Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
You've read a lot in these pages about the Elephant 6 collective and how this shifting cadre of musicians from a number of cities gets together on a regular basis to make weird and wonderful songs under several different banners, including the one in bold print above. But what makes this tale worth telling is not its anti-show-biz novelty, but the quality of the music these performers are creating. Tone Soul Evolution and Dusk at Cubist Castle by sect members the Apples and Olivia Tremor Control, respectively, are terrific discs that share a similar love of melody but use it to different ends; the Apples shoot for (and frequently achieve) pure pop perfection, while Olivia Tremor Control allows its compositions to explode in noisy psychedelic rapture. As for Neutral Milk Hotel, it reflects the sensibilities of leader Jeff Mangum, an extraordinarily gifted tunesmith with a vision that's wholly his own. Aeroplane will sound to some listeners like a Robyn Hitchcock recording as produced by Van Dyke Parks, but even this delicious description feels somehow inadequate. By contrast with Hitchcock's lyrics, which frequently intersperse doomy observations with comic asides, Mangum's similarly surrealistic words are nakedly sincere; when he belts out, "I love you, Jesus Christ/Jesus Christ, I love you/Yes I do" in the midst of "The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three," there's not a drop of irony involved. (In the CD's liner notes, Mangum attempts to explain the tune: "I'd like to simply say that I mean what I sing," he writes, adding, "The theme of endless endless on this album is not based on any religion but more in the belief that all things seem to contain a white light within them that I see as eternal.") The phantasmagoria of images sprinkled throughout the eleven tracks here is simply astounding. "Two-Headed Boy," for example, touches upon love, sex and death ("Catching signals that sound in the dark/We will take off our clothes/And they'll be placing fingers thru the notches in your spine") in ways that should seem disturbing but are inexplicably beautiful instead. The production by the Apples' Robert Schneider creates the ideal backdrop for such observations; it's quiet when quiet is called for, ornate when the song demands it. Just as important, the trademark Elephant 6 hooks are in place; "Holland, 1945," a gorgeous ode to (I think) war and reincarnation that rockets along on a jet stream of guitars, brass and who knows what else, is an early candidate for catchiest song of the year. I've heard a lot of discs by this affiliation of musicians, and by my reckoning, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the best yet. Until the next one comes out, that is.
Let It Come Down
This album by the once and future guitarist for Smashing Pumpkins would provide the perfect soundtrack for a remake of The Stepford Wives, a memorable Seventies movie about programmed passivity. In the new version, the zombified, submissive women of the original would be replaced by zombified, sensitive alternative-rock stars. The "husbands," played by performers from Lilith Fair, would banish their mates to a forced labor camp so they could learn to write angst-free songs. There, Iha would shake off the public humiliations he suffered while under the thumb of his former boss, bald-headed Übermensch Billy "Despite all my rage/I am still just a rat in a cage" Corgan. The stirring conclusion would feature Iha, fresh from spending countless classroom hours assimilating the nuances of music by soft-rock kingpins like Bread, triumphantly singing, "You've got to be strong/And if I come and hold you now/You'll be safe and sound" (from "Be Strong Now") on The New Lawrence Welk Show.
Or maybe not. But one thing's for sure: Iha, who was assisted on this album by friends from Veruca Salt and Fountains of Wayne, has tapped into the consciousness of today's new maudlin generation. This sensibility, likely culled from the results of extensive demographic studies, is certainly accessible, but his lyrics ("Do you see beauty?/Do you see love?/It calls your name") are more appropriate for Hallmark cards than for rock songs. If you're interested in starting a cult, Let It Come Down will give you some good ideas.
Tan Dum and the Kronos Quartet
Attempting to explain the appeal of discordant, strangely formed conservatory music is like trying to account for loving conspiracy theories or raw jalapenos; the reasons always sound like rationalizations even when they're legitimate. Such is the case with this offering by Tan Dum, a Chinese composer who, like Philip Glass, swings from avant-gardish inspirations to great public works. (Glass composed a theme for the 1984 Olympics, while Dum provided music for the ceremonies that accompanied Hong Kong's official transition from a British to a Chinese territory last summer.) Ghost Opera, for its part, is a little dabble in obscurity; it sounds as if Dum pieced together the cliches of twentieth-century orchestral experiments by everyone from Edgard Varese to Frank Zappa, then twisted them via shimmering string arrangements derived from Chinese classical music. Whatever point there was to the ceremonial traditions evoked by the work in its original stage format isn't clear; maybe the music's dissonance simply mutes the emotions these ghosts try to call up. ("Atmospheric" sections that feature whooping voices and clattering percussion flop as thoroughly as do analogous failures by Zappa, Meredith Monk et al.) But the Quartet makes a compelling noise, putting its muscle into big, lumbering patches of sound that suggest a demolished wooden building that almost pulls itself back together. The players also make you grateful for smaller moments, like a melody taken from the oldie "Blue Moon" that survives repeated assaults or the cleverly hidden J.S. Bach quote in the second act. Finding it is the musicological equivalent of hunting for the bunny's head on the cover of Playboy.
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Michael, Janet, Randy, Jackie, Jermaine, La Toya, Marlon and Rebbie, the woman behind this lukewarm, generic piece of product: Is there a single member of the Jackson family who hasn't gotten to make a solo album other than Tito? If I were him, I'd be pissed.