Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
Chapter five in the fantastic book, "Our Noise - The Story of Merge Records, The Indie Label That Got Big And Stayed Small," published late last year, is dedicated to the sudden arrival and disappearance of Ruston, Louisiana's greatest ever band, Neutral Milk Hotel. The group, led by Jeff Mangum, made two records and when the spotlight got hotter, the man who penned all of the songs, removed himself from the picture, choosing instead to get lost in other thoughts. In recent years, Mangum has become less of a recluse, playing the occasional solo gig unannounced or sitting in with friends from the "defunct" Elephant 6 Collective family, but even so, a sighting of the man who wrote "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea," is a rare thing indeed. He's mostly gone and efforts to get him to involve himself in the celebration, analysis or recollection of anything involving the album that he began writing after reading the "The Diary of Anne Frank" and crying for three days afterward go largely ignored, as if they weren't being expressed at all. As recounted in "Our Noise," a reporter from the Atlanta Weekly Creative Loafing, attempted to contact Mangum for a story and in getting no answer to the inquiry, sought out Mangum's father. Mangum took offense and sent a note to the writer, stating, "I wish you the best in everything you do. But please do not contact my family. I think my dad was caught off guard by you, and maybe a little intrigued at first, but now he is left wondering how a perfect stranger could know about his painful past. I don't wish to revisit it either. I'm not an idea. I'm a person, who obviously wants to be left alone. If my music has meant anything to you, you'll respect that."
He's gone, for the most part - a man that we hold silent vigils for and mostly treat as someone in the past tense - but Shawn Fogel is out there, moving around, turning the staggeringly emotional and moving songs that Mangum wrote lo those many years ago into magnificent homages to the originals. Only, the Golden Bloom frontman treats them with his ukulele - though he strays from giving them a cheeky, wine-tasting party blush of romanticism that fellow uke-wielding crooner Dent May might. They are pretty, close to the vest renditions and yet, they feel less like strict covers and more like tributes with a capital T. This rolling company of buddies in the bands Golden Bloom, the Motion Sick and Fogel's quirky Neutral Uke project share an immediately catchable thread of needing closeness, of looking for those special comers whom they can spend "30 Lives" with or whom they could call on to help see through the gunk to the bright stars, up there somewhere. They remember things in their kisses like how they laughed through a make-out session - something that could be exactly what they'd hoped for in a girl. It's as if a line from the title track to that final and lasting Neutral Milk album played an indelible role in their emotional and romantic development, holding onto the lines, "What a beautiful face I have found in this place that is circling all round the sun/What a beautiful dream that can flash on a screen in a blink of an eye and be gone from me/Soft and sweet/Let me hold it close and keep it here/With me," as if they were gold pieces, to be kept in their pockets forever.
Neutral Uke Hotel Official Site