Neutral Milk Hotel

Neutral Milk Hotel Announce “The Collected Works Of Neutral Milk Hotel” Box Set; Listen To “Little Birds”

Neutral Milk Hotel
Photo courtesy of Neutral Milk Hotel

Neutral Milk Hotel announce The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel, a box set out February 24th on Merge, and present the first official release of “Little Birds.” The work has always come together subconsciously for Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, even this box set. For years, Mangum collected images for an art box of sorts — would it be a Joseph Cornell-style assemblage? An experimental board game? Only time would tell. In the end, it became a discography-spanning compendium of his musical universe that still left a few treasures floating around in the musical ether. In 2011, 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 Merge edition of The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel marks the collection’s first digital release, and includes an expanded double LP edition of On Avery Island, an exclusive 12” picture disc of Live at Jittery Joe’s, a previously unreleased live recording of “Little Birds,” plus the “Holland, 1945” / “Engine” 7-inch on black vinyl with brand new art.

“Little Birds” and its 7” present a prayer-like song Mangum wrote quickly in 1998 and played later that day at a friend’s party, shortly before he stopped doing Neutral Milk Hotel. He wouldn’t play the song again for 10 years, but that live recording floated around online. Mangum wrote the song after a confrontation with a street preacher in downtown Athens who was spewing hatred towards LGBTQ people. A small group of five or six people gathered and shouted back. Mangum yelled to the point that the preacher got off his stool and slinked away. That distressing experience reverberated as Mangum wrote “Little Birds,” a song about many things, including how conservative Christianity too often imbues so-called believers with an utterly warped sense of morality. A newer version, recorded live at the Prospect Park Bandshell on Neutral Milk Hotel’s 2014 reunion tour, is included on the 2023 Merge box set.

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.

Neutral Milk Hotel - The Collected Works Of Neutral Milk Hotel

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.

Neutral Milk Hotel - The Collected Works Of Neutral Milk Hotel

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 KosterJeremy 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.


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