Tuesday, August 16th, 2011
Jeff Mangum and Andrew, Scott & Laura at Trinity-St. Paul’s in Toronto
Frank YangIf we’re being completely honest, there’s a not-insubstantial part of me that wishes that this past weekend’s shows by Neutral Milk Hotel bandleader Jeff Mangum at Trinity-St. Paul’s had never happened. There was just something poetic about the disappearing act he pulled following In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, as though the album-closing sounds of the guitar being set down, chair being pushed back and footsteps into the distance was of him leaving this plane and taking his rightful place in some cosmic musical pantheon, having created one of the more perfect records of recent memory.
Of course, I suspect it’s over-romanticized shit like that that’s exactly why Mangum has finally emerged from seclusion. In the thirteen years since he disbanded Neutral Milk Hotel, his story has taken on mythic proportions as a new generation of the indie-inclined discover his masterpiece but can find no trace of its auteur – just field recordings of Bulgarian folk music, sound collages, very occasional guest appearances on the records of his Elephant 6 compatriots and rumours. So many rumours. Even if Mangum wanted to make a return to recording, releasing and performing music, surely the weight of expectation that would surround whatever came next would be unbearable.
So may as well just get it over with. Mangum sightings haven’t been unheard of in recent years, but a surprise Brooklyn loft show last December had the scent of something more than just a one-off; it felt more like carefully laying the groundwork for something bigger and within months, a relatively full-scale comeback was in place – both playing and curating some ATP Festival shows in the UK and US and headlining a number of east coast dates from the late Summer through the Fall. When the Toronto shows were announced, I theorized that this was Mangum’s effort to deconstruct the mythology around himself, to remind people that he was just a guy with a guitar and some songs and maybe, just maybe, not all that big a deal.
If that was the intent, mind you, maybe booking two nights in a church wasn’t the best way to make the point. For the Friday night show, the lineups began just after noon and by the time doors opened, stretched around more than a couple city blocks. And after all were admitted and dutifully took their places in the pews, it would still be an extended wait in the sweltering chapel before the show got underway. For support, Mangum brought along some old friends performing as Scott, Andrew & Laura – as in Scott Spillane of The Gerbils and Andrew Reiger and Laura Carter of Elf Power; certainly not household names but well-appreciated by those who knew them. Their set saw them trading off instruments and playing selections from their respective repertoires, striking a typically Elephant 6 balance of musical proficiency and primitivism but it was impossible to not be impressed by their final song, a Gerbils composition which had Spillane bellowing mournfully while Carter played trumpet unamplified into the church ceiling.
Just how reclusive has Jeff Mangum been? So much so that between sets, when a lanky figure in a light checked shirt and long brown hair tucked under a pageboy cap strode out on stage to check the four guitars set up around a chair, hardly anyone noticed that this was the man that they’d been waiting for months to years to forever in breathless anticipation to see live. They noticed when he came out the second time though – the dimmed lights must have helped – and he was welcomed back to Toronto, to the stage, with huge applause. And with the first strummed chords of “Oh Comely”, it began.
Jeff Mangum is often held up as the archetype for nasally-voiced indie-folk singers, but my first impression of hearing him in person was just how refined and powerful that voice was; Neutral Milk may have favoured a lo-fi, ramshackle aesthetic for their recordings but it certainly wasn’t to cover up the vocals. Of course, with this being a Mangum solo show and not a Neutral Milk reunion, that aesthetic was shelved anyways as the only flourishes on the voice and acoustic guitar configuration came courtesy of Spillane and Carter, who stepped up to add some crucial horn and clarinet parts to songs like “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” and “Ghost”. But for the most part, it was just Mangum and the rapt silence of his audience – a silence that burst into huge ovations when each and every song ended, as though they’d just witnessed the greatest thing ever and really, who’s to say they hadn’t?
Between songs, Mangum certainly didn’t come off like a recluse or eccentric, coming off chatty and friendly; at one point he asked, “Are you guys happy?” to an overwhelmingly positive response before having that question returned to him (he said he was). Also in the far-from-precious department, his requests – nay, demands – that the house sing along with him – further proof that he didn’t want our reverence, he wanted us to celebrate with him. There may not have been as much sincerity behind a full house singing “I love you Jesus Christ” as there would be when Trinity was actually serving as a conventional house of worship, but there was no denying that there was some genuine transfiguration occurring – or more accurately, a reverse-transfiguration with a musical demigod happily becoming just a man.
Though he apparently confirmed on Saturday night that he had been writing, no new songs were introduced. The hour-long set including one-song “Engine” encore encompassed selections from both Neutral Milk albums – though curiously no “Two-Headed Boy, Part One” on either night – and a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You In The End” wrought so lovely that I almost believed it could be true. But considering I’d just see Jeff Mangum perform live, I think one wish fulfilled on the evening was plenty.
NOW, Spin and The National Post was also on hand Friday while The Grid, The Globe & Mail and Exclaim have writeups of the very-similar Saturday night show; Southern Souls has also some audio from Saturday. And oh, there was no photography permitted at the show hence my sketch of the artist gracing the top of this post; it’s been a long time since I’ve drawn, and in that time I clearly forgot that a) I need light to draw, b) an eraser can be a handy tool and c) I was never very good at drawing. But anyways.
Paste is streaming the Stephin Merritt rarities collection Obscurities a week before its August 23 release. This release marks the return of Merritt to Merge Records and the next Magnetic Fields record will be out on the same label next year.
DIY has a feature interview with Stephen Malkmus on the occasion of the release of Mirror Traffic next week. The album is up to stream in its entirety over at NPR; Malkmus and The Jicks play The Phoenix on September 23.
Spin has posted online their cover story on St. Vincent for next month’s “Style Issue” – and if you think that means lots of snazzy pictures of Annie Clark to go with the interview, you’d be right. Her new record Strange Mercy arrives September 13.
Wilco have released a video teaser for the song “Almost” off their new album The Whole Love, which shows if nothing else that this album proves they’ve found the “Beautifully ugly” setting on Nels Cline. The album is out September 27 and they play Massey Hall on September 16 and 17.
Making good on his promise in July to return when the new record was out, Eric Bachmann will bring Crooked Fingers back to town for a show at the Drake Underground on November 8 in support of Breaks In The Armor, out October 11. Merge has the full tour itinerary, for which Strand Of Oaks will be supporting.