Saturday, December 17, 2005

I Just Don't Get It (Vol. 1): Neutral Milk Hotel

This post will be the first in a series entitled "I Just Don't Get It," which will discuss bands and/or albums that, as a reasonably sophisticated follower of indie rock, I'm apparently supposed to like a lot more than I actually do.

My first entry on this theme is devoted to Neutral Milk Hotel's sophomore album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, which was released in 1998 to great critical acclaim. It was considered one of the best albums of the year and still rates in the Top 5 or 10 (or Top 1) on nearly every list of great indie rock albums I see. And yet... it does nothing for me. Don't get me wrong - I was way into the whole Elephant 6 scene. I can remember first reading about it in the local alternative weekly newspaper and feeling so excited. It was 1996, and the whole Nirvana-induced excitement of alternative music as a commercially viable form was starting to wear thin. Lo-fi indie rock stalwarts like Pavement, Sebadoh, Sonic Youth, and Guided by Voices were starting to coast a bit, and it really seemed like guitar-based indie rock was going to be permanently buried by electronica and hip-hop. So, I promptly ran out and bought the debut albums by the original Elephant 6 triumvirate: Dusk at Cubist Castle by Olivia Tremor Control, On Avery Island by Neutral Milk Hotel, and Fun Trick Noisemaker by Apples in Stereo. I absolutely loved the albums, especially Dusk at Cubist Castle. I also saw OTC and NMH put on great live shows.

However, by the time In The Aeroplane Over The Sea came out, I was getting a little tired of the first-tier Elephant 6 acts, as well as the legion of second- and third-tier acts (Elf Power, Beulah, Minders, Chocolate) that kept cropping up. Indie snob ennui aside, though, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea just never grabbed me. There are some good songs, but for me, the album suffers from homogeneity. The songs just seem repetitive and interchangable - one slow- to -mid-tempo acoustic guitar strummer laced with singing saws, kazoos, after another. Oh Comely, which is over 7 minutes long, just seems to go on FOREVER. On Avery Island may not have been consistent in terms of quality, but I find myself liking the good songs (Song Against Sex, Naomi, Gardenhead) much better than anything from the 2nd album.

I recently dusted off my copy of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and tried to give it another chance, to no avail. I think that it's a moderately good album, but I will never understand why it keeps cropping up on best-album lists. If any album from that scene deserves to make the lists, it's Dusk at Cubist Castle, in my humble opinion.


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