Imperfect Perfection: Neutral Milk Hotel plays an elated set at the Mann Center

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There’s probably no indie rock group surrounded by more enigma than Neutral Milk Hotel. Their second record, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, is considered by many to be one of those elusive perfect albums. I’m not quite sure about perfect (maybe it’s just that I have a minor beef with “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2”, but not 3), but it’s certainly a record unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. To add to the intrigue, the band’s auteur, Jeff Mangum, played white rabbit in a magic trick and, for all intents and purposes, disappeared from the public eye a year after Aeroplane‘s release. After a decade of near hermitage, Mangum started playing shows, and has just recently reunited the original Aeroplane lineup for a reunion tour. Even though he’s no longer in mysterious hiding, he refuses to give an interview, record a followup record, or even be photographed. I guess it’s a case of wanting the music to speak for itself, but the world may never really know. So just as with any great indie rock show, music geeks, hipsters and fans of beards alike made their way out to The Mann Center on a beautiful midsummer evening to hear the most mystifying act in music.

In one of the more ironic openings to a show I’ve seen, the bearded and bucket hat-wearing Mangum took the stage and shyly let out, “Hello, my new friends.” He picked up his guitar and strummed his way through “I Will Bury You In Time” (a track released on the 2011 Ferris Wheel On Fire EP of songs written and recorded in the ‘90s). As he sang the upbeat coda of “dee”’s, his band sprinted out onto the stage to start the loud lo-fi tune, “Holland, 1945,” bassist Julian Koster spinning in dizzying circles. While “King of Carrot Flowers” sounded rich and full-bodied, “Ferris Wheel On Fire” felt like it was missing something, and sounded disappointingly thin until some heavy, fuzzy bass kicked in. Mangum made quick fun of some guy yelling, “Fuck yeah!”, which he pretended to mishear as “I hate Jeff, fuck you!” and Koster reminded us not to feel like we have to throw stuff, even if it did kind of feel like a punk show up in the pit. Things started sounding really good when multi-instrumentalist Scott Spillane broke out what I’m pretty sure was a bass trumpet for a couple tracks off On Avery Island. Something about horns and NMH songs really gets a crowd moving, and I think there’s something to be said for that.

I could belabor every time the drums were ahead of the beat, or every time the bass missed a note, or even every time Koster’s musical saw was a tad out of key, but I won’t. Neutral Milk Hotel isn’t about playing a show so perfect to make you marvel at how much they must have rehearsed to sound that good. It’s about the most affectless, folksiest, weirdest sounds possible and Mangum’s delightfully odd but profoundly poetic vocals. I was pretty amazed by the second and third encores, “Ghost” and “[untitled]” respectively. Drumsticks flew through the air after each. That’s how hard it rocked. Because you know what? The music I heard last night spoke for itself.

Below, a round-up of of some of the best rogue photos and videos we found on Instagram.

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