A Random Shuffle of Thoughts…

Let’s talk about Neutral Milk Hotel for a moment.

These guys (Jeff Mangum and some other guys, actually) only put out two albums: “On Avery Island”, and “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” and then disappeared. Since the later was released in 1998, the man himself and that particular album has gained in stature, partly because of the mystery surrounding Mangum’s mercurial nature and partly because “In The Aeroplane…” is such a damn fine album. I’ve spoken about it before, but here’s a synopsis from allmusic:

“Perhaps best likened to a marching band on an acid trip, Neutral Milk Hotel’s second album is another quixotic sonic parade; lo-fi yet lush, impenetrable yet wholly accessible, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is either the work of a genius or an utter crackpot, with the truth probably falling somewhere in between. Again teaming with producer Robert Schneider, Jeff Mangum invests the material here with new maturity and clarity; while the songs run continuously together, as they did on the previous On Avery Island, there is a much clearer sense of shifting dynamics from track to track, with a greater emphasis on structure and texture. Mangum’s vocals are far more emotive as well; whether caught in the rush of spiritual epiphany (“The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two and Three”) or in the grip of sexual anxiety (“Two-Headed Boy”), he sings with a new fervor, composed in equal measure of ecstasy and anguish. However, as his musical concepts continue to come into sharper focus, one hopes his stream-of-consciousness lyrical ideas soon begin to do the same; while Mangum spins his words with the rapid-fire intensity of a young Dylan, the songs are far too cryptic and abstract to fully sink in — In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is undoubtedly a major statement, but just what it’s saying is anyone’s guess.”

A marching band on an acid trip probably isn’t going to make you rush out and buy the thing, is it? I got caught up in the whole Elephant 6 recording collective, I’ll admit, snatching up albums by The Olivia Tremor Control, Apples In Stereo and Of Montreal at an unhealthy and wallet emptying pace about 4 years ago, and “In The Aeroplane…” was my first purchase. This album is so bizarre upon first listen that I almost didn’t give it a fair shake. But due to the more conventional (and I use that term very loosely here) songs I kept coming back to it. It wasn’t until I sat down and listened to the thing front to back that it started to make sense, that the genius slowly revealed itself.

The reason I am bringing this up again now is because I recently purchased “Q” magazine’s latest issue which features a reader’s poll on the 250 best albums released since 1985, and this particular, peculiar album not only made the list but made it all the way to #17 (I think—it could be #16). This marks the first time I have EVER seen this band make any list of any kind. It’s a cult classic that is finally coming of age. Bands like the Decemberists and Arcade Fire are citing it as a major influence. Like many bands that didn’t sell Jack-Squat when they were around (Velvet Underground, Big Star, etc) but slowly gained in stature and influence over the years, Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” is finally coming of age. If you’ve got an ear for the lysergic you owe it to yourself to search out this album.
Thought #2: Frontmen.

Who comes to mind when you think about the great frontmen (or, frontwomen) in rock and roll history? For me it’s the following:

Freddie Mercury
Mick Jagger
John Lydon
Elvis Costello (early)
James Brown
Jerry Lee Lewis
Iggy Pop
Alice Cooper
David Byrne
Stevie Nicks
Bryan Ferry
Joan Jett
Ray Davies
Nick Cave
Peter Wolf
Robin Zander
Elton John
Elvis Presley
Roger Daltry

From the flamboyant to the ultra-cool to the violently confrontational, these are the elite few who come to mind when I think of the great entertainers of rock and roll. A great frontman doesn’t necessarily equate to great music, of course. Bands like the Cars and Kraftwerk both put out fantastic albums but couldn’t be arsed onstage. It’s an important part of the package, but not THE most important part of the package. That will always remain the music itself.

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