Well, these are things I was thinking about, anyway, when Neutral Milk Hotel and Elf Power played the Tower Theater last night. Oh geez, it’s a thousand words. Facial hair comes up a lot.
1. Wow. Look at that. The for-real and expanded lineup of NMH is playing again, right before my eyes. And they sound good. Not a note-perfect rendition of the records — each note of which is seared into my brain — but full, booming, glorious. The opened with “Holland, 1945.” Chills. Seriously. [Correction: They opened with "Two-Headed Boy" and "The Fool." I guess I remembered it wrong. Thanks commenter!]
2. Nice. It’s the motherfucker with the Amish Leprechaun Lincoln goat beard. It’s white now, but the dude is still rocking it. That bastard is all kinds of cool, and a killer horn player.
3. Jeff Mangum sounds good. Like a raspy, grizzled old angel.
4. Is Mangum wearing a fake beard? It’s hard to tell. Most of his face is consumed by shadow, thanks to a tightly affixed Castro ballcap.
5. The ’90s have had their share of reunion tours. Postal Service was pretty excellent. Oh, that was the ’00s. Breeders was good. Pavement was so nice I saw them twice. I’m not counting Superchunk because they never went away and have always been awesome and prone to long breaks. Bob Mould’s Copper Blue tour wasn’t real Sugar reunion, but damn it was amazing. Who am I forgetting? Anyway, this is the one I wouldn't have banked on ever happening.
6. Neutral Milk Hotel inspired so many bands it’s easy to forget what indie rock used to be like. Fuzzy guitars, French horns and trombones were a lot scarcer before In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.
7. When I saw Jeff Mangum play UPenn two years ago, he had no beard. Zero beard. This beard he has now is pretty long. Although. There was plenty of time to grow it between then and now. Beards don't take that much time or effort.
8. Julian Koster is an interesting man in an interesting hat. It's just very floppy and lopsided. To watch him play the singing saw, his bow fraying into a fuzzy fraggle with each stroke, is like peering into some weird twee Colonial Williamsburg, and he’s like one of those glass-blowing/metalsmithing reenactors and you stare at and think about how weird it is he does this for fun, and how beautiful. Sounds like cartoon ghosts.
9. Koster’s own band, The Music Tapes, is often too weird for most people. Too weird for me most of the time. He might do better as a kids’ show host in whatever layer of hell is reserved for bad hipsters.
10. The State-era Michael Showalter could parody Koster nicely.
11. Okay. Why would Mangum want to wear a fake beard?
12. Truth is, we don’t really know why he went away, but it can’t be easy being a working songwriter and hear that your last album — one you worked really hard on but expected only the normal indie rock returns of happy audiences and enough cred to make another one — was not just amazing but the most amazing album of all time. People coming up to you all the time saying you changed their life. Critics praising aspects you included only subconsciously, that you’re not sure you can control or repeat. Nerds puzzling over the meaning behind each twisting, vining line. I would understand the desire to hide yourself from all that.
13. But a fake beard would be hot and uncomfortable. It’s not worth it.
14. No new songs in the set. (I think. Only one was kind of unfamiliar to me, but I didn’t write down anything useful to google.) And that’s just fine. This was a chance to hear the hits and, for a lot of us, every one of these songs is a hit.
15. Are there people, like actual music fans, who still don’t know who Neutral Milk Hotel is? [Update: Jim Slade responds at Rock Town Hall.]
16. When those out-of-nowhere solo shows were announced, I asked the tour publicist a few times to let me interview Jeff Mangum, and got a bunch of polite rejections. The truth is, if he didn’t want to talk about where he went or why he went away during his years away from music, I don’t know what I’d talk to him about anyway. I’m a little afraid of it turning it into a Chris Farley Show sketch. Yes, some critics do sometimes dream about interviewing an artist while standing there enjoying the show. It's lame.
17. In the dawn of the CD-R age, I burned a mix for my cousin Nick and he couldn’t get into the Neutral Milk Hotel stuff. Said the “I Love You Jesus Christ” part was excruciating. I guess it kind of is, at first.
18. I was lucky enough to see Neutral Milk Hotel at the Pontiac Grille back in, I think, 1998. Yes, it was awesome.
19. I know they also played Silk City, in 1996 and 1997. I shoulda gone to those.
20. Merge Records, understandably didn’t realize Aeroplane’s potential when they first put it out, according to this thing.
21. I don’t have a link but I remember SPIN magazine calling In The Aeroplane Over the Sea the best album of the 1990s. This was way after the 1990s, of course, when the record went from cult-hit to everybody’s-all-time-favorite.
22. Two accordions at once, people. A regular shiny multi-buttoned-affair played by one guy and Koster working one of those bellows-y squeezeboxy things usually reserved for poor people dances on the lower decks of the Titanic.
23. That one weird toy saxophone that lady was playing is called a Zanzithophone. It’s an electronic MIDI type deal, and one of at least two instruments the band uses to make those bleating hurdy-gurdy/bagpipe sounds.
24. For the first few songs everybody was sitting politely. I think we were afraid of Mangum, or afraid of spooking him. Was he the Soup Nazi or a rare bird we felt lucky to spot on a branch? Eventually he said “stand up!,” and we all did. At once. Like robots. Like church.
25. Bear with me on this: Maybe his whole head is fake — papier maché, maybe? — and he is actually a foot shorter and staring out at us through eye-holes in the chest area. Probably not, though. There's no earthly purpose for that.
26. “City of frost-covered ain gels.” That line still gives me shivers. Also the one about “music and medicine you needed for comforting.” And all the other lines.
27. The show isn’t all Aeroplane. Two of On Avery Island’s most potent rock songs, “Gardenhead” and “Song Against Sex,” are on the set list. They sounded raw and still potent.
28. I remember doing a story on the Lilys, and Kurt Heasley told me about the time he was living or hanging out with Mangum and Robert Schneider of Apples in Stereo and they were all working on their debut records in the same house. That building, somewhere near Denver, should get its own kind of Colonial Williamsburg treatment one day. Maybe a whole NMH museum, where you can reserve time to flip through his notebooks and look at his fake beard under glass.
29. If you’re going to the show at Union Transfer tonight, do not try to tug his beard. Because you’re a decent human being. And because of course it’s a real beard.
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