Old Music Tuesday: Neutral Milk Hotel

Watch a video for 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'

When I moved to Athens, GA in the early '90s it felt like I'd missed out on everything that was cool about the music scene there. R.E.M. and the B-52s had already made their biggest mark on rock, and while plenty of smaller bands were still banging away in the local clubs, there wasn't anything particularly groundbreaking coming out.

All that changed by 1996 or so with The Elephant 6 Recording collective, a large group of musicians with a shared love of lo-fi, neo-psychedelia. It spawned bands like The Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, Of Montreal, and The Apples in Stereo, all of them churning out remarkably rich, melodic soundscapes that left me wide-eyed.

It was a magical time to be in Athens. Each live show or new E-6 album that came out made the town crackle with excitement. Many of us felt like we were witnessing a creative milestone... at least something special and memorable.

Of all the E-6 bands, for me, none were more magical than Neutral Milk hotel and the songs of frontman Jeff Mangum. Mangum's music has been called "folk fuzz" with a sound like "a marching band on an acid trip." But for me it was just inspired, sonic bliss.

NMH's first album was the largely overlooked On Avery Island in 1996. It wasn't as interesting as what the other E-6 bands were doing. But then in 1998, ten years ago this month, came the truly breathtaking LP In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Jeff Mangum's epic masterpiece.

Aeroplane was (and still is) grand but intimate. The acoustic guitars were so compressed and crunchy it felt like each song was about to burst apart at the seams. But it was Mangum's lyrics that made me feel like I was soaring through the stratosphere. Though some of the songs were twisted and sad, like "Two Headed Boy," others, like the title track, were filled with so much hope and beauty I truly felt like I'd discovered in them the meaning of life.

Okay. That's a little corny. But it's also true. Whenever I'm about to take a nose dive into some existential downward spiral I just remember these lines: "And when we meet on a cloud, I'll be laughing out loud. I'll be laughing with everyone I see... can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all..." ...and suddenly everything is better.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

"Aeroplane" taught me to love music.

Sent by Angela | 4:54 PM | 2-19-2008

I think it's the one of the best rock albums of the past 20 years. "Ghost" gives me the chills. Wish I could have seen them. Olivia Tremor Control was also great.

Sent by DK | 5:31 PM | 2-20-2008

Come back home Robin, Athens is still awesome. The Whigs, Madeline, Hope for agoldensummer...need I mention the Drive-By Truckers? Sure, there isn't a sense of scene coherence like there may have been in the E6 heyday, but isn't that more a feature of hindsight? I'd say there's more than a show's worth of tunes from Athens...but then you'd have to do Austin, Portland, and on and on.

I was auditioning CDs today and came across one I immediately loved. A band called Pacific UV. I'm definitely putting them on Second Stage. But I was almost disappointed to find that they're from Athens, GA, as are so many bands we love. I don't want people thinking we have a thing for Athens... I picked the band blindly without knowing a thing about them. It's just a fact... the town produces a lot of great music. I have no idea why. -- rh

Sent by Dave | 9:28 PM | 2-20-2008

for me, in the Aeroplane is the end all be all of concept albums.

Sent by Maddie | 10:41 AM | 2-21-2008

Sadly, I have missed the beauty of the E6 in Athens. I wish the 40 watt was filled with students eager for a taste of music such as "Neutral Milk Hotel", but I am mistaken. The Of Montreal concert ( a very exciting time for the band, might I add) consisted of strangers who knew nothing of the band throwing energy drinks at openers. I am waiting for Athens to bring me the love it has obviously brought you, but until then, I plan on listening to the E6 albums that are timeless.

Sent by Emily Estes | 1:41 PM | 2-21-2008

Actually, Pacific UV are from Portland, OR. They started in Athens, but moved west three years ago.

Sent by Mike | 5:13 PM | 2-29-2008

Thanks for posting this! I came to the NPR site to check out the Wilco concert, saw the Top 5 Desert Island list and wondered "Neutral Milk Hotel???". After reading the article, watching the video, I went to eMusic.com to look for the band's music.
After a couple clicks, I've purchased and downloaded two albums & an EP by a band that I'd never heard of 20 minutes ago.
This is how the internet can save music... if the record companies let it. I've got an iPod full of purchased music from bands that I'd have never known if it wasn't for the NPR All Songs podcasts.

Sent by Dean | 6:52 PM | 3-4-2008

I have to agree with Angela, this band taught me what bliss there is to be found in music and if it weren't for them I probably never would've bothered looking. So here I am four years after hearing it, getting my degree in acoustics so I can drown myself in sounds as beautiful as the songs Jeff Mangum writes... Let's just hope people keep recording great music

thank you Jeff Mangum
thank you E6
and thank you npr

Sent by Zachary | 1:11 AM | 8-7-2008

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor