Neutral Milk Hotel, T. Bone Burnett, and the sound of sound

Neutral Milk Hotel, T. Bone Burnett, and the sound of sound

Lift the lid off of the top of the new Neutral Milk Hotel box set, and there’s the cover of the band’s 1998 album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea—all big, bold and square in its 12-inch LP form. And why not? The main reason why Neutral Milk Hotel mastermind Jeff Mangum can find buyers for a pricey vinyl-only box set is because of the enduring popularity of Aeroplane, an album that has only grown in stature over the past 14 years as new waves of indie-rockers have tried to replicate its trembling sound and ecstatic energy. In The Aereoplane Over The Sea is one of those touchstone records: the culmination of everything the upstart Elephant 6 recording collective was about in the mid-’90s, and a proxy triumph for the scenesters who pored over the 7-inch racks at their local indie record shops. The album has a spiritual fervor that has held up well, whether on cassette, CD, or vinyl. 

It’s also not why most Neutral Milk Hotel fans will buy this set.

That’s because of the other major reason for In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’s enduring mystique: Mangum’s ensuing reclusiveness. Neutral Milk Hotel toured behind the album, and Mangum has played a few shows in recent years, but for the better part of a decade, Mangum has largely stayed out of the public eye, releasing no new Neutral Milk Hotel music and not much in the way of old Neutral Milk Hotel music. The big draw of this box set is its 15 previously unreleased songs, scattered across 10-inch and 7-inch records that are packaged just beneath the 12-inches of Aeroplane and the band’s 1996 LP, On Avery Island. (According to the NMH site selling the set, those unreleased tracks will be available as “pay-as-you-wish” MP3s at some point, but for now, the vinyl’s the only way to get them.)

Are these songs worth the $88 (plus shipping) that this set costs? Speaking as a fan, I’d say yes. The 1994 Everything Is EP has been expanded to include the fuzzy and moody “Here We Are (For W. Cullen Hart)” and “Unborn,” both of which frame Mangum’s melodic gifts and psychedelic bent in more stripped-down arrangements, reminiscent of the work of Mangum’s E6 pal/partner Robert Schneider. (The 10-inch also includes the screechy, arrhythmic “Ruby Bulbs,” which doesn’t sound much like Neutral Milk Hotel at all.) The set adds a 7-inch with more direct and forceful four-track versions of On Avery Island’s “You’ve Passed” and “Where You’ll Find Me Now”; a 7-inch with two versions of the lone post-Aeroplane song “Little Birds” (a dark murder ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on any of the recent Decemberists albums); a replica of the picture-disc 7-inch of “Holland, 1945”; and another 10-inch called Ferris Wheel On Fire, containing different versions of a couple of Avery tracks and a handful of surprisingly strong pre-Avery songs, such as the barreling “Oh Sister” and the vividly, catchily rageful  “I Will Bury You In Time.” All in all, this is a generous package, considering the 12-inches as well.

But then I have to confess that I’m inclined to be delighted by such a product, because I’ve developed an addiction to box sets in my middle age. Thanks to my job, I get most of the new CD and DVDs that I want delivered to my mailbox at no cost to me, which leaves all the dough I used to blow at the record shop just sitting in my bank account, itching to be spent. So when I hear that there’s a big multi-disc box set of The Beach Boys’ Smile for sale, or bonus-filled sets of Pink Floyd’s classic albums, I reach for my credit card, looking to recapture some of that pop-consumerist mania of my youth. (Sometimes I get burned. I wish now I hadn’t spent all that money on the “immersion” sets of The Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here, neither of which had enough new material to justify the price tag.)

I’ve also become a vinyl nostalgist in recent years. I won’t use the word “fetishist,” because I’m not enough of an audiophile to make the case for vinyl records over CDs (or even CDs over MP3s). But I have a turntable hooked up to the stereo in our front room, and it’s quite pleasant to work in there, sprawled on the sofa with my laptop, staring out our bay window while listening to some of the handful of records I’ve held onto over the years. I’m sure that when I was in my 20s I had more than a thousand; now I’m down to about 200, and about a third of those are records I inherited from my dad. So part of the reason I like to buy new vinyl releases is just to have something else to spin.

But I’ve also noticed that some records do sound better on vinyl. I’m not entirely sold on new albums getting vinyl releases, because I’m not sure that they’re being mixed properly for the format. For example, I was excited about buying the vinyl version of Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs, and was disappointed to find that the mix was so loud that it sounded like a muddy mess on my system (which, I’ll grant, is hardly high-end). On the other hand, about a year or so ago I put on my old vinyl copy of The Police’s Ghost In The Machine, and while I’ve found that The Police’s music hasn’t held up that well in general, Ghost In The Machine sounded absolutely fantastic on vinyl, sporting a tactile quality that enhances the album’s moody, spacey sound. I’ve found that to be true of a lot of my early-’80s new-wave albums: Haircut 100, The Woodentops, Marshall Crenshaw, The Rave-Ups, etc.

My vinyl collection is also the only way I can even hear some of my music, as is the case with Game Theory’s Real Nighttime, The Big Shot Chronicles, and Lolita Nation, none of which are currently available on CD. This is also true of T-Bone Burnett’s 1982 Trap Door EP and his classic 1983 album Proof Through The Night, both of which I bought off eBay once I realized that their only CD release had been via the limited-edition Rhino Handmade label, and that it would cost me upwards of a hundred bucks to get my hands on them that way. (Through eBay, I paid less than $20, shipping included, for both on vinyl.) 

Proof Through The Night was a big deal once. It came out around the time I first started paying attention to rock criticism, and it appeared on a lot of year-end lists back in ’83, even though none of the stations I listened to—not even college radio—ever played any songs from it. But Burnett has reportedly never liked the sound of the album, which does have something of an ’80s rock-radio sheen, with booming kick-drums worthy of an early Bryan Adams record. This explains the limited-edition CD, and it explains why the Burnett anthology Twenty Twenty features re-recorded versions of most of its Proof material.

I’m sympathetic to Burnett’s position—to a point. I think the recording trends of the ’80s forced some good artists into uncomfortable places, sonically. That started happening in earnest around 1985, when Trevor Horn began convincing platinum-level rockers to add synthetic orchestral stings to arena anthems. By contrast, there’s a cleanness to early-’80s mainstream rock that I find appealing—more like the Eno/Hannett/Fripp/Lillywhite-produced post-punk and art-rock of that same era.

But if Burnett thinks that the slicker-sounding Proof Through The Night songs sound jarring when placed alongside the rootsier material that makes up the majority of his output, I respect his aesthetic choice. I just wish he’d make the album more widely available in its original form. As someone who listens to music as much for its historical qualities as for its quality-quality, I hate to see the production choices of the past written out of the story. The songs are what matter ultimately, in that the songs are the product that an artist schleps around for the rest of his or her career, from stage to stage. But the production says something about how the artist—or the label—tried to sell those songs to people who might not otherwise be inclined to buy it.

As for the Neutral Milk Hotel box set, one of the reasons I think I’m so fond of it is because vinyl was so integral to the indie-rock experience in the mid-’90s. It’s how many of us found our way to bands like Superchunk, Pavement, and The Apples In Stereo: via 7-inches and EPs. In fact, it’s because of that handmade, passed-along-from-friend-to-friend nature of indie rock that I initially underrated In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. I dug up my original review of the record, and while it’s a positive write-up, it’s not any more enthusiastic than my reviews of Sixteen Deluxe and The Karl Hendricks Trio in the same column. I certainly didn’t greet the album as though it were a new classic; it was just another energetic, tuneful indie-rock record to me at the time. I also saw the band in concert on the Aeroplane tour and didn’t think anything of it. It was a good show—in the basement of a sushi restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia—but I had no idea that Neutral Milk Hotel was about to disappear for a decade-plus.

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is significant enough a record that Mangum—or the band’s label, Merge—could’ve gone the “Sony Legacy” route, putting it out on a remastered CD with bonus tracks, live performances, and maybe even a DVD. And that would’ve been welcome in its own way. But vinyl just feels right for these songs. It suits the band’s sound—so thick with vibrations—and it recalls the era and scene that spawned these albums. Sonically and physically, it’s a trip back time when fans had to dig past the big releases in the front of the store to find what was buried a little deeper.

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