Monday, August 08, 2011

Music Library: Neu!, Neurosis, and Neutral Milk Hotel

NEU! - NEU! (1972), NEU! '72 Live In Dusseldorf (recorded 1972), NEU! 2 (1973), NEU! 75 (1975).  I'm not shouting at you.  All caps is how NEU! rolls.  A duo of guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger, NEU! was formed with the two left Kraftwerk in 1971 to work on their own music, which influenced, let's say, everything that came after.  Like the legendary Velvet Underground story, NEU!'s work never sold that well, but everyone who bought it formed a band.  The opening track on NEU! demonstrates their genius, with driving, unstoppable drum rhythms (dubbed "motorik" for being, well, driving and unstoppable) combined with heavily distorted guitar parts that sustain on and on until your mind blows.  The remaining tracks are no less fantastic, combining odd sounds, ambient textures, and field recordings with the aforementioned motorik drums and droney guitars (and no lyrics on most).  Actually, I'm not so crazy about the last track, "Lieber Honig," with its maybe too-precious finger-style guitar and ugly-pretty hoarse vocals, but even that track has enough droney weirdness to be inching towards greatness.  The live album, released in the 1980s, is just awful, with terrible sound quality barely marring the lousy, unfocused jamming.  Unworthy of the NEU! name, for sure.  NEU! 2 is another landmark for a completely different reason.  The band ran out of cash with only half the album recorded, so they hit upon a pretty wild idea.  They took their previously released single "Neuschnee/Super" and played it back at different speeds, one time even mangling it in a cassette player.  Each one sounds like its own piece of music and a deconstruction of the music at the same time.  I have no idea if they were aware of what Jamaican producers were doing with dub around the same time, but the idea is similar: using the studio as an instrument to manipulate the sound until it is completely ripped from its original context.  Brilliant stuff, the precursor to remixes popular today.  By the time of NEU! 75, Rother and Dinger were no longer communicating well with each other.  This album is essentially a split between two different visions of music.  Rother was playing in the ambient krautrock band Harmonia with the band Cluster, and his contributions (the first three songs, all of which were side A of the LP) are mostly ambient-leaning, keyboard-heavy, and pretty.  For side B, Dinger brought in his brother and a friend to play drums, picked up a guitar, and cut some seriously angry proto-punk with vocals.  Excellent stuff, even if it's not quite up to the heady heights of the first two studio albums.

Neurosis - Through Silver In Blood (1996) and Sovereign EP (2000). An incredibly creative band, Neurosis introduced a lot of psychedelic twists and turns, heavily ambient parts, and sludgy doom riffs into mainstream metal and thus influenced many of the metal bands I love today.  However, I think I came to them to late, having already grown used to their innovations through their followers.  I hear these as creative metal, but I'm not immersed enough in the metal scene to really have my head blown by their sound.  Like it, don't love it.

Neutral Milk Hotel - Invent Yourself A Shortcake (1991), Beauty (1992), Hype City Soundtrack (1993), Everything Is EP (1994), On Avery Island (1995), In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998), Live At The Cat's Cradle (bootleg, 1998), Live In San Francisco (bootleg, 1998), unreleased tracks (1997-1999), and "Engine" from Oh, Merge (1999).  I've told this story a bunch of times, so forgive me if you've heard it before.  I picked up In The Aeroplane on my friend Phred's recommendation in 1998, but decided that I didn't like it and returned it to his record store. Over the next few years, I found some of the lyrics and snippets of the music stuck in my head.  I finally decided in 2001 or so to pick up another copy and give it another listen.  And I loved the hell out of it this time.  As of right now, it has 36 plays in my iTunes library since I started counting in 1997.  It's not much, but it was a good lesson about first impressions and the importance of giving myself time to change my mind.  So, Neutral Milk Hotel.  The first three of these are home-released "albums" of found noise and poorly recorded early versions that NMH leader Jeff Mangum made through the early 1990s.  They are none too good, although it's clear that Mangum has some serious talent.  In fact, if you've heard Everything Is, with its field recordings and good songs buried under noise, well, then, you have a glimpse of these first three sorta-albums.  On Avery Island refines things a bit, with Robert Schneider's much-improved production making this a good-if-not-great album featuring some great songs ("Song Against Sex," in particular, is fantastic).  And then there's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, which combines haunting imagery influenced by The Diary of Anne Frank and Freudian imagery out the wazoo with horns blaring, acoustic guitars intentionally pushed into the red (meaning: highly distorted by the recording, not by a stompbox or amp), wild drumming, and wildly passionate singing.  One of the finest albums of the 90s, if not The Finest, and that's where I lean.  The bootlegs are fun, the unreleased tracks probably better left that way, and "Engine" a bittersweet elegy of what we lost when Jeff Mangum walked away from his music career.  He has been playing some shows of late.  I hope that he's found it within himself to make another album,  but I understand wanting to leave it all on a career-high, too.


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