by Brian Howe
w/ Andrew, Laura & Scott
Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill
January 30, 2012
Photography was not permitted at Jeff Mangum’s show in Chapel Hill on Monday night, increasing the sense that we were about to witness a rare, delicate artifact that could be damaged by bright lights. Yet the person that emerged seemed average, affable and mild, more like someone who had just woken up refreshed after being in suspended animation for 13-odd years than a wild-eyed hermit. He could have easily passed for an art-class extra on My So-Called Life, with lank hair hanging down like Snoopy ears below a puffy engineer cap—a doubly appropriate chapeau for the captain of the time-travel machine that UNC’s Memorial Hall had become.
Indeed, our coordinates were set for the late-’90s, just before Mangum mostly absconded from public and musical life after creating one of the most enduringly beloved indie albums ever, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Of the roughly 1,400 of us on the voyage, some were 30- or 40-somethings consummating a longtime dream, and maybe reminiscing a bit. Many others were undergraduates, perched on the edges of their seats to see a musician whose last record came out when they were small children.
Released by Merge Records in 1998, Aeroplane was a surreal pop and folk record with lyrics full of cryptic references to Anne Frank and steampunk machines, sung with overwhelming force. The record felt like visiting a burned-down and quite haunted carnival, thanks to Mangum’s affinity for slackened keys, tin-horn harshness, phonograph wobbles—really, all manner of penny-arcade cheapness.
But this uncanny style only partly accounts for Aeroplane’s seemingly permanent status as a holy relic of indie music. It’s accurate but misleading to say that the record appeared at the dawn of the Internet age: in fact, it was the abrupt twilight of hermetic ’90s indie rock. We cherish it as the beautiful last gasp of something bigger than music—a way of life, or of thinking about life. We got to revisit that magically transient moment, when ’90s indie ended two years early, on Monday night. For a little while, it was as if electroclash, dubstep and chillwave had never surfaced.
The evening began with an opening set by Andrew Rieger, Laura Carter and Scott Spillane—all part of the Elephant 6 Recording Company, a label and collective with strong roots in Denver, Athens and antique pop. All were also involved in the creation of Aeroplane, and their set bore ample evidence of the collective quirks that have come to sound Mangum-esque, thanks to his breakout sainthood. There was incredibly loud singing from Spillane, who looked like a trucker Santa Claus. There was pitchy beer-bottle slide guitar by Carter. There were off-kilter, hollowed-out, two-chord grinders, and there was tinker-toy timekeeping.
With a quirky instrumental palette dominated by guitars and horns, the ensemble drew material from their own bands—Elf Power and the Gerbils—and played covers of artists from Chris Knox to Randy Newman (a sour and forbidding “In Germany Before the War”). The Rieger-led Elf Power songs stood out as being R.E.M.-ishly professional among the weird, ramshackle excursions, marking him as the straight man of this merry carny troupe.
Any worries that Mangum’s set would be as loose and meandering were dispelled when he strode onstage, sat down in a ring of acoustic guitars, and ripped into “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2.” The set resembled the one captured on the disc Live at Jittery Joe’s, with fan favorites stripped down to voice and guitar but otherwise rendered with all the memorized nuances. In other words, the set was ideal for an artist who hasn’t meaningfully performed or recorded in so long. Perhaps in acknowledgement of the hefty price of the ticket, Mangum reeled through hit after hit with no filler—“Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone,” all the parts of “King of Carrot Flowers,” “Oh Comely,” “Song Against Sex.” The opening crew returned at intervals to supply iconic horn passages and other signposts, as Mangum traced the vocal contours he engraved in vinyl long age. His voice narrowed to a reedy keen, shot up in a vertiginous howl and drew out notes to Guinness Book-worthy lengths, as though it were a willful beast that, once released from its cage, only goes back in when it’s good and ready.
Mangum’s diction bent under the stress of his singing, vowels changing into other vowels, consonants washing out into groans. His voice pushed against the roof of his mouth as if trying to take his head off. That vibrato-resistant howl sometimes felt a little strange in the formal hall—occasionally, an innocent bystander might have wondered if Mangum was hard of hearing. “I know this is a strange place but you guys can yell at me,” Mangum said, searching for interaction. “It’s not like the punk rock days where you got spit on!” That’s just what happens when indie culture goes to the museum.
But it led me to try and imagine: If I walked into this cold, with no knowledge of Mangum’s legacy and no nostalgic attachment to his records, how would I feel about this guy, all alone onstage at Memorial, beating up a cracked guitar and shouting through his nose? But I couldn’t do it—once Neutral Milk Hotel’s oddities get into you, especially at an impressionable age, there’s no going back.