Neutral Milk Hotel @ Le Trianon, Paris

Jeff Mangum wrote just a few handfuls of songs, and with those and the help of a couple of friends he released two of the best albums in the entire history of music: Neutral Milk Hotel‘s “On Avery Island” and “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” – then he disappeared. This was in 1999, and between then and now, as both albums gradually started enchanting me, Mangum grew to become one of the few absolute heroes I still have left. I never expected to see him perform ever in my life – when he resurfaced, I thought his public appearances would remain limited to a few little venues in the American hinterland, after which he would draw back into hibernation. But then Neutral Milk Hotel reformed for an American tour, and after that, against my wildest expectations, extended this tour to Europe. So I went to see them in Paris, and it was quite possibly the most amazing show I ever attended.

The show captured a lot of the eerie and uncomfortable beauty of Jeff Mangum’s songs, especially the ones he sang just by his lonely self in a bright shaft of light – opener “Two-Headed Boy” and almost-closer “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2” were almost unparalleled in their sheer distressing grace. But it wasn’t just a homecoming of the much-beloved “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” – most of that album was featured, sure, but I was thrilled that almost half of “On Avery Island” was played as well. While “Naomi” might not have been the crowd’s favorite, it’s one of my favorite songs in the world, and to hear Jeff Mangum and his band perform it live felt like a rite of passage.

Then there’s the other side of Neutral Milk Hotel: they can just as easily morph into an aggressively loud band that, rather than analyze, you have to feel like a blow to your stomach. “The King of Carrot Flowers“‘s steady progression from some kind of neurotic bluegrass song into a drunken Carnivàle, then suddenly thundering into a devastating wall of mayhem was like an explosion on the theatre floor: the devoted crowd went A.P.E.S.H.I.T., unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. “Ghost” is breathtakingly beautiful, setting half the audience gaping in awe (or singing loudly along, or even crying - or both). But it’s also ferociously driven by distorted drones and a thudding 4/4 rhythm, setting the other half ablaze. “Holland 1945” takes some very bleak World War II imagery to build a song upon that had people crowd surfing. Were it not for Mangum’s wail, all those cheery trumpets would’ve almost made it sound joyful.

Although he looked very pleased and appreciative, I don’t know if Jeff Mangum really enjoys performing those obsessive and unsettling songs – I don’t even know to what length these songs have any auto-biographic foundation to them. Maybe they don’t, and maybe I’m putting too much significance on them. Then again, I realize I may not fully understand Jeff Mangum’s twisted mind - the songs have been described as “the cracked logic of a dream“, and that’s exactly the way they resonate with me. But in spite of all misinterpretation, intentional or not, this music touches me deeply, and it’s been so, so very rewarding to have witnessed this.

Hospitality @ Vera

Drove all the way up to Groningen to see Hospitality at the Vera this weekend. It was a lovely show on a couple of levels, not in the least because I never expected to see them live, ever - they’re not particularly huge here. As a matter of fact, their debut album caught me by complete surprise because of, well, some tweet. For which I’m still very grateful.

Like their last album, the show had a charming kind of modesty to it. I think their last single, “Going Out“, best sums up what this band is about – they’re playful, but also have a certain feeling of heavy-heartedness about them. Their show was built upon this interplay between melancholy songs, mostly from their last album, and uplifting songs, mostly from their first – or sometimes the both of them rolled into one, as in opener “Inauguration”. On the album it’s a shy en quiet beauty, easily one of the best songs I’ve heard this year. Live, however, they stepped it up into a vigorous synth rock tune that suited them equally well.

Seeing Hospitality live also reveals how intricate these songs actually are. Take “I Miss Your Bones” for example, a song easily shifting from one god knows what time signature into the other, coming to a sudden halt, firing back up, but at the same time remaining irresistibly catchy. “Nightingale” changes shape three, four times in its first half a minute before finding a steady pace, then suddenly ends in what most bands would take as an opportunity for another 20 minute stretch of stomping on their guitars.

Goes without mention that I loved them for playing quite a few of the songs I know so well from their first record. “Betty Wang” in itself makes this world a better place. They kept it for their “first European encore ever”, ending with it a great, great show.

Hospitality at Vera Groningen

Hospitality at Vera Groningen

Favorite songs ever #1

Apparently I’m too busy to post regular updates to this site, so why not kick a new section into life? Here’s the first in a continuous series of my favorite songs ever.

Lower Dens – Brains

From 2012′s album “Nootropics” (get it here).

Lower Dens played at Crossing Border a few years back, which drew my attention to this song – instantly hypnotizing me. It’s a song that triumphs in some kind of austerity, stripped clean of unnecessary ornaments, continuing on and on with its nervous, almost Kraftwerk-like rhythm. But the way the whole song suddenly swirls back upon itself at 3’36″ is just goddamn gorgeous.

Life Without Buildings

Here’s another great example of an album that has been reissued to my reading delight. I don’t know anyone familiar with Life Without Buildings, a band so careerless they even let their official domain expire. They were awesome despite their short-livedness – “New Town” is one of my favorite songs of all time.

Slint

Except unlike other members of the criminally neglected alt-rock trailblazer club [...] Slint didn’t just fail at becoming the world-beating superstars that their record labels and music-critic boosters alike hoped they would be. Through their initial 1986-1991 existence, Slint were obscure outsiders even within the subterranean confines of the American indie-rock underground.

Slint‘s breathtakingly awesome album “Spiderland” has been reissued as a 3xLP box set. That’s a fact worth mentioning in itself, but I also just thoroughly enjoy Pitchfork’s reviews of reissued albums – it teleports me back to the time they were released in the first place, and gives some more insight in bands and albums I love.

“Spiderland” scores a 10. I wouldn’t have expected otherwise.

Kurt Cobain died 20 years ago today

Seeing exactly this at my parents’ house is how I found out about Kurt Cobain’s death in April 1994. Although I was as shocked as anyone, I didn’t know about the full story until years later, when I saw BBC’s The Seven Ages of Rock. I’ve always known about it by and large – heroin addiction, unable to cope with the maelstrom of commercial success he so openly made a mockery of. But not until then did I hear about the terrifying bleakness of Cobain’s addiction, his overdose and hospitalization in Rome just one month prior to his death and his insistence on their November 1993 MTV Unplugged session looking like a funeral. And also: the close friendship between Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe, and Stipe’s failed attempt to lure Cobain away from his downward spiral, faking a made-up collaboration project he wanted Cobain to join him on. It still remains a very tragic story.

It’s also in retrospect that I’ve come to realize the importance of Nirvana to the music I’ve so dearly loved since then. Of course Nirvana themselves today still sound every bit as vigorous and sincere as they did back then. But they opened the floodgates to many bands that are very important to me now. No, bloody fucking Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and a whole slew of other acts that went and ran with a counterfeit of Nirvana’s legacy are not what I mean. What I do mean is that Nirvana chose to play “The Man Who Sold the World” right after “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” on their MTV Unplugged session, in one broad stroke making tiny little Glasgow band the Vaselines equally important in the Great Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as David Bowie. They invited another little unknown band up on stage, the Meat Puppets, to play no less than three of their songs with to a television audience of millions. They publicly spoke up for bands that influenced them and actively supported bands that sprang from the same lineage they themselves did. It’s like Cobain realized he gained his immense success partly by just being lucky, something he wished upon his peers even more than upon himself.

Kurt Cobain’s influence on indie rock can’t be overstated, not even as much musically as more so in spirit. He relentlessly supported his own folk – I mean, check out this picture of Cobain saluting both Sebadoh and K Records. It made me realize there had to be more below the surface than what I before had been exposed to – something to be very grateful for.

Flake Music

I’ve been listening to Flake Music‘s first and only album “When You Land Here, It’s Time To Return” today. Not only does it remain a remarkable album, although quietly unnoticed – it’s almost as good as the debut album from The Shins, the band Flake Music morphed into. But until now I didn’t realize how much akin it is to Built To Spill, especially “Blast Valve” could easily have originated from 1994′s “There’s Nothing Wrong With Love”.

“Seven Swans” is 10 years old

Sufjan Stevens‘ album “Seven Swans” means a lot to me. I listened to it a few weeks ago, as I do every once in a while, and it still is breathtakingly gorgeous. It’s been released a whopping 10 years ago – it’s weird to realize there are as many years between, say, Portishead‘s debut “Dummy” and “Seven Swans”, as there are between “Seven Swans” and today. Stereogum posted an article about the album.

Perfect Pussy

Perfect Pussy‘s debut album “Say Yes to Love” is out to some glowing reviews: 8.6/Best New Music on Pitchfork, 8 on Spin. I’m not totally convinced myself, judging from the NPR stream – to me it sounds too much like Pretty Girls Make Graves and White Lung to be truly special. It’s a good album nonetheless, I’m probably going to listen to it a lot this year.

Liars

Liars are back after 2012′s “WIXIW”. I’m not sure what to think of “Mess”, their latest release, but I wasn’t especially fond of “WIXIW” either. Maybe it’ll get to me eventually, anyone interested can stream the album over on NPR.