Neutral Milk Hotel - The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel Box Set
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Neutral Milk Hotel announce The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel, a box set out February 24th on Merge, and which includes the first official release of the 2014 rendition of “Little Birds.” In 2011, bandleader Jeff Mangum collected nearly all of the band’s recorded output in a limited-edition box set, which he self-released under Neutral Milk Hotel Records, a small operation helmed by Mangum and his mother. The expanded edition of The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel on Merge, the first & only edition widely available to record stores, includes both of their iconic full-length albums, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (in gatefold sleeve) & an expanded double LP edition of On Avery Island. Also found in this set, a 12" picture disc of Jeff Mangum's famous Live at Jittery Joe's performance, as well as two 10-inch records (an extended version of the Everything Is EP w/ new art & a collection of acoustic demos from 1992-1995 titled Ferris Wheel on Fire). Then there are the 7"s for the previously mentioned Little Birds, an updated edition of the “Holland, 1945” / “Engine” 7" & "You've Passed / Where You'll Find Me Now" single. As for the non-music collector goodies, the set also includes two 24" x 24" posters & a 2-sided postcard not available anywhere else. The whole set is assembled in a 12" two-piece telescoping casewrapped box (A slicker, larger box than the original 2011 version). Excluding both full-length albums, everything else included is exclusive to the box set & not available as a standalone item.
The two full-length records that Jeff Mangum made as Neutral Milk Hotel sound both in and out of time. Like translations of a shared subconscious, 1996’s On Avery Island and 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea give voice to the perennial spirit of youthful epiphany, of beginning to see the world clearly, to process and express it — no matter when you encounter them. With lo-fi indie rock, accordion, singing saw, tape collages, the so-called “zanzithophone” and beyond, Neutral Milk Hotel created an eternal entry into their Elephant 6 scene and an enduring feeling of possibility.
The remastered 1994 7” Everything Is appears on 10” vinyl as the extended EP that Mangum always envisioned, adding a few extra songs from the period. Newly added to Everything Is, “Unborn” came from a tape that Mangum made for Bill Doss (Olivia Tremor Control) while living in Athens as they traded cassettes like audio letters, filled with songs, field recordings, and conversation. These first unvarnished Neutral Milk Hotel recordings tell the story of Mangum’s genesis as an artist with a subcultural sound and subcultural values. Also included here is a trio of 7” singles, one of which features early versions of the On Avery Island songs “You’ve Passed” and “Where You’ll Find Me Now” from 1994, recorded on four-track by Mangum on his own. Mangum was initially going to record the whole album at home on a four-track but soon realized that he would need the help of a friend, The Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider, to produce. Mangum gave Schenider this cassette (later rediscovered in a shoebox) in advance of those sessions.
The 10” EP Ferris Wheel on Fire, primarily recorded with Schneider in 2010, collects stray songs that Mangum had written many years prior but never set to tape. (The exception is “My Dream Girl Don’t Exist,” recorded live at Aquarius Records in San Francisco in the ‘90s.) In the box set, Ferris Wheel is accompanied by a card denoting the year that each song was written, helping to illustrate how the Neutral Milk Hotel catalog took shape. Ferris Wheel’s “Oh Sister,” for instance, was written on the same day as Aeroplane’s “Oh Comely.” There’s a sense of music building in a world in which words, phrases, images, and chord progressions echo and recur.
A final component of the box portrays that process viscerally: Live at Jittery Joe’s, the live album recorded in 1997 that Mangum first released in 2001. It captures Neutral Milk Hotel at its most profoundly pivotal moment. After the release of On Avery Island in 1996 and a subsequent tour, Mangum and his bandmates — Julian Koster, Jeremy Barnes, and Scott Spillane — found themselves in New York’s West Village where, in October of that year, Mangum wrote “Two-Headed Boy.” The band was about to get kicked out of their apartment, and soon headed south to regroup with friends in Athens. By that point, the scene was in bloom. Olivia Tremor Control had released its debut LP; Elf Power was playing. Athens was an easy and fruitful place to live and create. Neutral Milk Hotel happily joined in, moving into a beautiful house on Grady Street where Mangum continued to write In the Aeroplane Over the Sea from January to May of 1997.
If the live recordings, alternate takes, and time stamps of this box set illustrate the process of Neutral Milk Hotel’s world coming into focus, it’s fitting. In a recent conversation, Mangum reflected on a question he’s gotten often: Why didn’t Neutral Milk ever make a video? But, he clarified, the band made millions of videos—all in people’s minds. Everybody has their own Neutral Milk Hotel film in their head. For an artist who took root in the liberating aesthetic of underground tape-trading and DIY punk—whose sense of what music can be was permanently altered by the Minutemen’s non formulaic structures, by their mix of the political and the impressionistic; who announced, at the start of his catalog, “I’m finally breaking free from fear”—it’s an invitation to hear the music, and then become a part of it.