Today, Neutral Milk Hotel announced that their upcoming tour will be their last for the foreseeable future. I’m still hoping for one last Athens date, maybe on their way up from Florida in mid-May, but I think I can say I’m satisfied with what has been a solid four-year return for Jeff Mangum. Although we’ll likely never hear new music from him–at least not anything that sounds like NMH–his reemergence was a gift to those of us who didn’t discover his music after the turn of the century. And if the Pixies’ also recent return is any indication, the new songs likely wouldn’t meet expectations and would ultimately tarnish the legacy.
So much has been said about this “legacy” of Neutral Milk Hotel. It’s an intensely personal one for a lot of people, people like me who discovered the album by chance or through word-of-mouth. By a longshot, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is my best musical discovery. It was the summer of 2004 when I was rooting through a bunch of burned CDs my sister had obtained from her high school friends. She was far more popular than I ever was, so many of them were given to her. That pile of CDs probably also included The Shins, Brand New, Dashboard Confessional, The Strokes, and others that you’d expect to see in a pile of CDs owned by a suburban white high school student in the mid-00s. I don’t know who provided her with ITAOTS, but it seemed out of place and piqued my interest. I’d heard of Neutral Milk Hotel, lauded on one of the internet forums I frequented at the time, but those were the same people who took Pitchfork as gospel, so I really didn’t care what they were into.
ITAOTS came at just the right time for me musically, a time when I was more adventurous and growing out of the pop-rock of the late 90s. It was also a time of great change, just before my first semester away at college, just before my first serious relationship, and in general, a lot of social growth. I fell in love with this music just as I was falling in love with a lot of things. The weird thing is, a lot of people have very similar stories about finding this band. This is what I mean by this legacy and how intensely personal it is. Everyone has a story about how they found the music of Neutral Milk Hotel, because it’s not something we heard on the radio, TV, or even Pandora, YouTube, or Spotify. It just kind of showed up somewhere, and blew our minds that we hadn’t heard it before. And at the risk of sounding like a mid-00s indie rock cliché, it changed our lives. I may have grown cynical about some things in my thirties, but the influence of music on my life is one of those idealisms I can’t give up or grow out of. It’s linked so heavily with certain time periods of my life that I can’t deny its influence.
Just over four years ago, I met my wife, shortly after I had moved to Athens. We had been chatting online for just a few weeks and agreed to meet at a show at the Caledonia. It was a bold move among several other bold moves I had taken in the months prior…all of which were some of the best moves I’d make in my life thus far. After the show, I gave her my copy of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Not the burned copy, the one that I had bought myself because I couldn’t stand that the CD-R wasn’t burned with gapless playback (a major no-no for this album). She had never heard it. It was another beginning, another renaissance and love in my life that started with this album.
It was also four years ago this week that Mangum played a surprise gig in Brooklyn, marking the first time he had publicly performed NMH material in nine years. I couldn’t help but think that his return was a sign that I was in the right place at the right time with the right person–a feeling I really needed to feel at that time in my life. Of course, we had the opportunity to see Jeff and the band several times over the past few years, albeit in the face of some tragedy and what was ultimately a trip that I regret. Still, the shows were a gift. And it felt just like I had imagined it would, particularly since they made an effort to play the same kinds of venues that they played in the late 90s.
So, a risk is taken when you fuck with the “intensely personal legacy”/wonder/idolatry that a lot of people have with a band that they love–particularly Neutral Milk Hotel, who were assumed for years to never return. The question that I’ve noticed arise several times over the past four years is, “Did the magic fade now that so many more people have had the opportunity to see them?” For me, nothing changed, except that it’s provided a closing chapter to a time period that was so heavily influenced by their work. I’ll love their music forever, but there is now nowhere new for it to go. Every song on ITAOTS is haunted by a place, time, and feeling that I officially no longer want to be replaced by anything else. By now, I’ve read the 33 1/3 book several times over and analyzed every note, noise, and blooper on the record. And now, I’ve seen it performed in front of me, mere feet away. An absolute gift. If Jeff decides to put out new music (which I believe he would have by now if he ever intended to), I’ll listen to it, but I don’t need anything more.
Fare thee well, NMH.
I’ve been holding out on posting this because it’s pretty much my last fun./The Format recording that I have yet to share. But, I haven’t felt compelled to post much else lately. Oddly enough, most of the few visitors who stumble upon this blog find it through a search for said band(s). It’s still difficult for me to believe that this band has blown up as they have; as I’ve said here earlier, Some Nights has grown on me as I appreciate the songwriting, but the slick, top 40-ready production is boring and cheesy. I can’t defend that album as much more than a guilty pleasure. Even so, this band still shines live, as much as they did ten years ago when I first saw them at The Masquerade (as The Format, of which fun. is just an extension–as much as Sam Means’ musical sensibilities are missed.)
I can’t remember how I found this one, but it’s a very clear soundboard recording (from an HD broadcast, I believe) from the Some Nights era that, again, demonstrates how it’s difficult not to enjoy yourself at a fun. show, as long as you put any pretension and cynicism aside, which has always been a requirement to enjoy Nate Ruess’ two main projects. My musical taste has matured since a decade ago, when the ’90s pop-rock influenced debut from The Format, Interventions + Lullabies, was spinning in my ’94 Toyota Camry CD player and on my click wheel iPod, and maybe it’s just nostalgia that recalls my first year of college, but I still pay attention to these guys. I don’t take them as seriously, but maybe I really wasn’t ever supposed to.
Sam Means’ first full-length is definitely something to look forward to, though.
fun. – Live at New Pop Festival – Baden-Baden, Germany – 9/14/12
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1. Carry On
2. One Foot
3. All the Pretty Girls
4. Why Am I the One
5. At Least I’m Not as Sad (As I Used to Be)
6. It Gets Better
7. All Alone
9. The Gambler
10. We Are Young
11. You Can’t Always Get What You Want (Rolling Stones Cover)
12. Some Nights
The fall thus far has been a season of change, with the start of a new job and new possibilities that come with it. This includes the ability to live pretty much anywhere in the country, but it’s looking like I’ll still be in Athens for a while longer, with which I have no problem. Though I am very much looking forward to traveling: I get to go to back to the UK this spring for the first time since my college trip, which is definitely a perk. I can’t wait to walk the streets of London again.
The new Interpol record El Pintor has had a lot of spins from me lately, and I’ve actually re-discovered their two post-Antics records, which have some great moments that I didn’t recognize before. Nothing is as good as Turn on the Bright Lights, but Our Love to Admire, which I initially deemed sub-par, does have one of my all-time favorite Interpol songs, “Pioneer to the Falls.” The 2010 self-titled album was critically panned, and it is their worst, but songs like “Try It On” and “Barricade” give it a few strong points. El Pintor isn’t quite a return to form, but it’s good–definitely their best work in some time. The single “All the Rage Back Home” is one of the strong points, as well as tracks “My Blue Supreme” and “Breaker 1,” which sounds like it could have been a solid TOTBL b-side.
I’m looking forward to seeing them at the Tabernacle next month–I don’t trek over to Atlanta for very many shows anymore, but this one should be a good time, if this recent live performance is any indication.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YetfPqvPkfA
I discovered Elliott Smith in college, and for a while during my undergrad years, I listened to Elliott almost exclusively. I spent a lot of time in my campus apartment bedroom listening to music and avoiding my roommate; it was an overdramatic/melancholy time in my twenties that felt like it came too late. I’ve always felt that I age slower than others. I still feel that way today, as I have absolutely no desire to procreate despite my Facebook feed being full of persuasive arguments to do so. My first serious relationship was not until my early twenties. (High school was a wash and a forgettable time overall.) That is to say that my first serious breakup was also in my early twenties. Elliott Smith’s music was so perfect and so fitting for that time in my life, even though I only felt faux-depression and this was a guy with much more of a legitimate reason to exhibit the feelings in his music. I’m almost embarrassed to reflect back on my early twenties because of how long it took me to stop being a teenager.
That’s not to say that Elliott’s music is exclusively sad; he has plenty of happy songs and songs that examine a variety of subjects and emotions. But his voice was and is like nothing I’ve ever heard, and no matter how happy his subject matter or melodies, it sounds like all of his songs have this raincloud hanging over them. There’s certainly an unjust romanticism of mental illness in music and art criticism, but the way it comes through in his music really is nothing short of beautiful. Early on, I enjoyed more of his heavier produced material like XO and Figure 8, but it was his first posthumous album From a Basement on the Hill that helped me appreciate raw Elliott, and then my wife who encouraged me to give the self-titled album and Roman Candle more listens. And then there’s Elliott’s work in Heatmiser–which I’m tempted to describe as what it would sound like if John Lennon fronted Green Day, but somehow that sounds terrible, so I’m not sure, but it’s all just as brilliant as his solo work. In particular, Mic City Sons.
This live recording at LA’s Henry Fonda Theatre is one of his most shared live recordings and is my favorite for many reasons. First, there’s no band–it’s raw Elliott, with an occasional guest on percussion. It’s a set of over 20 songs, from his Heatmiser work, to Roman Candle, to Basement on the Hill. This rendition of “King’s Crossing” is possibly my favorite Elliott Smith recording. And this is also among his last live performances, in January of 2003. You can find this recording on a lot of places on the Internet, but I’m still proud to share it and I enjoyed reflecting back on what has made Elliott’s music so special to me.
Elliott Smith – Live at Henry Fonda Theatre – Los Angeles, CA – 1/31/03
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1. King’s Crossing
2. Memory Lane
4. No Confidence Man
5. A Passing Feeling
6. I Figured You Out
7. A Fond Farewell
8. Strung Out Again
10. Coming Up Roses
11. A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free
12. Pretty (Ugly Before)
13. Plainclothes Man
14. Long, Long, Long
15. No Name #1
16. Division Day
17. I Don’t Think I’m Ever Gonna Figure It Out
18. I Better Be Quiet Now
19. Say Yes
20. Brand New Game
21. Shooting Star
I haven’t done the obligatory Format post in a while, so here you go. This is a special bootleg, though the quality is terrible. Essentially this is just Sam and Nate sitting on a couch playing new songs (most of which never ended up on their records) and a few covers at the Modified Arts space in Phoenix, which used to host local bands, but is now merely an art gallery. Actually they may still have bands; I don’t know.
A bit about “Threes.” This particular recording (actually there’s a slightly better one out there) is one that I listened to pretty obsessively for a couple of years. It’s about the most melodramatic song ever written about Nate’s troubled relationship that inspired Dog Problems. There are even allusions to suicide (“…I wish I could stab my throat / there goes your wife, your car, your home … the life I’ve convinced myself I want to own”), though it somehow manages to end hopeful (“Anita wakes to get ready for a day she’ll never regret / their love is what has kept me on my feet”). The B-Sides and Rarities version of the song includes some lyrical changes that I’m not too crazy about, so for that reason, this will always be my favorite version.
There are at least two or three recordings from this show floating around, but this is the only complete one I know of. If there’s a better one out there, please let me know. I’ve been trying to hunt it down for years if it exists. This can be unlistenable at times, but it’s the only time some of these songs were ever played for an audience. (Try to) enjoy. Credit and infinite thanks to the original taper.
The Format – Live at Modified Arts – Phoenix, AZ – 8/29/04
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1. Dog Problems
2. 7 Digits
3. Faith in Fast Cars
4. We Dance (Pavement Cover)
5. Good Time at Your Expense
8. You’re Not a Whore
9. Colours (Joan Baez Cover)
10. Bath (Harry Nilsson Cover)
11. Your New Name
I’m coming up on four years in Athens and settling in quite well at the new apartment on Milledge. Certain forces may pull me away from this town soon, but I’m finally at the point where things feel very familiar, but without shortage of potential new experiences. I’m starting to crave health more than ever. Social health, intellectual health, physical health. The fact that I’ve been here this long without making more friends is disappointing. Work duties often keep me out of touch with myself, though I don’t have an excuse for the two months I’ve had off this summer. And being in walking distance to Five Points gives me a purpose to walk, which I don’t always get in less interesting contexts.
The light in the outside hallway at the new place is always on, and I find a strange kind of comfort seeing it peek through the crack at the bottom of the door at night. Comfort keeps me inside far too often. I’ve always been a glutton for it. I can’t simply crave for experiences to be handed to me the way they were in college. I have much more freedom now, many more choices; they can be overwhelming, and it’s my new goal to not be so calculating. All of the best things that have come out of the past five years have been the result of taking risks. The safer choices would have led me down a much less happy route.
The soundtrack to this post is Japandroids. Post-Nothing had something like a 5% inspiration on some of the positive life changes I made a few years ago. Here’s a bootleg from that era. Credit to the original taper as always.
Japandroids – Live at Blue Lamp – Sacramento, CA – 7/29/09
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2. No Allegiance to the Queen
3. The Boys Are Leaving Town
4. Art Czars
5. Rockers East Vancouver
6. Heart Sweats / Darkness on the Edge of Gastown
7. Young Hearts Spark Fire
11. To Hell with Good Intentions
I’m sitting here at my favorite Jittery Joe’s on a bright Sunday morning, and my face is reflected in the screen of my laptop. I’m almost 30, and I look like it. I’m not the bright-eyed youth I was a decade ago, and I’m fine with that. Sometimes, I’m happier that I’m not. Other times, I want to be, if only for a moment. I know not everyone understands the appeal that the now mega-popular band fun. has to me, and I don’t fully understand it, either. But I think it’s that desire to feel younger without actually being younger that nags at me and many of us.
My fiancée and I saw fun. at The Tabernacle this past Friday night as part of a Valentine’s Day weekend in Atlanta. Between them and The Format, it was my tenth or fifteenth time at one of their shows…I’ve lost count. The reason I go back again and again is because they’ve never been on a slump. Each time I’ve seen them, it always seems like they’re preparing for another “big thing.” And they’ve always made me feel like I’m a part of it, too.
The first time I saw The Format, in 2004 (just before I went off to college), things were looking shaky with their record label, Elektra, as they were dropping bands left and right–another long-time favorite of mine, Third Eye Blind, was also among these bands. A decade ago, the aptly-named “The First Single” was supposed to be The Format’s breakthrough tune, the “We Are Young” of 2003, but without label support, it failed to go mainstream. However, their energy on stage was not at all fazed by any of these possible career-killers, because all of us in the crowd knew how good this band was. They were perfectly accessible to mainstream audiences (if they would only listen), but Sam Means’ musicianship, songwriting, and Nate Ruess’ incredible vocal prowess and lyrics took the music to a level that top 40 acts rarely reach. It was too damn fun to dislike without dumbing anything down. When I spoke to Nate after the show, he was genuinely gracious, and this attitude toward fans that would carry the band through tough times. Knowing how much those who had heard their music fell in love with it, The Format continued on, with a healthy dose of skepticism towards the music industry and labels.
I spoke with Nate again briefly after a show a couple of years later, just before the release of Dog Problems. Once again, this band seemed to be on the verge of something big. They were playing new tunes, many of which were leagues better than anything on Interventions + Lullabies. Nate was excited for us to hear the results–the results of this band moving away from major labels to create their own “Vanity Label,” working with Roger Manning (Jellyfish) and producer Steve McDonald (Redd Kross), and above all, overcoming the anxiety that preceded the release of this album: what if they couldn’t do it on their own?
But their fears were unfounded. Dog Problems was released independently (with some help from distributor Nettwerk, who ensured that the album would be placed in as many stores as possible), and as with Radiohead’s In Rainbows and other post-Napster experiments in the last decade, it proved that major labels are irrelevant if the music is good enough. Dog Problems is The Format’s masterwork–a result of the depression that came with being dropped from a label, Nate’s relationship problems, relentless touring and traveling, and overcoming all of those things to be able to scream, “I’m doing alright; I’m doing just fine.”
In 2007, a year after Dog Problems, The Format was at the height of their career, and also nearing the end. I saw them at The Masquerade that year, as I had the very first time and countless other times, and the crowd was more enthusiastic than ever. And so were they. Each time since that first time three years ago, the show got bigger in every way. As they covered Van Morrison’s “Caravan” to close out their set, it seemed clear to me that they loved where they were, their company, and their fans. What could go wrong?
The circumstances still aren’t clear to the public, but The Format split in early 2008. Nate wrote a letter informing fans on their website that things were fine between Sam and himself, but that there was no future for The Format. I was heartbroken. This was a band whose music saw me through college, some major relationships, and through which I can say my sister and I bonded in our mutual love for the music. What would I do without them? It just seems like silly pop music, doesn’t it? It was more than that to me. I can’t fully explain why, but the songs and the memories they touched still mean so much to me.
Fun formed shortly after, in the fall of 2008. Yes: they were once Fun, capitalized, no period. (The change only came after Finnish noise rock band, also named Fun, sought exclusive rights to the name. Don’t worry–they’re reaping all the benefits though mistaken Spotify plays.) This was my first year teaching, and my first year out of college. I was lost in so many ways. I hated my life, I hated my town, I hated my job, and I was anxious and miserable on a daily basis. I don’t think I was being melodramatic at the time, because I still compare the shittier times of now to the nightmare that that year was to make myself feel better.
Fun’s music made that year better. Before Aim & Ignite, I could only know a few songs, including “Benson Hedges” and “Be Calm,” but they seemed all too anthemic for me at the time. I was once again excited and enthusiastic for the next “big thing” that this band had on the way. Also, as a fan of both Steel Train and Anathallo (I had bought Floating World at a Format show in Birmingham, and Trampoline was often paired with Dog Problems in my CD changer), I knew how talented Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost were, so I was not at all afraid that this project would let me down.
Aim & Ignite sounds simultaneously like starting over and picking up where you left off. I couldn’t help thinking that it mirrored my life. In 2009, I quit my first post-college job and moved to Athens, not really knowing what I was doing or where I was going. I was supposed to start a social work program at UGA, but my application was completed too late. I tried to “pick up where I left off,” but jobs were scarce, so I ended up substitute teaching and doing what I could to make ends meet for myself. I broke off an engagement in 2010; I had and have no regrets about that; I don’t want to be forgiven for all my big mistakes, I only want to be forgotten. I didn’t intend for those years to go the way that they did, but so many of those accidents and mistakes shaped my life as it is now, and I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. It was quite soon after that when I began a new relationship with my current fiancée, and things ignited from there.
I began the struggle that many mid-20s college graduates face. I was often unemployed or underemployed, making my way through unsatisfying jobs and trying to find who I am. However, the most important thing was that I loved my surroundings, and I loved the handful of people I spent my time with when I did spend time with people.
I can’t say I loved Some Nights at first; in fact, I didn’t like it very much at all. I began to feel that this may be it for me…while the songs themselves are quite honestly some of the best Nate Ruess and crew have written, the production felt targeted to the Fueled by Ramen crowd, whom the band signed with about a year after Aim & Ignite‘s release. My frustration with this album stems from the fact that I know how talented this band is, and I know how much they can accomplish with so little, so why do so much to the songs? On this record, producer Jeff Bhasker is essentially a member of the band, and his loud contributions often overshadow those of of Nate, Jack, Andrew, and other talented personnel on Some Nights. Still, the mainstream didn’t seem to care, and I don’t have to share anything about this band in 2013 that you don’t already love or hate. They are no longer anyone’s “best kept secret.” To those of you hearing fun. for the first time in 2012, it certainly seems at face value that they are another manufactured product of the industry, a band that couldn’t do what they do without the kind of production that exists on Some Nights, and again, that’s what’s so frustrating.
This weekend, the band was on the heels of two Grammy wins and a few other Grammy nominations. This time, then, there isn’t so much an anticipated “big thing,” but the feeling that this is the “big thing.” The Tabernacle is considered intimate in comparison to venues that they could have sold out right now. The show sold out in days, and ticket scalpers were outside the venue–not selling tickets, but essentially panhandling for extras. “I heard they were going for over $100 on Craigslist,” I overheard one of the scalpers say as we walked away. They followed us for a few seconds as we approached the line to enter The Tabernacle, “Hey, hey, any extra tickets? You got any extra tickets?”
Each time I’ve seen this band, the crowd has always been more enthusiastic. This time was no exception, but it was exponentially different. Everyone in attendance this time knew they were lucky to be there, with the cheering and screams between songs many decibles louder than the songs themselves. I was happy to see a little more diversity than I saw at Center Stage last year–I didn’t feel like the oldest person there; their demographic post-Grammy win has extended beyond the high school and college crowd, with no clear gender preference.
Next to us in the balcony was a young high school aged girl. She was singing at the top of her lungs, and I’m not ashamed to say that I was, too–more enthusiastically than her. Stephanie couldn’t stop laughing at how silly I must have looked. The key to enjoying this band is (and always has been) letting go of any pretentious attitude that may prevent you from enjoying the music, and to just have fun. (I’m trying to avoid this inevitable pun wherever possible.) When Nate sings, “tonight, we are young,” we are all young; tomorrow, we go back to being whoever we are…unless you really are young, in which case, I genuinely hope that this music affects your youth in the same way it did mine.
After the show, Stephanie told me, “I had a great time, but I still think they’re kinda lame.” Honestly–I couldn’t argue. I totally understand that opinion. But what does it matter? Like a good Disney movie, the appeal is universal if you allow it to be. And yes, there’s much about this music that sounds childish. But ignore your initial impression of Some Nights, as I have, because there is real substance and talent in this band. Allow yourself to indulge. Not everything sweet is bad for you.
Finally, enjoy this Some Nights-era set from DC’s 9:30 Club, originally broadcasted by NPR. Put aside your cynicism and see if you can’t have some fun.
fun. – Live at 9:30 Club – Washington, DC – 5/3/12
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1. One Foot
2. Walking the Dog
3. Why Am I the One
4. All the Pretty Girls (Intro)
5. All the Pretty Girls
6. All Alone
8. Carry On
9. The Gambler (Intro)
10. The Gambler
11. Be Calm
12. At Least I’m Not as Sad (As I Used to Be) (Intro)
13. At Least I’m Not as Sad (As I Used to Be)
14. We Are Young
15. You Can’t Always Get What You Want
16. Smooth (Intro)
18. Some Nights
19. Take Your Time (Coming Home) (Intro)
20. Take Your Time (Coming Home)
“Long-lost” Jon Brion/Elliott Smith performance.
Made my week.