NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL – ” The Collected Works “

Posted: February 25, 2023 in CLASSIC ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Neutral Milk Hotel Collected Works box set artwork Merge Records 2023

1996’s “On Avery Island” and 1998’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” give voice to the perennial spirit of youthful epiphany, of beginning to see the world clearly, to process and express it—no matter when you encounter them. For burgeoning Gen Z indie rock fans, a Neutral Milk Hotel phase is a right of passage. I stumbled across “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” early in my musical journey and quickly went from thinking “this guy’s voice sounds weird” to “there is no other music that matters.” From there, I dove into the underrated debut album “Avery Island”, the admittedly mixed bag “Everything Is” EP, and the wonderfully intimate live set “Live At Jittery Joe’s” .

Neutral Milk Hotel, the indie rock project led by the reclusive Jeff Mangum, have released a new archival box set, titled The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel”, for release on February 24th via Merge Records.

The vinyl compilation includes the group’s two full-length LPs, 1996’s “On Avery Island” and 1998’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”, as well as two 10-inch EPs, three 7-inch singles, and an exclusive 12-inch picture disc of the concert album Live at Jittery Joe’s, which features a 1997 performance by the band originally released in 2001.

“The Collected Works” marks the digital debut of several tracks initially included on a 2011 compilation self-released by Mangum, and expands on the previous offering with a double LP edition of “On Avery Island”, a remastered and extended track list for the 1994 EP “Everything Is”, and previously unreleased recordings for the singles “Little Birds,” “You’ve Passed,” and “Where You’ll Find Me Now.” A 7-inch single for “Holland, 1945” / “Engine” also comes in black vinyl with new artwork.

The elusive rarity “Little Birds” stands as the first preview of the Neutral Milk Hotel box set, with the collection touting a 1998 demo and an unreleased live recording from the band’s 2014 reunion tour. The song was written after Mangum confronted an anti-LGBTQ street preacher, and later gained mythic status in the band’s catalogue thanks to a long-circulated live recording from 1998.

So, I combed the internet for unreleased rarities and live demos; songs like “My Dream Girl Don’t Exist” or “Little Birds” became just as important as “King of Carrot Flowers.” Luckily, for the spoiled future fans of Jeff Mangum’s one-of-a-kind tunes, all of these threads have been brought together for a long-overdue digital and vinyl release.

There are fans of Neutral Milk Hotel who will argue that their 1996 debut, “On Avery Island”, is the better of Jeff Mangum’s two official LPs. It’s certainly less spoiled by exposure. “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” thematic ambitions can make it feel bigger than any one person: It’s an album about death and loss and evil, and about how human beings keep searching for the good in ourselves despite our long history of being awful to each other. “On Avery Island” scope is narrower. Mangum sings about himself and the people he knows. Instead of mountaintops and oceans, he sets his songs in bedrooms and public parks.

Neutral Milk Hotel Collected Works box set 2023 Merge Jeff Mangum In the aeroplane over the sea on avery island little birds single vinyl record LP

In the mid-’90s, Jeff Mangum had moved into a house in Denver where he had dreams of women in fur coats drinking champagne, yelling at him to get out of their house. During a snowy Colorado winter, the Louisiana-born songwriter and his childhood friend Robert Schneider set about recording what would become Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut album. They worked feverishly, going out to smoke cigarettes when they hit a roadblock, until, in May of 1995, they had a finished record. The North Carolina indie label Merge scooped up the young band and quietly released “On Avery Island” the following March.

The record industry was in the best shape it’s ever been in, and even majors were willing to take chances on messy, ramshackle bands that took cues from the 1972 psych-rock compilation Nuggets. Neutral Milk Hotel didn’t set their sights on breaking through to the mainstream. They subsisted happily as part of the Elephant 6 collective, a group of psychedelic musicians based first in Denver and then in Athens, Georgia, who played unlikely instruments like the singing saw and the accordion in each other’s bands. Alongside Neutral Milk Hotel, the collective included the Apples in Stereo, the Olivia Tremor Control, and Elf Power.

“On Avery Island” earned a handful of positive reviews from music magazines, and after its release, Mangum got a band together and toured steadily. In February 1998, Merge released the band’s second album, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”, expecting to move about 7,000 copies. It sold modestly at first, receiving warm reviews in the music press. Mangum kept touring, and the band’s profile grew; fans showed up at NMH gigs knowing every word to his songs, and often sang them louder than the frontman did. Music magazines started asking for interviews, and Mangum found that he hated explaining himself. By the end of 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel turned down the opportunity to open for R.E.M. Disturbed by the unexpected success of his project, Mangum withdrew from music and spent a few years in a state of panic. Neutral Milk Hotel vanished almost as soon as it had arrived. That the band was in stasis and Mangum gone from the public eye only added to the record’s mystique. It was just a few years old, but it felt like an artifact unearthed and shared covertly among those in the know.

“Aeroplane” might be an offbeat record—its unwieldy title, its songs about cum and communism, Mangum’s brassy, abrasive voice—but its songs are simple and tuneful enough to be played at expensive weddings. In 2005, the teen drama “The O.C.” featured a cover of the album’s title track in an episode, causing a mild uproar over possessive fans who didn’t want normies in their midst. But the word was already out, and “Aeroplane” became something of a sensation, a living record of an extinct band.

“On Avery Island” is the better of Mangum’s two official LPs. It’s certainly less spoiled by exposure, and certain songs, like “You’ve Passed” and “Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone,” easily rank among NMH’s best. In “Gardenhead,” Mangum sings about a roller coaster that crashes into the ocean, and there’s a B-side from 1996, a fan favourite, called “Ferris Wheel on Fire.” “On Avery Island” is a theme park plopped down on a city: “On Avery Island” served as a throttle between “Aeroplane’s” broadening pop appeal and the sprawling collection of bootleg concert tapes that could be easily snapped up via file-sharing programs. It offers a glimpse of a pivotal songwriter in transition, moving from making shoddy cassettes for his friends to making art rock that spoke to untold thousands of lonely teens listening to pilfered mp3s late into the night.

The seeds of “Aeroplane” can be heard scattered throughout “On Avery Island”. Mangum already balanced the gross and the transcendent in his lyrics: On “A Baby for Pree,” he imagines a pregnant woman full of bees who spews infants until they fill up her bedroom. Throughout the course of the rambunctious, trombone-heavy opener “Song Against Sex,” the speaker kisses another boy while the apocalypse sets in, complains about the porn he hates and the drugs he won’t take, and then lights himself on fire.

Certain songs hit closer to the bone than anything on “Aeroplane”. “You’ve Passed” envisions a woman’s spirit coursing away from the hospital where she’s just died, while “Three Peaches” articulates an uncanny emotional register between mourning and celebration as Mangum sings to a friend who survived a suicide attempt. It’s one of the hardest NMH songs to endure; Mangum sings from the very bottom of his diaphragm as if dredging up muck from beneath the earth’s crust, dragging out the words “I’m so happy” while sounding like he’s about to keel over with grief.

There are love songs here, too, like the effervescent “Naomi” and “Leave Me Alone,” and there are spooling, chaotic instrumental tracks: “Marching Theme,” which rolls along on a breathing drone, and the 14-minute closer “Pree Sisters Swallowing A Donkey’s Eye,” which rides the album’s final triumphant burst out into a slow-growing silence. The abrupt transitions between perfect pop melodies and gaseous balls of noise lend the album a certain wildfire charm. It has less varnish than “Aeroplane”, and that raw face makes it a little easier to see into the mind of the guy who wrote it.

“Aeroplane’s” thematic ambitions can make it feel bigger than any one person: It’s an album about death and loss and evil, and about how human beings keep searching for the good in ourselves despite our long history of being awful to each other.

Neutral Milk Hotel would become a beacon for a glut of aughties bands who never quite achieved Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Wolf Parade, and Beirut all sprang up on the ground Mangum had cleared, mixing boisterous vocals with antique instrumentation.

Full Contents:

  • In the Aeroplane Over the Sea LP is 11 tracks pressed 33RPM to black vinyl in a gatefold jacket + printed insert for full album download.
  • On Avery Island 2LP is 12 tracks pressed to double black vinyl in a gatefold jacket + 11 x 11 printed insert + printed insert for full album download. Sides A, B and C pressed 45RPM. Side D pressed 33RPM.
  • Live at Jittery Joe’s 12” picture disc is 11 tracks pressed 33RPM to a full color picture disc in a heavyweight poly jacket + printed insert for full album download.
  • Ferris Wheel on Fire 10” is 8 tracks pressed 45RPM to black vinyl in a printed jacket + postcard insert + printed insert for full album download.
  • Everything Is 10” is 7 tracks pressed 45RPM to black vinyl in a printed jacket + postcard insert + printed insert for full album download.
  • “Little Birds” 7” is 2 tracks pressed 45RPM to black vinyl in a printed jacket + printed insert for full album download. 7” housed in a heavyweight poly jacket.
  • “You’ve Passed” 7” is 2 tracks pressed 45RPM to black vinyl in a printed jacket + printed insert for full album download. 7” housed in a heavyweight poly jacket.
  • “Holland” 7” is 2 tracks pressed 45RPM to black vinyl in a printed jacket + printed insert for full album download. 7” housed in a heavyweight poly jacket.
  • 2 folded posters, each printed one side and each 24” x 24” when flat.
  • 1 postcard, printed front and back with box set information and sized 3.75” x 5”
  • All of above assembled in a 12″ two-piece telescoping case-wrapped box.

The box set arrives February 24th,

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