Biography by Jason Ankeny
The self-described "fuzz-folk" project Neutral Milk Hotel was one of the primary outgrowths of the Elephant 6 Recording Company collective, a coterie of like-minded, lo-fi indie groups -- including the Apples (in stereo), the Olivia Tremor Control and Secret Square -- who shared musicians, ideas, and sensibilities. While ranging in sound and concept from solo acoustic work to full band performances, Neutral Milk Hotel essentially remained the work of Jeff Mangum, a singer/songwriter from the remote town of Ruston, LA. Ruston was also home to Robert Schneider (later of the Apples), as well as William Cullen Hart and Bill Doss (who formed the Olivia Tremor Control); throughout high school, the aspiring musicians -- all influenced by the likes of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Zombies, Pink Floyd, and Sonic Youth -- exchanged home recordings and played in each other's bands.
Neutral Milk Hotel first took shape in 1989 as a noise rock trio that played its debut gig at a local laundromat; a year later, Mangum, Hart, and Doss moved to Athens, GA, to form the group Cranberry Life Cycle, which later became Synthetic Flying Machine (and ultimately the Olivia Tremor Control) after Mangum's departure. In 1993, he and Schneider relocated to Denver, CO, where Schneider soon founded the Apples (in stereo). Eventually, Mangum gravitated to New York and resumed recording under the Neutral Milk Hotel aegis. After a series of singles and privately released cassettes, including Invent Yourself a Shortcake, Beauty, and Hype City, Mangum travelled back to Denver to record the critically acclaimed 1996 album On Avery Island on Schneider's four-track machine( On Avery Island Review: Like their Elephant 6 labelmates and kindred spirits Olivia Tremor Control's Music From the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle, Neutral Milk Hotel's debut, On Avery Island, is an inscrutable concept album, a chronicle of an insular world told in a remarkably universal language. A fuzzy masterpiece of experimental lo-fi recording, the album wraps its ragged pop songs in ribbons of loops, marching-band squawks, and Casio noodling; the opener, "Song Against Sex," is as much a manifesto as a kickoff, a self-propelled marvel hopped up on rapid-fire wordplay and a stunningly ramshackle melody punctuated by bloated trombone moans. Throughout the record, Jeff Mangum's wheels threaten to fly off at any time -- his songs are cryptic and crazed, his ideas fast and furious, and together they force the home-recording concept out of the basement and into a brave new world.); in the the spring of 1997 he again returned to Colorado to begin work on the follow-up, the brilliant In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (In The Aeroplane Over The Sea Review: Perhaps best likened to a marching band on an acid trip, Neutral Milk Hotel's second album is another quixotic sonic parade; lo-fi yet lush, impenetrable yet wholly accessible, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is either the work of a genius or an utter crackpot, with the truth probably falling somewhere in between. Again teaming with producer Robert Schneider, Jeff Mangum invests the material here with new maturity and clarity; while the songs run continuously together, as they did on the previous On Avery Island, there is a much clearer sense of shifting dynamics from track to track, with a greater emphasis on structure and texture. Mangum's vocals are far more emotive as well; whether caught in the rush of spiritual epiphany ("The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two and Three") or in the grip of sexual anxiety ("Two-Headed Boy"), he sings with a new fervor, composed in equal measure of ecstasy and anguish. However, as his musical concepts continue to come into sharper focus, one hopes his stream-of-consciousness lyrical ideas soon begin to do the same; while Mangum spins his words with the rapid-fire intensity of a young Dylan, the songs are far too cryptic and abstract to fully sink in -- In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is undoubtedly a major statement, but just what it's saying is anyone's guess.).
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