MU­SIC All Played Out

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - An­wen Craw­ford on what hap­pened to indie mu­sic

Young white men

with beards be­yond their years put me in mind of a band from the ’90s, whose in­flu­ence has long out­lived their ac­tual ca­reer. And it’s not just the pre­ma­turely hir­sute but also farm­ers’ mar­kets, re­cy­cled wood fur­ni­ture, hand-set type­faces, dec­o­ra­tive flour sacks … the whole panoply of an­ti­quar­ian and ar­ti­sanal brand­ing, in­clud­ing self-brand­ing, so com­mon to con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism: it all tends to re­mind me of Neu­tral Milk Ho­tel, an Amer­i­can band whose sec­ond al­bum, In the Aero­plane Over the Sea, was re­leased 20 years ago this month. I don’t hold Neu­tral Milk Ho­tel di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for shops that try to sell me a vi­sion of rough-hewn Ar­ca­dian bliss, not ex­actly. But the band’s af­ter­life has been il­lus­tra­tive. Neu­tral Milk Ho­tel’s record la­bel, the in­de­pen­dent Merge Records, an­tic­i­pated sell­ing around 7000 copies of In the Aero­plane Over the Sea at the time of its re­lease. Since then it has sold closer to half a mil­lion copies – a mod­est num­ber by the yard­stick of pop su­per­star­dom, but un­usual for a band that in 1998 hardly had a na­tional fan­base, let alone an in­ter­na­tional one. And a band that has not, de­spite a re­u­nion tour in 2013, sub­se­quently re­leased any new ma­te­rial. Be­yond sales, the wider sig­nif­i­cance of In the Aero­plane Over the Sea is its en­cap­su­la­tion – its anticipation – of a pre-in­dus­trial, anti-mod­ernist aes­thetic that func­tions to­day as a sig­nal of per­sonal (or brand) au­then­tic­ity. Take mar­quee pop star Justin Tim­ber­lake, not pre­vi­ously noted for his in­ter­est in the rus­tic, who in Jan­uary re­leased a pro­mo­tional trailer for his new al­bum, Man of the Woods, that was all camp­fire and fa­cial hair and sheep­skin coat. Watch­ing this high-bud­get ad­ver­tise­ment for the sim­ple life, I won­dered if it rep­re­sented the pop­u­lar eclipse of a pro­longed phase in the his­tory of in­de­pen­dent – or indie – mu­sic. But what is indie? Some­times a set of prin­ci­ples, some­times a busi­ness model, and some­times a mu­si­cal genre, indie’s mean­ings have not al­ways, or even of­ten, co­in­cided. As Richard King ob­serves in his his­tory of Bri­tish indie la­bels, How Soon Is Now? (2012), in­de­pen­dent record la­bels with­out ties to cor­po­ra­tions have ex­isted since the be­gin­ning of the mu­sic industry. But it’s only in the slip­stream of punk, with its pe­cu­liar com­bi­na­tion of anti-com­mer­cial mu­sic and en­trepreneurial en­ergy, that the no­tion of “indie” is born. A reck­less sum­mary of indie’s first two-and-a-bit decades – don’t quote me on your exam – might go some­thing like this: Manch­ester, 1977; Buz­zcocks’ sel­f­re­leased Spi­ral Scratch EP is a eureka mo­ment; Fac­tory Records, Joy Di­vi­sion; Rough Trade, The Smiths; fanzines; a spirit of DIY; col­lege ra­dio in Amer­ica; bud­get tour­ing in a six-seater van; Nir­vana dis­rupt it all; ma­jor la­bel gold rush; in­de­pen­dent la­bel bank­rupt­cies; re­con­sol­i­da­tion; the in­ter­net; The Strokes; et cetera. This is al­ready to take a well-worn route through a maze-like his­tory; if “indie” de­scribes an in­de­pen­dent busi­ness model, then there is no rea­son not to in­clude in that de­scrip­tion cer­tain dance and hip-hop la­bels – or, as King points out, the bub­blegum pop cat­a­logue of Stock Aitken Water­man, the in­de­pen­dent la­bel that brought Kylie Minogue and Bana­narama to fame. But here we run up against the cod­i­fi­ca­tion of indie as a genre, which has been heav­ily skewed to­wards men who play elec­tric gui­tars with­out vis­i­ble sign of ef­fort or ex­per­tise, and which has proved about as cos­mopoli­tan in its make-up as a Coali­tion cabi­net. With the above in mind, then, let us pro­ceed to the longueur of the mid to late ’90s, when the ca­su­al­ties of grunge – indie’s cor­po­rati­sa­tion – were still be­ing counted, and out of which Neu­tral Milk Ho­tel emerged as a fully fledged band. Led by singer-song­writer Jeff Mangum, Neu­tral Milk Ho­tel formed in Mangum’s home­town of Rus­ton, Louisiana, and re­leased a de­but al­bum, On Avery Is­land, in 1996. By the time of In the Aero­plane Over the Sea the group had re­lo­cated to Athens, Ge­or­gia – a col­lege town with a pro­duc­tive in­de­pen­dent mu­sic scene that had given Amer­ica two of its de­fin­i­tive ’80s bands, R.E.M. and The B-52s. Af­ter early, solo ex­per­i­ments with home record­ing and tape col­lages, Mangum had shaped Neu­tral Milk Ho­tel into a type of indie-folk band, one that com­bined ba­sic, chordal gui­tar parts with old-fan­gled in­stru­ments such as the banjo and mu­si­cal saw. The group also num­bered among a loosely af­fil­i­ated set of bands and mu­si­cians known, col­lec­tively, as the Ele­phant 6 Record­ing Com­pany, who shared an in­ter­est in ’60s pop and psychedelia: the stu­dio in which In the Aero­plane Over the Sea was recorded was named Pet Sounds, af­ter the Beach Boys’ land­mark 1966 al­bum. Like Pet Sounds be­fore it, In the Aero­plane Over the Sea is a sort-of con­cept al­bum, driven by its pri­mary song­writer’s fix­a­tions. Mangum had made a be­lated dis­cov­ery of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, and the songs he wrote out of his en­counter with Frank’s chron­i­cle were freighted with a heavy sense of

Nat­u­rally, such an al­bum at­tracts the young, the lonely and the fa­nat­i­cal.

an­guish. “And will she re­mem­ber me 50 years later?” he sang on the al­bum’s cen­tral track, “Oh Comely”, “I wished I could save her in some sort of time ma­chine.” It would be overly lit­eral, though, to de­scribe In the Aero­plane Over the Sea as an al­bum about the Holo­caust, for Frank is only one of many phan­tasms to pop­u­late a set of loop­ing, in­ter­linked nar­ra­tives that pro­ceed with the closed logic of a dream or a re­li­gious vi­sion.

I was an indie kid, which feels like a con­fes­sion of fault or in­ad­e­quacy, so lit­tle has indie of­fered for so long.

As be­fit­ted a group from the Amer­i­can south, Neu­tral Milk Ho­tel con­veyed an evan­gel­i­cal zeal. Mangum sang his lyrics, which were ser­pen­tine and al­lu­sive, in a voice that was ur­gent, nasal and un­tu­tored, prone to veer­ing a lit­tle flat. Brass in­stru­ments – in­clud­ing trom­bone, flugel­horn and eu­pho­nium – added an­other kind of clam­our, and the over­all ef­fect of In the Aero­plane Over the Sea was, and re­mains, to snatch a lis­tener up into an at­mos­phere part cap­ti­vat­ing and part threat­en­ing, like a tent re­vival­ist’s meet­ing. Pop­u­lar mu­sic’s quasi-re­li­gious power is as old as the form it­self, and in this re­spect Neu­tral Milk Ho­tel were up to noth­ing new, but In the Aero­plane Over the Sea is no­table for re­peat­edly and con­sis­tently mak­ing con­verts of its lis­ten­ers. It is an al­bum about the pos­si­bil­ity and the un­like­li­hood of sal­va­tion that some lis­ten­ers have de­scribed as hav­ing saved them. As a work of ob­ses­sion, it also en­cour­ages ob­ses­sion, as if to hear it closely enough, or of­ten enough, might re­veal some ul­ti­mate, univer­sal truth. Nat­u­rally, such an al­bum at­tracts the young, the lonely and the fa­nat­i­cal. Early in­ti­ma­tions of this lis­ten­er­ship were enough to spook Mangum, who, by the end of 1998, had ef­fec­tively dis­ap­peared from sight. No new gigs or songs were forth­com­ing. Mangum’s si­lence did noth­ing to dis­pel the grow­ing aura around In the Aero­plane Over the Sea. As writer Luke Winkie ob­served in a 2016 ar­ti­cle for The A.V. Club, the al­bum ar­rived “at the dawn of the In­for­ma­tion Age”, and the vac­uum left by Neu­tral Milk Ho­tel’s sud­den hia­tus was filled with the kind of spec­u­la­tion and over-anal­y­sis that thrives on the in­ter­net. In the Aero­plane Over the Sea be­gan as a wordof-mouth phe­nom­e­non and be­came an on­line one, and early crit­i­cal re­ac­tion to the al­bum, which had been mixed, mor­phed over time into an adu­la­tory con­sen­sus. Rolling Stone, for in­stance, had char­ac­terised the al­bum upon its re­lease in 1998 as the work of “naive tran­scen­den­tal­ists”, but by 2011 the mag­a­zine had altered its as­sess­ment: now In the Aero­plane Over the Sea was “time­less tran­scen­den­tal­ist pop”.

“Time­less” is a telling ad­jec­tive: in­dica­tive, I think, of an anx­i­ety that has be­set mu­sic crit­i­cism since about 1998, when the in­ter­net be­gan to se­ri­ously erode the cul­tural stand­ing – and the prof­its – of a print-based mu­sic press. Be­hind “time­less”, or the oxy­moronic “in­stant clas­sic”, lurks a barely dis­guised fear that new mu­sic is any­thing but, that no one will re­mem­ber it, or us, be­cause there is no defin­ing crit­i­cal nar­ra­tive any­more. A lot of con­tem­po­rary pop mu­sic crit­i­cism has be­come trapped in a nos­tal­gia loop, with crit­ics yearn­ing to re­cover the kind of in­flu­ence that early rock mag­a­zines like Rolling Stone com­manded back in the ’60s. Canon-build­ing is com­mon­place, even if it’s an “al­ter­na­tive” or ret­ro­spec­tive canon-build­ing, the kind that will el­e­vate In the Aero­plane Over the Sea to the No. 4 po­si­tion in the Top 100 Al­bums of the 1990s (Pitch­fork) or No. 16 in the Top 30 Al­bums of the Past 25 Years (Q). The mu­si­cal thumbprint of Neu­tral Milk Ho­tel can be found to­day in acts like Car Seat Head­rest, who tour Aus­tralia this month and whose com­bi­na­tion of fuzzy gui­tars, stri­dent vo­cals and un­hemmed per­sonal rev­e­la­tion all re­call the older band. Multi-plat­inum-sell­ing, Grammy award-win­ning Cana­dian group Ar­cade Fire would quite pos­si­bly not ex­ist with­out Neu­tral Milk Ho­tel’s fever­ish, brass-em­bel­lished prece­dent. (For their first few al­bums, Ar­cade Fire were also signed to the same in­de­pen­dent la­bel, Merge Records.) And while the ven­er­a­tion of Jeff Mangum as an iso­lated, Thoreau-like fig­ure re­calls, on the one hand, older myths about cre­ativ­ity – we al­ways like to imag­ine that pe­cu­liar artis­tic vi­sions are born out of soli­tari­ness rather than in­ter­de­pen­dence – it has also con­trib­uted to a back-tothe-woods im­pulse that has been prom­i­nent through­out the past 20 years of Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dent mu­sic, even when no ac­tual woods have been in­volved. Lo-fi pro­duc­tion val­ues and stum­bling gui­tars and emo­tional trou­ble – God, it’s all so played out. The stub­born re­dun­dancy of much con­tem­po­rary indie as a genre must be off­set against the po­ten­tial re­newal of indie as an idea, es­pe­cially now, when the three re­main­ing ma­jor-la­bel con­glom­er­ates – Sony Mu­sic En­ter­tain­ment, Univer­sal Mu­sic Group and Warner Mu­sic Group – dom­i­nate the mar­ket but demon­strate lit­tle long-term artis­tic vi­sion. There is much to be re­claimed in the indie model of an op­po­si­tional, counter-hege­monic cul­ture, in­clud­ing the de­sire to speak con­tem­porar­ily rather than pur­sue a false time­less­ness. A will­ing­ness to con­front the tem­po­ral con­fu­sion of our times, in­clud­ing its cul­pa­ble nos­tal­gia (why are all the woods­men white?) also feels nec­es­sary. I’m not cer­tain that an al­bum like In the Aero­plane Over the Sea, with its vivid fan­tasies of time travel and time slip­page, could be writ­ten to­day with the same kind of un­stud­ied naivety. Not when 35 open browser tabs will give you an­other, equally vivid sense of time’s in­sta­bil­ity and of the ghostly prox­im­ity of the long dead. In this way, the al­bum is very much a cre­ation of its time. Of course, I would hardly know or care about it un­less I, too, had once fallen un­der its spell. I was an indie kid (ask me about The Smiths’ B sides!), which feels like a con­fes­sion of fault or in­ad­e­quacy, so lit­tle has indie of­fered for so long. But the prom­ise re­mains – and it’s some­times en­acted – of a pop­u­lar mu­sic, re­gard­less of genre, that is made with­out re­course to the mar­ket stric­tures of mass pop­u­lar­ity. This is indie’s found­ing, en­er­gis­ing para­dox, and its truest legacy.

Neu­tral Milk Ho­tel. Pho­to­graph by Will West­brook

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