I spent this week revisiting a set of albums that have been important to me for over a decade. As I mentioned in my review of an Olivia Tremor Control album last week, I've been reading the 33 1/3 volume on the Neutral Milk Hotel album In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. This series of books takes seminal albums and discusses them in detail; how they came about, how they evolved and how they continue to evolve long after their release. It's a great series that features volumes on half of my ten favorite albums of all time, including this one.
The book spent a lot time discussing the Elephant 6 Collective in detail. For those who don't know, the Elephant 6 was (and still is) a collection of bands that lived, worked, wrote, and performed music together. It was a movement of like-minded friends that shared a different vision of the world than the mainstream and strove to express it and share it with the world.
The music made by the Elephant 6 bands captured my imagination starting in 1998 and still has yet to let go. I have an entire shelf in my music room devoted to CDs purchased from the late '90s through the early part of the last decade, all with the Elephant 6 logo on the back, some on Spin Art records, some on Kindercore, and some on Merge. As I was reading the book and it would discuss or mention another of these bands familiar to my heart, I would venture onto the shelf and pull it out. I ended up immersing myself in this music for the last week or so and felt the need to dedicate this week's round up to these treasures. Enjoy.
NOTE: I am not reviewing the title album because on any given day, it might very well be the album I name as my favorite of all time. It means to much to me to put into words.
Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island: The first proper NMH album (there are several self-released cassettes the preceded it) is essentially a Jeff Mangum solo album. The band wouldn't be assembled until after this album was recorded. It's a lo-fi album, heavy on fuzz, yet Jeff's voice blazes through it all and pulls the listener into the frenzy that are the songs. Not as defined or intense as Aeroplane, but nearly as good. This album features some of my favorite NMH songs. "A Baby for Pree" and "Pree-Sisters" are wonderful and always feel like little novels to me. "Naomi", probably the most accessible NMH song, is a wonderful pop tune. And then there's "Gardenhead/ Leave Me Alone" which features some of the best lyrics I've ever heard.
Jeff Mangum - Live at Aquarius Records: This bootleg captures a show between the two NMH albums in which Jeff is working out some of the songs that would later appear on Aeroplane, either in different forms or only in bits used in other songs. The set includes the unreleased companion track to "Oh Comely" (a track on Aeroplane and one of the best songs ever written). The companion track is called "Oh Sister" and it's amazing. More frantic than "Oh Comely" but no less powerful. The set also includes live staples such as "Engine" and always the enjoyable, yet tragic, "She Did a Lot of Acid."
Olivia Tremor Control - Presents: Singles and Beyond: This compilation, released in 2000, gathered the earliest OTC limited release singles and EPs for their expanding fan base. The music is all from a short period of time, so there isn't any of the disjointed feeling that sometimes comes with collected volumes like this. It all feels like a very cohesive blend of the OTC combination of sunshine psychedelia and noise effects.
Olivia Tremor Control - Black Foliage: Released in 1999, this is my personal favorite of the OTC albums. It's hard to say it's better than Dusk at Cubist Castle, it's just a little different. A bit darker, a bit more expansive. There's a lot of looping back on this album, repeated refrains and echoing sounds that give it a circular feel that has always appealed to me. This is the last release under the name Olivia Tremor Control. Will Cullen Hart would continue as Circulatory System (great albums, all of them) and Bill Doss would continue as The Sunshine Fix (equally great albums, all of them).
The Apples in Stereo - Tone Soul Evolution: The Elephant 6 was divided into two camps. The Athens, Georgia side which included NMH and OTC and the Denver side which included The Apples in Stereo and The Minders. Robert Schneider is the connecting glue during the early years. He was the producer on both NMH albums, and the lead singer and creative force in The Apples in Stereo. Though both camps enjoyed the fuzzy lo-fi aesthetic, the Denver bands were more obsessed with reinventing a '60s psychedelic pop sound. This is the band's second album, released in 1997, and it's quite remarkable. It has this Beatles feel to it, but at the same time sounds so new...like an artifact from the past that isn't discovered until the future is ready for it.
The Apples in Stereo - Her Wallpaper Reverie: The band's third album, released in 1999, remains their most ambitious album in my opinion. I feel like there is an attempt to break out of the 3 minute pop song format and create a more surreal context. It still has the same bright feeling as their others, but there's just something special about this one that has always stood out for me.
The Music Tapes - First Imaginary Symphony for Nomad: This project shares a direct link with NMH. The Music Tapes is essentially Julian Koster who played bass, accordion, and saw in NMH. But The Music Tapes existed prior to that, as an outlet for Julian's experimentation. This album is easily the most inaccessible album on this list. Grating at times and beautiful at others, it's unconcerned with catchy song structure. When I first heard it upon its release in 1999, I found it unlistenable and felt the best thing about it was the pop-up cover art. It was a few years later when I revisited it that I heard how remarkable it is. There are still parts of it that don't appeal to me, but for the most part it's well worth the listen. "Song for the Death of Parents" is the real stand out track for me.
Elf Power - When the Red King Comes: Probably the closest to NMH out of all the Elephant 6 bands, Elf Power play a similar blend of lo-fi surrealist music, but also have an ear for the sunny psychedelia of OTC and The Apples in Stereo. I saw this band open for NHM in 1998, and I was familiar with their earliest albums, but this is the band I really explored in depth for the first time this week. This album, released in 1997 is quite remarkable. Out of all the Elephant 6 albums, I would say this is the only one that even comes close to resembling Aeroplane, though it's also quite different at the same time. Not nearly as ambitious, but ambitious enough.
Elf Power - A Dream in Sound: This 1999 follow-up to When the Red King Comes sees the band moving a little more toward the pop sound of the other Elephant 6 bands. The uniting threads and more surrealist lyrics of the previous album give way to more conventional song writing. It serves them well and the album is pretty great. As a matter of preference, I prefer the earlier album, but enjoy this one immensely as well.
The Essex Green - Everything is Green: Released in 1999, this album marked an expansion of the Elephant 6 as the band hails from Brooklyn, NY. Though there has always been a NYC connection, NMH having been based there and the full band formed there between the two albums. This is one of my favorite albums on the list. It's a little more psychedelic and feels more folkish than poppy. Their two follow up albums are also great, as is their album released under the name The Sixth Great Lake.
The Minders - Cul-De-Sacs & Dead Ends: Released in 1999, this is a compilation of earlier, limited release singles and EPs. Even in the earliest days, The Minders sound polished, playing songs that sound like lost recordings from the mid-to-late '60s. Infectious pop hooks, combined with the slightest bit of psychedelic experimentation blended in so perfectly. However, they always managed to present a view on our modern culture, capturing a lost soul perspective that I identify with.
The Minders - Hooray for Tuesday: Released in 1998, this is one of the most pleasurable albums in my entire music collection. Since the year of its release, it's been an album I'll often pull out in anticipation of going out. It's so upbeat and beautiful, catchy and wonderful. As the cover suggests, it certainly evokes a '60s feel, but as I mentioned above, it zeros in on a uniquely late 20th century longing, illustrated in one of my favorite verses from the title track: "I'll write you a letter, from someplace where they don't have telephones. And I'll send you a postcard, a postcard is better, you can see where I sent it from." An album that's impossible not to enjoy.