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coverpic flag US - Georgia - Luna Kafé - Full Moon 22 - 08/08/98

Neutral Milk Hotel, Boston, July 24th 1998
"If I knew you were coming, I'd have baked a cake..."

Of all the bands whose music has played an active role in my life, whose beautiful melodies, insightful lyrics, and deep emotion has helped me to better understand my life and the world around me, only Neutral Milk Hotel have inspired me to make them a cake. NMH inspires this reaction in me because their music, like much good art, is like food: it's tasty, and listening to it makes me feel nourished and gives me energy to put into my everyday life and creative endeavours. Musically, In An Aeroplane Over The Sea resembles a Molotov cocktail made of Pere Ubu's obtuse angularity, the hippie-Jesus spirituality of Tom Rapp, Mary Margaret O'Hara's intoxicating vision and graceful stutter, and the tarnished brass filigree of the Salvation Army Marching Band, but only listing the possible influences would be leaving out the other half of the equation, the spine-tingling magic realism, innocence, and hope, and the passion and urgency in executing these story songs that could well make this the album of the year.

My major qualm in seeing the band perform live was whether or not they'd be able to sustain said energy and passion over an extensive live set. After all, it's easier to keep an illusion of high energy levels on a studio affair, since they're usually recorded over an extensive period of time and can be worked on when the artist feels like it, etc., than in the concentrated atmosphere of a rock concert. That combined with Hotel concierge Jeff Mangum's feeling that the band will eventually be a project confined to the studio made me fear the worst. However, the record was transcendently wonderful enough to warrant a desire to see them live.

And, happily, their live set was amazing. Though the band wasn't tight and cohesive in the traditional sense, they had much fun throwing out musical curveballs, trying new improvs in front of a captive audience and being adventurous with these tunes. The sometimes-uncontrollable live setup threw them off track once or twice - after a lighting-related snafu that aborted the opening of Naomi, Mangum explained to the audience that "I like bagpipes because you can tape them down. You can't tape down lights, and that can confuse me." And sometimes the musical limbs they went out on weren't solid enough to support them, as with the set-closing improvisation that bogged down the pace of the set.

However, when one is in the presence of genius, one does not quibble. The band were clearly having lots of fun on stage, as their antic enthusiastic presence and collision-course pogo would suggest. The encore offered up the band's vision of "night music, to send you home and to sleep", which left the audience with two touching ghost stories in the form of a medley of Two Headed Boy Pt. II and The Fool. This rendition brought out the eerie shadows in both songs, especially when the former, a ballad suggesting both sexual awakening and suicide, was paired with the bleating funeral dirge. Mangum had an appealingly youthful presence that dovetailed with his songs of innocence and experience; his wide-eyed approach to music and choirboy's voice gave the songs, particularly the darker tunes, a spine-tingling contrast between dark and light to complement the album's atmosphere.

After the show, I noticed Mangum walking around, doing after-show business and talking with fans, with a ring of brown frosting and chocolate crumbs around his mouth. I hope the cake left him with as much of a feeling of satisfaction in his belly as his music leaves with me.

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