21 February 2008


"Oh Comely" by Neutral Milk Hotel which clocks in at 8:18

Or, The Assassination of Jeff Mangum by the Coward Colin Meloy.

No, I do not think Colin Meloy is a coward; I actually like him as well as the Decemberists. The above is simply a strained haymaker aimed at timeliness, a one-two punch if you will. Punch one, right in the gut: Neutral Milk Hotel's seminal album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea turned ten this month, what ideal fodder for this week's 8+....except that last week was it's actual anniversary, so perhaps then would have proven more ideal. Alas.

Punch two, a stiff uppercut: the Oscars are Sunday and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford garnered two nominations, a best supporting nod for Casey Affleck (the likable Affleck) and best cinematography for Roger Deakins (also nominated for No Country For Old Men).

Okay, so at least one of these references comes at a perfect time. And, in watching this film this past weekend, it seems I unwittingly constructed a parallel between its narrative and last week's timely item du jour: Jeff Mangum and the anniversary of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea....

Now, Pitchfork and other outlets did more than an admirable job of lionizing this album through a good ten years of beer goggles, so I'll spare you from attempting to do the same. Fact is, I'm a casual NMH fan at best; yes, I enjoy In the Aeroplane just fine thanks, but couldn't Robert Schneider have coaxed some less "pitchy" vocal takes from Mangum throughout the sessions? "Blasphemy!" you and everyone you know say - and you're probably right - which is why I'm declining to speak of the greatness of this album; I'll pass on that Kool-Aid for now.

Instead, I want to set our sights on the most eager (or at least the most visible...err, audible?) graduate of the Jeff Mangum School of Hard Vox, Colin Meloy.

As Mike McGonigal wrote last week in the intro to Pitchfork's tribute to In the Aeroplane, "I've always joked that David Karsten Daniels and Colin Meloy would each do well to send partial royalty checks to Mangum."

Absolutely right. And don't you ever get the feeling that Meloy's studied take on the literate nasal delivery resulted from hours upon hours spent locked in his dorm room absorbing Mangum's warbly vocals? I know I do.

Back to the film...I won't spoil anything but just paint the broad strokes and emphasize that among other things, The Assassination of Jesse James is a study in obsession. In the film, Robert Ford grows up worshiping the figure of Jesse James that has been immortalized in countless penny comic books and crackerjack novels. The Academy probably felt Affleck deserved a nomination if nothing but for the convincing "holy shit I'm chilling with my hero!" look he masterfully wears throughout his scenes with Brad Pitt (as James). I don't need to tell you how it ends, but in one scene Ford is coaxed by his older brother into telling James about his childhood obsession with him and all the similarities he had once catalogued between himself and his hero. The list is frighteningly comprehensive and includes such trivial observations as the fact that their names contain the same number of letters, they have the same number of siblings, their fathers were both ministers, etc etc etc.

It got me thinking: what if Colin Meloy is off somewhere constructing a similar list between he and Mangum? Is this so hard to believe?

He would actually discover quite a few (if at times strained) similarities. Riffing off Ford's list, most obviously there's the same number of letters in each name, coincidentally the same number that Ford and James shared as well.

C-O-L-I-N-M-E-L-O-Y = 10 letters

J-E-F-F-M-A-N-G-U-M = 10 letters

Oooooooooh spooky. Next are the overlapping background details: both grew up in somewhat rural and remote locations (Meloy in Helena, MT and Mangum in Ruston, LA) before moving to more progressive urban areas (Meloy to Portland, OR and Mangum to Athens, GA).

Both also fronted at least two other bands before settling in with the groups from which they're most well-known - Meloy in Happy Cactus and Tarkio prior to the Decemberists and Mangum in the Olivia Tremor Control and Synthetic Flying Machine leading up to Neutral Milk Hotel.

Not surprisingly, their actual songs and albums also bear similarities beyond just that of nearly identical vocals. Both have evoked WWII imagery on numerous occasions, Meloy most directly doing so on "When The War Came" - a rumination on the Siege of Leningrad - and of course Mangum throughout In the Aeroplane, itself a concept album about Anne Frank.

Not to be outdone, Meloy has also been accused of catering to the C-word (that's concept okay?) on The Crane Wife, as many whispered that it was actually a concept album about a Japanese folk tale. Regardless of the validity of such claims, this album is at least guilty of demonstrating another Meloy/Mangum parallel, that of their penchant for multi-part songs. There's "The Crane Wife 1 & 2" and "The Crane Wife 3" just as In the Aeroplane features "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1" and "Pt. 2" as well as "Two-Headed Boy" and "Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2". Hmmm.

Finally, there's the whole meta-similarity of the "one-take" urban legends that has arisen around two of their best-known songs. It has been said that Meloy and the rest of the Decemberists recorded "The Mariner's Revenge Song" from Picaresque (and previous 8+) in a single take while all huddled around one microphone. Similar claims surround the recording of this week's 8+, "Oh Comely". According to Wikipedia (and take it for what it's worth):

The song is one of a few on the album (notably, "Two-Headed Boy") to be recorded with mostly just Mangum's vocals and acoustic guitar present. The take for "Oh Comely" used on the final album actually started as a test; producer Robert Schneider, the three other members of Neutral Milk Hotel and various Elephant 6 performers were listening to Mangum play the song in the Pet Sounds Studio control room, assumming he was just checking how the microphone sounded. The crowd was surprised when Mangum ended up playing the entire eight-minute song in one go, and the room erupted in cheers and applause when he finished. At the very end of the song, an almost inaudible exclamation of "holy shit" can be heard, believed to be Scott Spillane. Mangum's track remains a sparse production on the final album, with only a few overdubs near the end (including Spillane's horn part).
To borrow a phrase from Bret Michaels, whassa goin' on? Did Meloy himself start the rumor about "The Mariner's Revenge Song" as the ultimate act of fan-boy emulation? Are these similarities merely superficial coincidences that, like most conspiracy theories, are only tenuously cobbled together? Beats me, but as the title of the film may suggest, Jeff Mangum may want to watch his back whenever Colin Meloy's in town.

*above photo from HERE

Buy In the Aeroplane Over the Sea on Amazon

EAR FARM's 8+ is a weekly feature that showcases songs longer than 8 minutes. In the recent past these songs were featured on EF's 8+:
George Gershwin - "Rhapsody in Blue"
Múm - "Smell Memory"
Tool - "Lateralus"
Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks - "Real Emotional Trash"
Iron Maiden - "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son"
Mandy Reid - "Tornado"
Genesis - "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight"
Metallica - "Master of Puppets"

To see a full list of every song featured in EAR FARM's 8+ click HERE.


Anonymous said...

There has been a shitload of Pt. 1-Pt. 2 songs on albums.

Mangum was not the first, Meloy not the last.

Mike said...

Very true.

And as I kind of tried to allude to a bit later, at the end of the day these are all just superficial similarities. That's why conspiracy theories spread and gain legs; you can pretty much make any argument you want if you distort the facts in your favor.

Anonymous said...

I always thought of Meloy and the Decemberists as having much less to do with Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel but more with Morrissey, the Smiths, Robyn Hitchcock, and Fairport Convention. Though I'm less versed in Meloy's history, that was always the impression I got and after doing some research, a couple sources seemed to agree with my sentiments.

As for Mangum, I'm not sure of his history with the Olivia Tremor Control. I know he was an affiliate through Elephant 6, but I'm not sure if he actually fronted the group before Neutral Milk Hotel. I've never heard that before. As for Synthetic Flying Machine, as far as I know, that was just the title of an extended demo tape (albeit a rather accomplished one) for Neutral Milk Hotel.

For Meloy's vocals, personally I never saw too much influence from Mangum. Meloy more or less gives himself an English accent, and when I'd first heard the group I did think they were English.

Even if Meloy's such a fan of Mangum, he does exhibit a number of major differences. In many of the Decemberists' songs, they strike me as bearing influence from traditional English folk music, à la Fairport Convention. Mangum has such obvious psychedelic leanings between his lyrical imagery and Neutral Milk Hotel's production techniques.

Another thing... I totally doubt the legend of the one mic take of "The Mariner's Revenge Song." I don't doubt it being done in one take, that seems reasonable. But one mic? If it was one mic, that must have been one powerful microphone. To get that kind of sound quality (though with mastering and all that fancy stuff done) with a single microphone would be a pain I think.

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