By MARK GUARINO | Sun-Times Music Writer
The return of Neutral Milk Hotel proves once again that all 90s nostalgia did not begin and end with Nirvana. This modest band released only two albums between 1996 and 1998 before vanishing soon after the second was released. Sixteen years later they reappeared onstage at the Riviera looking newly released from a time capsule playing a collection of hardware store saws, a banjo, trombones, flugelhorn, accordions, and a Minimoog synthesizer, among other instruments. Who were these people? Was this the band? Did it even matter?
Why this show, and the one Friday, is sold-out is largely due to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (Merge), a 1998 album that became a sleeper hit, mostly by people who had no idea what Neutral Milk Hotel was, looked like, or sounded like in the flesh. In the era of all-access streaming media, when musicians have to get their faces out there almost more than the music they make, the ambiguity of this band, and its strange but haunting songs, was also a lure.
So this return arrived with high expectations and on Thursday felt like a homecoming. People cheered certain song intros or musical accents they recognized from the record. Yet the band didn’t perform like it was on a victory lap. On the contrary, songwriter and lead vocalist Jeff Mangum remained extreme stage left for most of the night, cloaked in an oversized wool sweater, cap, and beard.
What made us know this was the real guy, of course, was that voice: bellowing, beautiful, unmistakable. Mangum sang his elusive songs touching upon sex and God and gauzy memories of childhood, full of images both grotesque and sweet, while strumming hard on his acoustic guitar. Rather than wistfulness, he played and sang with stomping force. His band joined him in different configurations or just left him alone. As things grew rowdy, and his bandmates thrashed around, he stayed put, like a beacon in the eye of a tornado, never blowing away.
However, the magic of “Aeroplane” didn’t hold in the performance. Maybe because this music ultimately didn’t need a visual; sixteen years was enough time for it to grow inside the imaginations of those who hold it dear. One of the few songs that held true was “King of Carrot Flowers,” parts one through three, which crashed from an isolated church hymn into electro-fuzz punk.
Joining the three core members of the group — Mangum with drummer Jeremy Barnes, and multi-instrumentalists Scott Spillane and Julian Koster — were three auxiliary band members who resembled coffee shop gypsies. They entered, exited as needed, but the truth was, they could have stayed home. More props than anything, the enlarged band gave the music a circus punk vibe that, at times, threatened to swallow the pondering beauty of the songs.
With Arcade Fire, a band that owes Mangum an obvious debt, the performance is key to delivering blustery community anthems, full of fire and grit. Neutral Milk Hotel is more psychedelic, in love with curated noise, and happy with detouring flourishes. So when the band leaned on messy stage gestures, or transformed their songs into chanteys, they felt unnecessary. Could this band have survived with one less trombone? The silver toy saxophone? A synthesizer that produced one note? Presumably yes.
True enough, Mangum and his crew could have easily followed the formula and played a note-for-note replication of “Aeroplane” like many returning bands on the nostalgia circuit of late. That didn’t happen. The songs were out of order, interspersed with unreleased material, or songs from an earlier time. Songs weren’t introduced; 75 minutes later the band was off the stage. What they left was a sense of an era that stubbornly clung tight to whimsy, mystery, and the belief that songs with acoustic guitars deserve to get weird though the enhancements of Salvation Army regalia. They often did.