.

The album ends with the solemn plea, "But don't hate her when she gets up to leave." Perhaps a warning that there is no final comfort in life. There seems to be a continuing theme that the afterlife is the only ideal, and perhaps that's not even a definite. But in a world full of so many people who'd "rather see their faces fill with flies," convincing oneself that the afterlife is the ultimate reward is the one truth that can make life worth living.

Midway Through the Year 08 Music Awards

It isn't quite half-way through the year, but work today is slower than watching Red House Paint dry and I'll be out of town for the last week of June, so why not dive right in?


5. Vampire Weekend - s/t - Everyone's favorite trust fund kids release a fun little album which has proven to be a good deal more enjoyable in the summer than it did in the colder months. From the looks of them, they're not trying to be anything they aren't and I can respect them for that. Interested to see where they go from here.

Highlights: Mansard Roof, Walcott

4. My Morning Jacket - Evil Urges - The jury seems to be more or less hung on this one. I've read sputtering vitriol from disgruntled fans who miss the silo reverb and sweaty jam inclinations of It Still Moves era MMJ. Others, like myself, are embracing the ballsy progression-or at least reassignment- of the band's sound. To be sure, there are still southern tinged festival rockers like "Aluminum Park" and "Remnants," but Jim James and co. unabashedly conger a sexy, Prince-like vibe on a number of tracks including the title track and the quirky, theatrical "Highly Suspicious"--a track sure to delight some and confuse many. You'll just have to hear it.

Highlights: Evil Urges, I'm Amazed, Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Part 2

3. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago - Technically released in 07 but officially released in 08, this is the finest singer-songwriter album I've heard since Fionn Regan's End of History, and perhaps surpasses it in my mind. Delicate, intimate, but bursts of power and anguish texture this short but pleasing effort. I can almost see Just Vernon, through frosted windows, hunched over an aged acoustic and crooning by candlelight. Looking very much forward to seeing him open for Wilco in August.

Highlights: Flume, Skinny Love, The Wolves (Act I And II), Blindsided, etc...

2. Sun Kil Moon - April - Everything I could have asked for in a follow-up to the unimpeachable Ghosts of the Great Highway. Longer, a bit more sparse, and boasting enough nods to Neil Young to induce whiplash, the subject matter is ostensibly personal enough to make the listener feel voyeuristic. Mark Kozelek's vocals are warm and rich, and are nicely complement by the likes of Will Oldham and Ben Gibbard throughout the album. Kozelek is a masterful songwriter, and perhaps one of the most underrated of our generation.

Highlights: Lost Verses, Harper Road, Like the River, Tonight in Bilbao

1. Fleet Foxes - s/t - It's hard not to compare the Foxes to early My Morning Jacket; it is immediately evident that Robin Pecknald's throaty, soaring leads owe a lot to the likes of Jim James (or that guy from Molly Hatchet.) But after a few spins of Fleet Foxes, you'll recognize that the band is very much its own creature. Heavy on harmonies, light on fluff, and absolutely drenched in that Seattle airiness, Fleet Foxes have created the sort of debut record that is refined beyond the band's two years of existence. The band's papable West Coast sensibility is laced with a sort of medieval elegance that puts an original twist on the young band, whose early 2008 EP is just as worthwhile. And how fucking catchy is White Winter Hymnal?

Highlights: Sun it Rises, White Winter Hymnal, Ragged Wood, He Doesn't Know Why, Oliver James

Honorable Mention: Drive-By Truckers, "Brighter Than Creation's Dark"; Colin Meloy, "Sings Live"

Disappointment of the Year:

She and Him - Volume 1 - As I've previously posted, this album had a lot of promise. Zooey is the hip indie princess of the era, and M. Ward is the guy who wrote Post-War. I wouldn't say it was a cant-miss, but I was certainly feeling pretty good about the whole thing. Alas, it was a big stinky dud. Zooey's voice is lovely, but lacks any passion. I'd much rather hear Tom Waits barking like Satan than Zooey cooing like a talented eight-year-old forced to sing at a family reunion. A forgettable disc, but hey, she's still alright in my book. She was in Almost Famous!

Dishonorable Mention: Willie Nelson's new album. Can't even think of the name...sorry Willie. I'm sure he's crushed...

Best Live Experience:

I took the top photo. I wish I took the bottom photo as well.

TIE: Band of Horses, Charleston; Radiohead, Charlotte

How could Band of Horses live up to Radiohead, you ask? Well, as a band, they can't. I don't really think anyone can at this point. But BOH really impressed me, considering I'd seen then twice before, neither of which had particularly done much to impress me. But they've really honed their sound, expanded to six members (although probably only five were necessary), and lead singer Ben Bridwell has certainly embraced his role as lead singer of a preeminent indie band.

Now on to Radiohead. The word that always comes to mind when I think of the live experience: Elite. They are an elite band in every sense of the word. They've released at least a half a dozen brilliant records, and in doing so have become arguably the world's biggest band without compromising a damn thing. They've long been on the must-see list, and on May 9th I was able to scratch a satisfying check-mark by their name. Thom Yorke is certainly a presence, lifting his vocals high above the massive audience that number in the ten thousands, no doubt. Every member of the band is a master of his craft, especially Phil Selway, whose drumming was particularly impressive. The stage-show was the most incredible I've seen, with lights being cast over a number of large slats, creating all sorts of crazy reflective effects. Of course, the traffic was maddening but well worth it.

Honorable Mention: It has been a light year as far as concerts go, but I'll be seeing Tom Waits and The Hold Steady in the upcoming months!

The New To George Award:


The Reminder was a huge album last year, with more than a little help provided by the iPod commercial that featured the single 1-2-3-4. I finally picked it up this year after some prodding from a friend, and I must say I enjoyed it immensely. She's got an incredible voice and a real knack for crafting distinctly feminine songs that don't scare away the male demographic, a la Lillith Fair. Also recently picked up Let It Die, and though I enjoy the Reminder a bit more, it's a nice Sunday morning album.

The "Most Likely To Crack The Top 3 Before 2008 is Over" Award:

The Hold Steady and Bonnie Prince Billy. The latter is already released, the former I've already heard. I need a little more time with the Hold Steady's new one, Stay Positive, but I get the feeling that I'll be obsessed before too long. The BPB disc, Lie Down in the Light, is already out but I've yet to hear it. In fact, I'm naive to anything the Will Oldham has done, aside from his guestwork on April. But I'm eager to dive in, and I think by the end of the year he could unseat Feist in the above category.

Well, that does it. Lemme know what you think and certainly post your lists as you see fit!