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Tucson Weekly Got Milk?

Welcome to the New American Musical Transcendentalism.

By Roni Sarig

APRIL 6, 1998:  WHILE SURREALIST IMAGERY and kaleidoscopic melodies might imply hippie-damaged psychedelia to some, Neutral Milk Hotel's stunning new album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge) evokes a much wider span of signifiers--or else no particular time and place at all. Without ever sounding willfully eclectic, the record incorporates mournful acoustic strums and punk power chords, indie rock noise and exuberant organ-driven gospel, mariachi horns and uilleann pipes, singing saw and tape collage. Band founder and songwriter Jeff Mangum's creative vision seems not so much blurred by hallucinogens as made dizzy by the expansive wonders of the natural world. Or, as he triumphantly sings in the record's title track, by "how strange it is to be anything at all."

Mangum's current reality of calling cards, record store appearances, and tour vans (which will bring Neutral Milk to through Tempe on April 8) is fairly removed from what would be his ideal existence. But he's just visiting. This is neither where he came from nor where he plans on going. He came from Ruston, a town of 15,000 in northern Louisiana that's not really close to anywhere. Besides his summers spent at a progressive Episcopalian youth camp, Mangum's only link with the world outside Ruston (a place, he says, "where everyone plays their roles of being a redneck kid") came through the local college radio station. Along with some like-minded school friends, Mangum volunteered as a DJ at the station and gained access to sounds few of his classmates knew or cared about.

"All through our childhood we were completely flooded by underground music, and we were able to perceive it any way we wanted because there was no scene, no 'zines, no clubs, no kids," Mangum remembers.

"It was just this music coming out of this crazy world that we really didn't understand, because we only had our small southern town to compare it to. We found a lot of what seemed to be missing from our daily lives, growing up in a very closed environment. So we had a deep appreciation for all kinds of music, and when we started making our own music, there was a very special, magical quality to it."

While Mangum and his friends left Ruston and formed separate bands--Apples In Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control as well as Neutral Milk Hotel--they remain close collaborators in a musical collective/recording studio/indie label called Elephant Six. Unlike the Apples, who settled in Denver, or the Athens, Georgia-based OTC, Mangum drifted between those cities and a few others. Along the way he wrote and home-recorded, with the help of assorted friends, the songs that became Neutral Milk Hotel's debut album, 1996's On Avery Island. An exquisite low-fi mishmash of catchy tunes and weird sounds, Mangum describes the record as "an extension of my insular, four-track world."

Since then, Mangum has moved around some more and, along the way, recruited three permanent bandmates. In the Aeroplane, Neutral Milk's first release as a fully formed unit, is naturally quite different from its predecessor. Reflecting the band's growth, the album is both more musically cohesive and more focused on songwriting. As Mangum says, "It was a shared experience with the guys in the group, so it had a more lively quality to it. Plus I knew what I was doing in the studio and was a lot more confident."

There's also a certain pastoral, old-timey quality to In the Aeroplane--suggested in the music and lyrics as well as in the album's artwork--that more precisely reflects Mangum's long-held fascination with the early 20th century. Though not particularly dark, songs like "Holland, 1945," "The King of Carrot Flowers," and "Ghost" are haunted by the shadows of decades and centuries past.

"When I lived in Denver, I would constantly go to the public library and Xerox pages of old New York Times from like 1905," Mangum says. "And I was also really obsessed with the New Year's Eve celebrations that took place, in 1900, 1901. The way they would describe what was happening in Times Square, the language they used. There was a love affair with electricity and a love affair with the new age that has been lost."

Now that his band has blossomed into one of indie pop's strongest voices, Mangum is ready to return to the simpler, more rooted life he once had and the innocence of days gone by.

"Being in different places has been really good for me," he says. "But now I'm getting to where I want to settle down and live in the forest. I don't like the way we're so disconnected from nature. I'm going to move up to the Ozarks, and not have a telephone, or computer, or television, or newspapers. I never felt like I was part of the music scene world, but I definitely think that dropping out is something I'm going to have to do. I think I'd be happier that way."

Mangum's life in the woods apparently won't stop him from making music. In fact, it likely would provide further direction to his brand of art rock, which already seems to owe more to Emerson and Thoreau than to Emerson, Lake, & Palmer. From the aeroplane over the sea to the mountains of Arkansas, welcome to the new American transcendentalism.

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