Neutral Milk Hotel – Live at Jittery Joe’s (as Jeff Mangum)

This posthumous live album was recorded at a bar/coffee shop owned by a friend of Jeff’s with ALS, hence “Jittery Joe’s.” While I don’t share his, frankly, offensive sense of humour regarding terminal illnesses that result in uncontrollable spazzing ‘n’ twitching, I do enjoy hearing one of my favourite musicians sharing a well-played live set on acoustic guitar to what sounds like an audience of no more than fifty people, including a surprising heartwarming crying baby. This album features eleven songs, mostly from the last two albums, and one thirty-second intro. It’s happy times!

Ol Jeff sounds exactly the same live as he does on record. Discerning readers of my website might say “but Myles, that was a badly formed sentence back there.” To them I say this: “I’m really sorry and ashamed, but I don’t feel like rewriting it.” Discerning readers of my website might also say “but Myles, I thought you didn’t like live albums!?!?” To them I say this: “this live album is better than most for these reasons:

1. Non-album songs! There are three here: a bitter, upbeat short song called “I Will Bury You In Time” that’s apparently about “being a rock star, in a hole on the beach, making out,” and, more importantly, a beautiful, awkwardly honest Phil Spector song called “I Love How You Love Me.” Good god it’s pretty! “I love how your eyes close / Whenever you kiss me. / And when I’m away from you / I love how you miss me. / I love the way your kiss is always heavenly / But darling most of all / I love how you love me.” AHHHH! And lastly, the childish, trying-to-be-upbeat-but-obviously-depressing “Engine.” I’ll tell you what that’s about in a paragraph or so, but the key line goes, painfully slowly, “I am an engine and I’m rolling on.” It’s also the B-side of “Holland, 1945″ from the last album.”

2. Jeff’s adorable personality! Mainly expressed through his self-consciousness while talking. For examples:

“Is it tinny enough for everybody? I think it’s tinny enough….” *Starts show*

Jeff: I don’t know what to play next…
Audience member: Gardenhead!
Jeff: “Okay!” *plays “Gardenhead”*

“This is a happy song I wrote. It’s a children’s song. And um…I was living in seattle at the time and my life was pretty much…in the shitter. So I was pretty depressed. I just got off… Well it’s a long story. I’d just gotten off the train from Denver where I moved but then two weeks later moved back again because I was really confused about this girl. She was in Florida at the time. Well, she lived in Seattle but then she left Seattle because I left and she was all bummed out and couldn’t stand to be there, but I came back because I loved her… And in my depression I wrote this song and was happy for about five minutes and then my life went back in the shitter and so did the relationship…. But out of it I got a children’s song, so you know…things happen in funny ways. I’m not making any sense but Jilly wants to hear it so…I hope you like it just the same….” *Plays “Engine”*

(in the middle of “Up and Over We Go”) “this is the part where I didn’t write any lyrics!” *Continues song seamlessly*

3. Audience participation! Someone yells “make out with this young man!” People request songs and he plays them. The crying baby really adds a lot to “Oh Comely.”

And endquote.”

On the downside, of course, this is just a live album, and most of the album tracks aren’t really improved on. Both parts of the bitterly anti-semitic “Two-Headed [Jew] Boy” were already basically acoustic songs, “Where You’ll Find Me Now” is only worse for being a weird amalgam of itself and “A Baby For Pree,” “Jesus Christ” forward slash “Up and Over We Go” (later made into “King of Carrot Flowers Part 2 and 3” worked better as a joyous-sounding rave-up of weirdness, and “Gardenhead” was better as an alt-rocker. But it’s still all great! “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” is still amazingly sad! “Oh Comely” is still epic! The non-album tracks are classic! “Naomi” is still the worst song he ever wrote! I’m feeling generous, so this is a low 9. And yes, it is credited only to old man Man-Gum, but the band was basically just him all along, right? Right. Onward into a darkness littered with deceitful brightness!

9/10

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Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

I find it highly unlikely that anyone would visit this page and not know this album, but perhaps you are my unknown visitors from Brisbane. Hello, visitors from Brisbane, should you be reading this! I hope you enjoy the website! I’ll try and write more and be less dis-something. Oh please, oh dear.

Like most people aged 20-30 who write about music in their spare time for no worthwhile reason, I have a largish mancrush on Jeff Mangum, and this album is the main reason (also: he’s more talented, reclusive, and adorable than I am) why. The personality! The joy! The sadness! The ranting about Anne Frank that we all kinda ignore so that we can imagine he’s actually singing about something Pan’s Labyrinth-ish! Really, there’s nothing too musically complicated here – I’m pretty sure “Ghost” is only one chord all the way through, for instance, but it’s never simplicity, and he never does the same things twice, and all the mood changes and the lyrics… Oh, it’s like something from a world that has never existed in the first place, all childhood fantasies and barely coherent language that coalesces somehow into gestalts of wonder and beauty. Okay, okay okay. I’m at work. This will be boring.

Don’t trust people who don’t like this album. They’re probably either trying too hard to one-up your indieness or being contrarian. There’s no acceptable reason for someone not to be impressed and moved by the high notes at the end of acoustic tale-o’-childhood-woe “King of Carrot Flowers Part One,” eight-minute minor chord multi-part holocaust memorial “Oh Comely,” and the happy happy untitled Scottish waltz thing. That’s just to name a few! There’s an Eastern-European instrumental of shaaaaaaame! A desperately sad song of loss! An upbeat stomp of reincarnation! A short strumalong of a haughty communist’s daughter! And, the best part, there’s not a melody hear that’s unhummable and not a wasted chord throughout. It flows well, it amuses slightly, it’s the kind of album that has songs you sing with your friends when you’re happy and reference when you’re sad. Mangum’s adorable personality is all over the place here: he’s aloof and a little shy, but at once both huggable and downright impressive. Sure, after this album the minor fame he gained would go on to destroy him and make him never record again, but this is great, great, great.

10/10

Neutral Milk Hotel – On Avery Island

Well, this is going to be really, really, boring, but look, I haven’t written a review in over a week, because it’s too difficult to write about an album that I actually care about. I wanted to do it while drunk, so maybe it’d be at least entertaining, but that’s not going to happen because I never have drunken down time anymore (one of the great tragedies of the modern world). I’m also at work – I have a regular job now and it’s quite time-consuming. The order of thingdoing tends to go Work > Girlfriend > Friends > Sleep > Gym > Reading > Reviews, so there’s very little time for ol’ option six. And I’m good at economizing my time, there just isn’t enough of it.

So, in my lovely work hour, and without further ado, I present a wholly humourless, sober, and forgetful presentation of: The Apartments I Have Lived (In Toronto) – narrated by Myles Stocker and forcibly connected to the album On Avery Island by Neutral Milk Hotel.

1222 Shaw Street

My first ever apartment (of my own) ever, and a silly apartment it was. When I moved in there was a blood-stained mattress in the room – the previous occupant had been stabbed by her boyfriend – and I still slept on that mattress for a few days, until I bought my very first futon. The place was by Ossington and Dupont – even then not a bad area, but recently (at the time) it was so; once I was stopped by police while wandering around the empty recording studios to the West. I was nothing but an alcoholic at the time; I didn’t work, and I usually started as soon as I woke up. It was my first down time after my mom’s death, and what can I say…I used the payphone across the street half the summer for my human contact. I was dating Bonnie at the time, and while Bonnie was a cool enough girl, we were not particularly well-matched, and the whole summer was a blur of shouting and drinking and waking up hungover with the sunlight burning its way into my irises (I never did get proper blinds). But the place! It was a fairly nice place. $450 a month, if I remember correctly. There was a roof you could get to, and it was a rather scary roof in that the building was illogically shaped and the roof ended where you didn’t expect it to, particularly when it was dark. I watched the fireworks on Victoria Day with Alex and Daniel from that roof. I remember the guy below me used to play guitar on the porch, and he fucking hated me. Said he had to move his bedroom because I was too loud, and that I was “ignorant.” My friend Alex Easler offered to beat him up for me. If this apartment were a song on the album, it would have to be “You’ve Passed,” the most alt-rocky song on here. Angsty and lyrically gah-worthy, in the way where reading all the lyrics makes you regret being born.

3-180 Queen Street West

Located in a small pocket of affordability between the fashionable Queen West and the super fashonable Queen West West (and even more fashionable Queen West West West), this apartment was a tiny 3-bedroom above a Subway (the restaurant), up two flights of stairs. Gah. Well, the floors were crooked and the kitchen didn’t really work and it was way too hot and I could never sleep and bands would start playing outside my window at 3 in the morning, but this place was great, and precisley the last reason mentioned. Probably the one time I will even live truly in the thick of the urban soup – no quiet side streets or entrances without permahobos for me. I loved living here, even though the apartment was too narrow for my chair to be next to my bed. I worked a convenient shift – usually four to nine, and that allowed me to be all sorts of annoying to my roommates, one of whom was a hot lesbian. Yes, those were days of drinking until I had noise violations called on me, and yelling out the window at the busy street, and having my favourite bar be two doors East (a situation oddly replicated by where I am right now). Out the fire escape you could traverse to the roofs of many adjacent and adjacent-ish buildings and alleys in the area, even though I never did much more with that than move a mattress. This apartment would surely be: Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone,” the most accessible song here, a paranoid (but beautiful) two part indie rocker before the modern conception of indie-rock existed, and what Torontonian hasn’t fancied this the “city of frost-covered angels”? Probably ones who haven’t heard the song and are narcissitic citynerds, that’s who (most everybody). The “Gardenhead” part is way better, though.

22 McGill Street

A two-minute walk to Yonge and College yet somehow it still felt run-down. A boarding house with eight rooms but only one bathroom on an isolated street with a drug park next door. Great. I didn’t live here for long, not even long enough to move my bed, and I think the impact of it will mostly be felt in the following piece of what I might think was apocrypha was it not my own: August 31st, my very last night living in this place, having stayed up far too late in Kensington with my friends, I tripped while walking up the stairs and lost my key. So now it’s perhaps four in the morning, I’m drunk and stoned, I’m moving in the morning, and I’ve lost my way of entry to my bed. So I do what absolutely no normal person would do, and I pile some garbage bags in my doorway, and I go to sleep on them. My roommate lets me in around 7 (he worked at a nightclub), and the next day the people across the street warn my other roommate to be careful, because there was some sketchy guy sleeping in the doorway. The only other thing I did here was to spend many evenings drinking vodka and arguing about politics with Jessica, my roommate and coworker at Public Outreach. This apartment gets to be “A Baby For Pree,” reflected in how it’s all short and stuff, and echoes a much better song later in the album. Actually, maybe it’s just almost 4:30. Neat weird song, though!

C-70 Huron Street

An awesome and quirky one-bedroom in a coach house behind a much shabbier apartment building near Kensington. I lived here for a month, and I think it was all spent watching Lost and playing chess with Girlfriend, who she is at the time of this writing. Oh, the thinks you’ll think! The shower was pointy and could barely fit a person, the fridge was a miniature fridge, and the stovetop was all European all non-workingy. I subletted the place from a guy named Brahm who didn’t like to talk about what he did for a living, and there were boxes of wires and electronics of unknown purpose everywhere. It was spring and there was grass in front, and I had to walk to the scuzzy basement of the building in front of me to do laundry and the coach house itself was accessible only through one alley or another from main streets Spadina and College. For the sun I felt in the morning and the blooming trees that made me sneeze and my daily walking to nowhere in particular, “Marching Theme” is this apartment, exactly what it sounds like for 2/3rds of its length, then an alt-rock instrumental (well it’s all instrumental) with catchy riff and all at the end.

1-423 Spadina Avenue

Another place I lived in for a month, this was a nice apartment above a doomed restaurant called The Downtown Standard that I never went to. There was a skylight over my bed that made it nearly impossible to sleep in – what the hell do people with skylights in their bedrooms do? It was an unremarkable month, mostly populated with doubt over an oncoming relationship and lengthy evening conversations with my roommate Trish over her then off on-again-off-again. I read Ulysses while I was here, but mostly at the library because it was oppressively hot. Eventually Trish forced me out in favour of a friend of hers who would in turn ditch her (and I’m still bitter), but for reasons listed and surmisable from above (and for being a place where I had sex for the first time in a long while), this apartment is the cynical, upbeat WYSIWYG opener “Song Against Sex.”

14 Oxford Street

And so for one month I finally lived with my best friends in the market.  It was pretty boring. There were bedbugs in the next room and I lived in fear of them spreading to mine, but they never did. We had a roommate who stole from us relentlessly that I still loved because she was a no-good bulimic hipster; said roommate was reviled otherwise. I’m not sure what I did this whole month. For starting off promising and ending up kinda forgettable, this apartment is “Someone Is Waiting.” Congratulations, “Someone Is Waiting,” you’re basically an appendage of “You’ve Passed” that’s only your own song to pad the track list, not that that makes sense because the tracklist isn’t on the record!

5-14 Chatsworth Drive

This apartment was like living as a reasonable, respectable adult. A genuine one-bedroom apartment at Lawrence and Yonge, borrowed from my brother while he was in Afghanistan fighting the communists. I stayed here for a good eight months, including my first winter in the city since my childhood. Girlfriend and I got together in my kitchen over whiskey and the flu. Long hours watching MTV, hearing the subway rumble by at night, drinking drinking so much drinking, lost days and long days with a kicker of family bitterness. Why, it’s just like the fourteen minutes of swirly guitar buzz buzz “Pree Sisters – Swallowing A Donkey’s Eye” that ends the album! Also, in my mind it is often called “Pree Sisters – Suckin’ A Donkey’s Cock.” I’m not sure why my brain thinks it’s so funny, but it makes me grin every time! Also, speaking of comic books where nothing happens, every time i’m on the Sheppard line, i imagine the stations are so big because giants walk there at night. Oh, Sheppard line. Once I had a dream I opened a bar called Shephard Line Bar at Don Mills. God I’m uninteresting. Much like “Naomi,” a stupid, uncatchy, whiny love song! You suck, “Naomi”! I hate you and you make me angry for being by far the worst NMH song ever. Asshole.

476 Crawford Street

I lived with my best friends in a basement. You’d think it’d be cool, but I never saw them because I worked an awful job for Environment Canada at the literal border of the city, and my room was kinda the laundry room because I was poor, and the fridge buzzed all night and made me insane. “Three Peaches” is a slow, depressing song with stupid lyrics in general, except for a great part at the end where Old Man Mangum says “I’m so happy, I’m so happy, I’m so happy” in the MOST DEPRESSED VOICE EVER. Aw, it’s great.

1-1052 Bloor Street West

Where I live now (February 26, 2010). Small place, terrible roommates. Well, first I lived with Matt and Lea, who were very nice people, and I was my normal, irascible self, but now, oh my, since December, my life has pretty much been dominated by disdain and dislike at my current roommates, who I’ll get to ranting about soon. Foreshadowing occured the night I moved in when we were having a few beers. At the time I was making nearly minimum wage ($300/week), and barely able to get by. I shared this, as it as my common complaint to just about everyone I knew at the time. Later, I shared that I was Jewish, for I am at least half-Jewish, depending on how you look at it. His completely unironic response: “oh, so that’s how you get by on 300 bucks a week!”  …Yeah, so there hasn’t been time to reflect on how I can see the College streetcar from my window and the joys of inadequate heating. I’m never at home, because it’s so hideously uncomfortable. And hopefully I’m moving to a place with no roommates in a month. “On Avery Island.”

I should also point out that I lived at the Waverly Hotel for a week. But that’s a different album and about three lifetimes away. I’ll get to that.

I don’t know, I like this album a lot. It reminds me of times in my life, and Gummy’s voice is so reedy and uninimitable that I can help but be twinged, and the sounds are all nicely muted and I don’t know…I hate “Naomi” though. What is that? Really, what was he thinking? It’s awful! “Please please please don’t leave meeeeeeee”? AGH. Also, three of the songs are instrumental and one of them is an appendage and one of them is really short, so you’ll feel slightly ripped off. A solid 8. I hope you all learned something today.

8/10

Neutral Milk Hotel – Everything Is

Hey! I’m Myles and I do record reviews around here. Sometimes people ask me, they say, “Hey Myles, who’d you blow to get THAT gig?” and I tell them: “Anderson Cooper.” That’s also why I drink so much.

You see, people like you and me, us normal folks, we have to work and work to get our daily bread, but people like Jeff Man Gum, all they have to do is record a few seconds of their guitarists fiddling around with synthesizers and next thing you know they’re writing concept albums about the time they skullfucked Henry Rollins at an AC/DC show. Or was it Jimmy Rollins, third baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies? Either way you’re a prick. All I want to do is play with shells and you wouldn’t let me, you had to make me cry and then you laughed at me for crying. Thanks, Neutral Milk Hotel.

This is just an EP! It’s not that good! Aldershot? That’s a terrible name for a city! It sounds like a kind of pellet that would be used to shoot birds, probably a pellet with low mass and therefore high velocity, and I don’t even agree with hunting (I mean morally). That’s not fair. How can you say that to me? I’m your own flesh and blood! I remember a story I read when I was younger, perhaps or eleven years ago, perhaps a few more, there was a story called, I believe, “Gramma” (though I might be wrongly interpolating the title of a Stephen King story into my memory – you know how those crazy synapses work) that was part of a compilation of vaguely sci-fi-ish “horror” stories. These stories weren’t actually very good or scary, even as a kid I didn’t find them scary, or wouldn’t have had I been really little, or even all that sci-fi-ish. I think the first one was called “Ptolemy,” and it was about a nerdy boy named “Buford” (nicknamed “Ford”) that got close to a popular girl then found she had a time machine thing in her basement (naturally only nerdy boy understood it), then she set herself 24 hours forward to the future, only to find that she was in outer space due to the natural rapid motion of the planet  and solar system and galaxy. Another was called “Freeze Tag,” and it was about an unpopular kid who is always It at tag, who gets really mad at the constant teasing of his peers and starts actually turning them to ice (scaaary). Eventually he tags everyone, lastly the big bully, who falls to the ground and shatters as the final recess bell sounds. That sort of thing!

Anyway, this “Gramma” or -ish story, in it this kid’s grandma, who has rapidly become increasingly senile of late, starts seeing a day into the future! Oh noes! So the family thinks she’s gone crazy, see, and openly talks about putting her in a home in front of her. Only the day before the family was also around her (coincidentally!) and she started yelling at them for talking about putting her in a sanitorium! And one of the things she yells, if not she main thing she yells, is “You can’t do this to me! I’m your own flesh and blood!” And there’s this picture of a plump, irate 60-ish woman with surprisingly non-frazzled hair screaming with an incredibly hurt and irate look on her face. And that’s why I said those sentences earlier, some story I read once when I was like eleven. In case you’re wondering, at the end of the story there’s a huge rainstorm, and she starts talking about a flood, then gurgles and drowns, and the kid slowly realizes whattagwan, natch, and tries to tell his family that the river will overflow and drown them, but naturally his doting mother and stern father don’t believe him, so he packs up and leaves in the middle of the night, leaving his family to die. His life as a miserable addict orphan with severe abandonment issues isn’t exactly implied but you know it’s coming.

What’s it to this EP? Not much, actually. This is an embarrassing segue. But this EP isn’t too great! Four songs, all fuzzy and lo-fi (the notes don’t exactly bend and reach above the trees, if you itch what I’m scratching), and only one of them is any good. The title track is badly produced mid-90s alt-rock (stick a squealing pig in and thirty two guitar tracks on it and it could practically be a Smashing Pumpkins song) that doesn’t have the decency to get existential (the “Everything Is” refers to “everything is beautiful here” – lay off the drugs, drug drug druggy! Then there’s the uncatchy, go-nowherey “Snow Song Pt. 1” that nobody cares about, then there’s “Aunt Eggma Blowtorch,” a five-minute sound collage. Sound collages don’t really yank my crack, even if they’re kinda fun – whee, six discordant tappy notes on an out of tune piano! Then a kid talking about things he find on the beach! Then there’s some accordion sounds and two different drum beats! Et cetera, my friends, et cet er. A. The only real reason to get this is the Ab-Fab “Tuesday Moon,” a fuzzy (in the cute sense) and fuzzy (in the production sense) love song with nonsensical lyrics (“Your love is like a building reaching up towards the sky / And I just want to climb your tower / See you dressed like apple pie / Oh I’ll love you on a Tuesday / Oh I’ll love you on a Tuesday moon”) and a great distorted catchy riff, an aspect of NMH that went  somewhat unrecognized in their much-loved ramblings about Anne Frank and sad songs later on.

Also, there are a lot of sound snippets (these songs were clipped from earlier demo tapes and made comparatively accessible), not even counting the sound collage that is the EPs longest track. The only really good one is the little kid dream description at the start of “Tuesday Moon,” the only really good song, so everything works out! Not that the other songs are bad, just nothing worth conferring special attention on.

Say, that Gramma story reminds me of a fun joke to play at a party. You have to wait for someone to start telling a joke that you’ve heard before. Now, when whoever starts telling it, say at least once that you haven’t heard it before. Then, about thirty seconds before they say the punchline, act like you’re thirty seconds in the future and they they just finished the joke and you just heard  it for the first time: laugh uproariously, ruin the punchline for everyone else by saying (for example) “HAHAHA! THE DOG IS NAMED CHUNKS! HAHAHA! GOOD JOKE” and slap them on the shoulder. Then walk away before anyone knows what to make of you. Probably works best with people who aren’t actually your friends. Good joke, eh?

6/10