Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Siren Songs

Neutral Milk Hotel filled with urgency.

By Noel Murray

MARCH 23, 1998: 

Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge) On their debut album, On Avery Island, vagabond psychedelicists Neutral Milk Hotel sounded like they were huddled in a shelter, having one last decadent jam before The Bomb dropped. On their latest, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, they play with less panic, but still with a telltale urgency--the air raid is over, but radiation is seeping into the groundwater.

Neutral Milk Hotel is part of a nexus of bands known as The Elephant 6 Recording Company--a collective bound by the belief that rock achieved perfection during the Summer of Love, and all that remains is to work variations on a handful of retro themes. Founded by three boyhood chums in Louisiana, Elephant 6 has spawned Robert Schneider's Denver-based Apples in Stereo (the garage-rock wing), Will Cullen Hart's Athens-based Olivia Tremor Control (the Beatle-esque wing), and Jeff Mangum's unrooted Neutral Milk Hotel, who specialize in acid folk.

As on the group's first record, practically every song on In the Aeroplane fits the same pattern: rapidly strummed guitar, bellowed vocals, violently surreal lyrics, heavy distortion, and little flourishes of mariachi horns. How did Mangum start down this road? Perhaps at a party one night, he launched into an impression of Ray Davies playing a Syd Barrett song, and it sounded so good that he started writing songs in that style. Before long, he wielded his special musical hammer so powerfully that every bit of melodic inspiration began to look like a nail.

By all rights, such repetitiveness should sink the band. That it doesn't is a testament to Neutral Milk Hotel's nutzoid production, which pushes the levels so far into the red that the music practically frightens the listener. Magnum comes off like one of those street crazies who repeats the same phrase over and over until he suddenly lunges at you with a straight razor. You can't help but pay attention.

Mangum also has moments of clarity and beauty. The haunting shout of "I love you, Jesus Christ!" on "The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three," the hyperdrive narrative force of "Holland, 1945," and the chilling entirety of "Ghost"--a campfire round that advances into a cacophonous quick-step march--all speak to an imagination that can convert nostalgic sounds and psychotic visions into a fascinating worldview.

Sixteen Deluxe, Emits Showers of Sparks (Warner Bros.) For those among us who have been pining for the heady days when Lush, Ride, Pale Saints, and My Bloody Valentine all dominated 120 Minutes, here comes Austin's Sixteen Deluxe to revive the stoner guitar symphonics of yore. On their second long-player (and major-label debut), Sixteen Deluxe build a bed of feedback-rich dream-pop, adorning it with catchy girl-group melodies and the occasional loping, Mazzy Star-ish rhythm. Recall any groove that was popular in the Bush administration, and Sixteen Deluxe is probably working it.

Yes, their sound is gimmicky, but over the course of 12 tight songs on Emits Showers of Sparks, it's rugged enough to fly. Bandleaders Carrie Clark and Chris Smith do a pretty good Cervenka/Doe impression at times, though neither has as distinctive a voice. What they have instead are their guitars, and vocals that sound as winningly ethereal as the tonal interplay of those twin axes. The songs range from gripping ("Purple," "Burning Leaves") to generic ("No Shock," "Sniffy Woe") to drippy ("Mexico Train," "Lullaby"). The maddening, wonderful epic "Captain Kirk's Z-Man House of Fun Mixed Up" combines all three approaches, shifting from druggy sing-along to head-banging jam; it manages to sound silly, inspired, and completely drained all at once. (The CD's only major disappointment is an untitled hidden track, inexcusably long at 11 minutes.)

The key to the Sixteen Deluxe's success is drummer Stephen Hall, who provides just enough of a syncopated backbeat to keep the rest of the band on its toes. Otherwise, Clark and Smith might get too absorbed in the pretty sounds their guitars make. But with Hall's agile support, they keep changing tempos and blending their sonic palette. They've got a guitar in one speaker, cascading like a waterfall, while a guitar in the other speaker buzzes like an electric current. When the two sounds meet in the middle, all sorts of wicked patterns shoot out and splash the listener in the face.

The Karl Hendricks Trio, Declare Your Weapons (Merge) Spend enough time touring the smaller American metropolises--Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Nashville--and one city begins to merge with another. Each has its industrial blocks, its big glass boxes, its riverfront sports arenas yearning to be filled. And in each city, there's an ambitious loner who cruises between crumbling practice spaces in the warehouse district, gringo-fied taco stands in suburban strip malls, and the boho shops nestled between the office towers and the projects. In Pittsburgh, that person is guitarist, singer, and local wit Karl Hendricks, whose eponymous rock trio serves as an outlet for raging observations about the blandness of our American environment.

This "everyrocker" commonality extends to The Karl Hendricks Trio's music-making. The songs on the group's fourth album--loud, unspectacularly constructed rock-outs--don't immediately grab the ear. Indeed, on longer tracks like "The Colonel Feels All Right," the band's sound is positively turgid. But Hendricks does what he can with what he has--he works around weak vocals by employing a kind of hummy discourse, and he overcomes his fondness for 4/4 time by playing the beast out of his guitar. (Hendricks works in a record store, and one imagines that he spends any money left over after the bills are paid on distortion pedals.)

Best of all, he has a stack of beefs, and the skill to air them intelligently. Tracks on Declare Your Weapons include "The Worst Coffee I've Ever Had" (memories of failed high-school dreams and romances), "A Letter to the Coach" (an extended metaphor about being on the sexual sidelines), and "When Will the Goddamn Poor Wise Up?" (about the presumptions of disaffected youth).

The lyrics of "Your Lesbian Friends" are typical: Hendricks shares an awkward moment with his ex-girlfriend's pals while she's out on a date. After imagining his ex's evening, he tells about the petty squabbles of her friends, then describes himself sitting on a couch, with a beer, watching football. There's a specificity to Hendricks' story that makes its message all the more universal. Who hasn't felt alone and anxious, trapped with the wrong people on a Saturday night? You can almost feel the chill in the air.

And that's a quiet song. When his words are married to wailing guitar on songs like "The Policeman's Not Your Friend" or "Know More About Jazz," the impact is even greater. And on "Surrender on Demand," when his guitar howls like a storm and he declaims in his defeated voice, his little music project sounds like a rare singularity in a massive, homogenized world.

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