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Music Picks

Neutral Milk Hotel

Why I checked in to their post-grunge haven.

By Thom Wong 28 Feb 2008 |

Thom Wong is a drone in Her Majesty's Service. He can be found ruminating about the state of menswear at The Sunday Best.

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Musical nourishment.

While the memory of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain was still fresh in everyone's mind, grunge died a terrible, terrible death at the hands of Candlebox and Ugly Kid Joe (never mind the "grunge" of Collective Soul).

For a short, painstaking time, the music industry attempted to convince us that techno music from across the pond was the Next Big Thing. Who can forget the soothing sounds of "Smack My Bitch Up" by The Prodigy? How a band that once counted as a key member a person who just danced didn't make it is beyond me.

Then, on Feb. 10, 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel, essentially songwriter Jeff Mangum and an assorted cast of friends, released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Almost no one heard it. But it was the perfect album for a time without any distinct musical identity, for into this musical void came Jeff Magnum, all bending notes above trees and love songs to Jesus so torturous they seemed true. Mangum sounded out of his time, and would seem completely at home today on a bill next to Of Montreal or Animal Collective.

Or he would have if, scant months after the release of Aeroplane, the band didn' and never perform again.

In keeping with the true nature of a legend, Mangum has become a shadowy figure wrapped in mystery and online conjecture. (The vast proliferation of fan sites attests to his continued appeal.)

Neutral Milk Hotel would have provided the perfect soundtrack to my 24th year. I was in my second tour of substitute teaching duty, still the young rebel educationalist, busy warping the minds of elementary students with songs about putting bubblegum in their hair. Mangum showed me that such things could gain currency in the cultural milieu...or at least on critics' top-10 lists.

Unfortunately, I completely missed them. I didn't hear Neutral Milk Hotel until 2006 when my girlfriend sent me the title song in an e-mail, and chances are even if I had heard them before, I would have dismissed their music as "weird." (I was still listlessly clinging to Pearl Jam and U2.)

But right now, they sound perfect.

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