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Neutral Milk Hotel in SLC: They still got it

By Scott E Hall
On April 8, 2014

’90s indie rock legend Neutral Milk Hotel hit up Salt Lake City as part of their first tour in nearly 15 years last week. And might I add, it was freaking awesome.

Here’s a brief history lesson: Neutral Milk Hotel hasn’t recorded anything since 1998. They made some excellent lo-fi music throughout the 1990s. Their 1998 album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” has been hailed by many critics, myself included, as a classic. All of their songs are written by singer/guitarist Jeff Mangum and most songs incorporate WWI-era European instrumentation. The band’s lyrical themes are mystical and memorable. Although it broke up over a decade ago, this Georgia-based band has developed a cult following that has only grown for all these years. I am honored to have attended their concert at The Depot in SLC last week.

No photos were allowed at the show, at the band’s request. I’ll have to take you there with words. Mangum stood onstage in a ball cap and an ugly brown sweater that he probably picked up at a thrift shop. His facial hair was a cross between a “Duck Dynasty” character and an unhygienic mountain hermit. Horns player Scott Spillane had a white Santa Claus beard — as well as a Santa Claus body type — and the energy of a kindergartner. Multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster looked like an overly pale, skinny teenager wearing an embarrassing stocking cap. Judging solely on their appearance, I was convinced the band members were poorer than the audience members.

They played a 19-song set, covering over half the songs they’ve ever recorded and turning the concert into a 90-minute singalong show for the audience. One does not simply “like” Neutral Milk Hotel. You love them or hate them. I was singing “Two-Headed Boy” at the top of my lungs and decided not to sing the last verse, savoring the goosebump moment of hearing it come from Mangum himself. I was close to tears as he played “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2” and I realized the show was going to end soon. Considering my friends and I were 10 feet away from Mangum for the entire show, this was a magical experience.

Part of Neutral’s genius is the mysterious noises in their songs. As I witnessed with my own eyes, these noises are apparently made by Koster playing a banjo with a violin bow and sometimes playing this crazy instrument called a singing saw. I believe there was also a point in the show where he was clanking a bell with a frying pan lid. The horns section added onto the awesomeness and obscurity of the show. I never knew was there such thing as an electric saxophone, but it’s cool and it sounds like a bagpipe. The moment I first heard Spillane’s flugelhorn after “King of Carrot Flowers,” I knew it was going to be a great night.

I’m sure the audience didn’t mind when my friends and I swayed back-in-forth, shoulder-to-shoulder to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” although the chick standing next to me wouldn’t join us. I’m sure the audience didn’t mind me singing the totally incorrect lyrics to “Song Against Sex” and impersonating the trombone part at maximum volume. I’m sure the audience didn’t mind me requesting the band to play “Where You’ll Find Me Now,” which I knew they wouldn’t play but was worth yelling over. The audience didn’t mind because this was a concert, and everyone’s allowed to act stupid.

Neutral Milk Hotel is an important, influential, unexplainable piece of music history that cannot be compared to other bands. I can’t say they stand supreme, but they definitely stand alone. Mangum’s voice is the voice of a man without a stomach. The guitars are distorted and droning. The horns are celebratory. The rhythms range from punk rock to military marches. The lyrics tell fascinating stories. Collectively, it’s a band making the most awkwardly beautiful music its budget can allow, capturing the most awkward and melancholia moments of adolescence. After years apart from each other, it’s amazing to see that they’ve still got it. It was an excellent performance. I recorded them playing “Holland, 1945” to preserve the memory. I left the concert impressed by the band and feeling emotionally complete.

MY RATING: 5/5 stars

Scott Hall is a newcomer to the world of journalism. He is studying public relations and stage management at USU. His spare time is dedicated to music. For more, email scottehall3@gmail.com.

By Scott E

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