Neutral Milk Hotel

  • Neutral Milk Hotel
  • Invent Yourself a Shortcake [tape] (Elephant Six) 1991 
  • Beauty [tape] (Elephant Six) 1992 
  • Everything Is EP (Cher Doll) 1992  (UK Fire) 1995  (Orange Twin) 2001 
  • Hype City [tape] (Elephant Six) 1993 
  • On Avery Island (Merge) 1996 
  • In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge) 1998 
  • Orange Twin
  • Orange Twin Field Works Volume One (Orange Twin) 2001 

Of the original trinity of Elephant 6 bands — the others being the Apples in Stereo and the Olivia Tremor Control, all started by a clique of high school friends from Ruston, Louisiana — Neutral Milk Hotel (which operates out of Athens, GA) has always been the odd band out. Where the Apples’ hyperactive paisley pop and the Olivias’ dreamlike psychedelia are clearly of a stylistic piece, singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum (who for all intents and purposes is Neutral Milk Hotel, though an ever-shifting cadre of pals help him out) instead favors an odd blend of lo-fi noise and singer-songwriter delicacy, a combination he calls “fuzz-folk.”

On Avery Island, recorded on a four-track in Apples leader Robert Schneider’s bedroom, is an often gentle but sometimes harrowing album that at points recalls everyone from Nick Drake (“You’ve Passed”) and the Green Pajamas (“Naomi”) to Alexander “Skip” Spence (“Three Peaches”) and a particularly unhinged Mekons (“Song Against Sex”) — a fragmented mess capped by (why not?) “Pree/Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye,” a 14-minute freakout indie-rock approximation of an Indonesian gamelan orchestra.

The far superior In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is one of the finest Elephant 6 releases. From the creepy faux- Victorian cover art to the suite-like structure of the album, everything on In the Aeroplane fits together much more snugly than the disjointed On Avery Island. The group, a relatively stable four-piece with guests, creates a warped but oddly beautiful folk-pop, painting Mangum’s strummy acoustic guitars and appealingly rough-edged vocals with horns, reeds, bagpipes, banjo, musical saw and unidentifiable noises to create dynamic, emotionally unsettled songs like the anxious “Two-Headed Boy” and the soaring but still fretful “Holland, 1945.”

Mangum self-released three cassettes under the Neutral Milk Hotel name in the early ’90s; they now change hands for ridiculously inflated sums. On Avery Island was preceded by the three-song EP Everything Is, which was reissued in 2001, with a bonus fourth track, on the Orange Twin label. (Two songs from the EP, “Everything Is” and “Snow Song, Part One,” appear on the UK CD of On Avery Island.) Also under the Orange Twin name, Mangum released Orange Twin Field Works, Volume One, an odd album of fuzzy-sounding live recordings he made at the National Folk Festival in Bulgaria. Mangum himself doesn’t appear on the album, but the way he mixes the traditional Bulgarian performers (often layering two or more separate performances together or adding dub-style effects) makes the album an amusing curio for adventurous fans of Eastern European music.

[Stewart Mason]