Jeff Mangum wrote just a few handfuls of songs, and with those and the help of a couple of friends he released two of the best albums in the entire history of music: Neutral Milk Hotel‘s “On Avery Island” and “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” – then he disappeared. This was in 1999, and between then and now, as both albums gradually started enchanting me, Mangum grew to become one of the few absolute heroes I still have left. I never expected to see him perform ever in my life – when he resurfaced, I thought his public appearances would remain limited to a few little venues in the American hinterland, after which he would draw back into hibernation. But then Neutral Milk Hotel reformed for an American tour, and after that, against my wildest expectations, extended this tour to Europe. So I went to see them in Paris, and it was quite possibly the most amazing show I ever attended.
The show captured a lot of the eerie and uncomfortable beauty of Jeff Mangum’s songs, especially the ones he sang just by his lonely self in a bright shaft of light – opener “Two-Headed Boy” and almost-closer “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2” were almost unparalleled in their sheer distressing grace. But it wasn’t just a homecoming of the much-beloved “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” – most of that album was featured, sure, but I was thrilled that almost half of “On Avery Island” was played as well. While “Naomi” might not have been the crowd’s favorite, it’s one of my favorite songs in the world, and to hear Jeff Mangum and his band perform it live felt like a rite of passage.
Then there’s the other side of Neutral Milk Hotel: they can just as easily morph into an aggressively loud band that, rather than analyze, you have to feel like a blow to your stomach. “The King of Carrot Flowers“‘s steady progression from some kind of neurotic bluegrass song into a drunken Carnivàle, then suddenly thundering into a devastating wall of mayhem was like an explosion on the theatre floor: the devoted crowd went A.P.E.S.H.I.T., unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. “Ghost” is breathtakingly beautiful, setting half the audience gaping in awe (or singing loudly along, or even crying – or both). But it’s also ferociously driven by distorted drones and a thudding 4/4 rhythm, setting the other half ablaze. “Holland 1945” takes some very bleak World War II imagery to build a song upon that had people crowd surfing. Were it not for Mangum’s wail, all those cheery trumpets would’ve almost made it sound joyful.
Although he looked very pleased and appreciative, I don’t know if Jeff Mangum really enjoys performing those obsessive and unsettling songs – I don’t even know to what length these songs have any auto-biographic foundation to them. Maybe they don’t, and maybe I’m putting too much significance on them. Then again, I realize I may not fully understand Jeff Mangum’s twisted mind – the songs have been described as “the cracked logic of a dream“, and that’s exactly the way they resonate with me. But in spite of all misinterpretation, intentional or not, this music touches me deeply, and it’s been so, so very rewarding to have witnessed this.
Hospitality @ Vera
Drove all the way up to Groningen to see Hospitality at the Vera this weekend. It was a lovely show on a couple of levels, not in the least because I never expected to see them live, ever – they’re not particularly huge here. As a matter of fact, their debut album caught me by complete surprise because of, well, some tweet. For which I’m still very grateful.
Like their last album, the show had a charming kind of modesty to it. I think their last single, “Going Out“, best sums up what this band is about – they’re playful, but also have a certain feeling of heavy-heartedness about them. Their show was built upon this interplay between melancholy songs, mostly from their last album, and uplifting songs, mostly from their first – or sometimes the both of them rolled into one, as in opener “Inauguration”. On the album it’s a shy en quiet beauty, easily one of the best songs I’ve heard this year. Live, however, they stepped it up into a vigorous synth rock tune that suited them equally well.
Seeing Hospitality live also reveals how intricate these songs actually are. Take “I Miss Your Bones” for example, a song easily shifting from one god knows what time signature into the other, coming to a sudden halt, firing back up, but at the same time remaining irresistibly catchy. “Nightingale” changes shape three, four times in its first half a minute before finding a steady pace, then suddenly ends in what most bands would take as an opportunity for another 20 minute stretch of stomping on their guitars.
Goes without mention that I loved them for playing quite a few of the songs I know so well from their first record. “Betty Wang” in itself makes this world a better place. They kept it for their “first European encore ever”, ending with it a great, great show.
Hospitality at Vera Groningen
Favorite songs ever #1
Apparently I’m too busy to post regular updates to this site, so why not kick a new section into life? Here’s the first in a continuous series of my favorite songs ever.
Lower Dens played at Crossing Border a few years back, which drew my attention to this song – instantly hypnotizing me. It’s a song that triumphs in some kind of austerity, stripped clean of unnecessary ornaments, continuing on and on with its nervous, almost Kraftwerk-like rhythm. But the way the whole song suddenly swirls back upon itself at 3’36” is just goddamn gorgeous.
Kurt Cobain died 20 years ago today
Seeing exactly this at my parents’ house is how I found out about Kurt Cobain’s death in April 1994. Although I was as shocked as anyone, I didn’t know about the full story until years later, when I saw BBC’s The Seven Ages of Rock. I’ve always known about it by and large – heroin addiction, unable to cope with the maelstrom of commercial success he so openly made a mockery of. But not until then did I hear about the terrifying bleakness of Cobain’s addiction, his overdose and hospitalization in Rome just one month prior to his death and his insistence on their November 1993 MTV Unplugged session looking like a funeral. And also: the close friendship between Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe, and Stipe’s failed attempt to lure Cobain away from his downward spiral, faking a made-up collaboration project he wanted Cobain to join him on. It still remains a very tragic story.
It’s also in retrospect that I’ve come to realize the importance of Nirvana to the music I’ve so dearly loved since then. Of course Nirvana themselves today still sound every bit as vigorous and sincere as they did back then. But they opened the floodgates to many bands that are very important to me now. No, bloody fucking Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and a whole slew of other acts that went and ran with a counterfeit of Nirvana’s legacy are not what I mean. What I do mean is that Nirvana chose to play “The Man Who Sold the World” right after “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” on their MTV Unplugged session, in one broad stroke making tiny little Glasgow band the Vaselines equally important in the Great Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as David Bowie. They invited another little unknown band up on stage, the Meat Puppets, to play no less than three of their songs with to a television audience of millions. They publicly spoke up for bands that influenced them and actively supported bands that sprang from the same lineage they themselves did. It’s like Cobain realized he gained his immense success partly by just being lucky, something he wished upon his peers even more than upon himself.
Kurt Cobain’s influence on indie rock can’t be overstated, not even as much musically as more so in spirit. He relentlessly supported his own folk – I mean, check out this picture of Cobain saluting both Sebadoh and K Records. It made me realize there had to be more below the surface than what I before had been exposed to – something to be very grateful for.
Speedy Ortiz & Eagulls @ Paradiso
Went to see Eagulls and Speedy Ortiz yesterday. Regardless of how damn good (and loud) Eagulls were, their show was WASTED by the headliners. Not only the sheer genius of Speedy Ortiz’s songs, but the way they just as easily hurled through them – amazing. I dearly, dearly missed “Fun”, my all-time Speedy Ortiz favorite. “Plough”, “Cash Cab”, their full-on rendition of early song “Hexxy”, to name just a few out of many great tunes, quite made it up. Besides writing great songs, Sadie Dupuis unexpectedly proved to be an awesome guitarist. And wow man, does Matt Robidoux have one fucked up instrument.
Speedy Ortiz at Paradiso, Amsterdam
Some duelling thoughts about bands reuniting
The Pixies* are getting a lot of hostility over releasing a bunch of new, supposedly mediocre, if not downright terrible songs – I can’t judge, because I haven’t heard any of them:
“I’m reading a press release for EP2 and weeping at the downright awfulness of the legacy fucking parody act that is using the name of a band I used to love. Lazily writing songs with no heart. Like it never had heart.” — Quoted from The 405
Hey, like every other indie rock nerd I’m in love with the Pixies. I’m also sensitive to a kind of transiency, which is why I don’t mind great bands disappearing forever. Because I know their music will always be around, and there will always be new bands that draw inspiration from them. Some will suck, some will be awesome.
It’s an ambiguous feeling when a band I love decides to resurrect. Guided by Voices went back to cranking out release after release, most of which were OK at best. It was great seeing Pavement, the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. live, but their shows also had this uncomfortable feeling of misplaced nostalgia to it – like we all so much wanted it to be just like 1994 in a small basement, rather than admitting to standing in a big, clean and sold out rock & roll venue in 2010, seeing our old heroes from the past.
I don’t really know what to make of these feelings of romanticism. I’m thrilled that in a couple of months I’ll be seeing Neutral Milk Hotel for the first time in my life, but on the other hand I want their legacy to remain forever unspoiled, and there’s this distressing feeling that it won’t be, once they’re back in the middle of everyone’s attention. Great new bands like Beirut and the Decemberists have built upon Neutral Milk Hotel’s heritage, as did shitty bands like Mumford & Sons, and that’s the way it should be.
The greatest thing about Wild Flag was that they felt and sounded like an exciting new band, and didn’t carry any of Sleater-Kinney’s legacy with them even though Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein were in both bands. But the news of Wild Flag quitting and Sleater-Kinney possibly respawning causes the same feeling of ambivalence. Wouldn’t I rather see Wild Flag continue than Sleater-Kinney reunite?
And goddamn this feeling anyway. How ungrateful can you be as a fan, to prefer the bands you love the most to stay gone forever?
*) Yes, I know the band is officially called ‘Pixies’, not ‘The Pixies’. But when writing or talking about the band, this feels more right. Dave Grohl, David Bowie and even Kim Deal herself use it randomly.
As you can see, this site has been revitalized with a pretty bland design. First thing was to get it back running, after which I’ll maybe be gradually adding features. There’s a lot I’m in the process of figuring out. Will there be commenting? Will it be in English of gewoon in het Nederlands? Will posts be around a tweet’s length or will I be posting longer articles? We’ll just see.
Ready let’s go
Fireflies.nl is back up with random ramblings about music after a 7½ year hiatus. As of now, I don’t know where this is going to lead exactly. But I’ll just pick things up again, and see which way it rolls.