Reviews JeffMangum

Published on January 31st, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann


Review: Jeff Mangum Pleased Hardcore Neutral Milk Hotel Fans

Jeff Mangum, Tall Firs
Charleston Music Hall
Jan. 29

It’s been nearly 15 years Athens, Ga.-based band Neutral Milk Hotel — one of the main acts in the psychedelic-leaning indie-pop collective Elephant 6 — performed a live show. Shortly after touring heavily in 1998 in support of the highly-acclaimed, lo-fi collection In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge), lead singer, guitarist, and main songsmith Jeff Mangum (a Louisiana native) and his bandmates suddenly called it quits. Mangum relocated to New York City and drifted into relative obscurity and reclusively, save for making odd recordings and occasionally hosting weekly independent radio shows for WFMU.

For hardcore Neutral Milk fans, especially younger ones who never had a chance to attend shows in the late ’90s, the opportunity to attend the next best thing — a solo Mangum concert — seemed golden.


Jeff Mangum (far left) with Neutral Milk Hotel, 1998 (provided)

Two years ago, after his lengthy hiatus during which he developed a new status as cult hero, Mangum showed signs that he was again interested in performing and touring. He played a few concerts at a few select festivals and clubs, much to the delight of fans. In late 2012, he booked a handful of tours across the U.S., and he added a series of solo acoustic shows that extended through the winter and spring of this year. Tickets to the show at the Charleston Music Hall this week quickly sold out.

I remember catching several Neutral Milk Hotel shows back in their heyday — in Athens and in other cities around the Southeast and Texas. Oftentimes at hometown shows at the 40 Watt Club, throngs of guest musicians from other Elephant 6 groups joined Mangum and his crew on stage, creating a loosely assembled E-6 pop orchestra. Some performances seemed cheerfully chaotic at times. Most of them were full of joy, strange instrumental noises, and mad sing-along action. Mangum’s occasional solo shows in those days were far more dark, moody, and intense. That’s the kind of performance local fans got on Tuesday evening.

The concert started with a low-key set from Dave Mies and Aaron Mullan, the core guitar/vocal duo from New York City-based pop band Tall Firs. Their music was unfamiliar to most of the audience, but their beautiful performance and witty banter won the affection and appreciation of many.


Aaron Mullan and Dave Mies of the Tall Firs (provided)

Mies joked about their misadventures on the road, their copious wine intake, and his mean-spirited ex. Mullan played the straight man. Much of their set included songs and pieces from their new album Out of It and Into It. Some of the more droning, hypnotic tunes reminiscent of Yo La Tengo’s clean-tone/low-volume stuff — or the quirky twang of instrumental bands like Pell Mell. Their whispery singing style fit much of the dual-guitar harmonic interplay quite well.

After a brief intermission, Mangum strolled on stage and settled into a chair next to an assemblage of four acoustic six-strings and a microphone. Fans applauded and hollered loudly, but Mangum seemed unfazed. His long hair and long beard enhanced the notion that he’d become something of a hermit over the years. Some in the crowd near me seemed taken aback by his unexpectedly fuzzy appearance.

Mangum plowed through the early portion of his set with a sense of urgent determination, staring straight ahead and strumming hard. His old guitars sounded great on early songs like “Oh Comely” and “I Love the Living You” (a rendition of a Roky Erickson standard), but his singing pushed and forced as he strained to hit high notes. His vocals were way too loud in the mix, too. Mangum’s singing and demeanor gradually warmed up, though. He was clearly more at ease as he graciously thanked the audience around the midway point of the show. The quality of the audio had balanced out as well.

The songlist consisted almost entirely of Neutral Milk Hotel tunes. His dynamic version of “Two-Headed Boy” inspired one of the first crowd sing-alongs of the night. “Song Against Sex,” the most upbeat tune of the set, missed the tipsy trombones and swinging’ drums of the original recording on the 1996 NMH album On Avery Island, but most fans happily sang along with no problem. Other standouts included the chant-like “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” the waltz “Engine,” and the more forceful and grinding “Ghost.”

I had the same mixed feelings about Mangum’s solo performance this week as I did watching and hearing him at the 40 Watt back in the late ’90s. It’s an appreciation-versus-enjoyment dilemma: I appreciate his Mangum’s poetic lyrical work, his twisted melodies, and his sparse guitar technique, but I never quite enjoy his stiff, sullen, sometimes shouty delivery as much as the rabid Neutral Milk Hotel fans around me. It’s a treat to witness any great songwriter do their thing on stage with no distraction or accompaniment, though. While Mangum’s straightforward style might have seemed sluggish or dispirited to the uninitiated, the fans on the edge of their seats hanging on every verse locked into his unusual intensity.

Top image courtey of Photo below provided by Merge Records.

Jeff Mangum_Credit Corey Greenwell

Jeff Mangum in recent days (photo by Corey Greenwell)



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About the Author

Ballard Lesemann

is a musician and writer. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., he spent years playing in bands and working for Flagpole Magazine in the bustling music town of Athens, Ga. He returned to his hometown and served more than seven years as the Charleston City Paper's music editor. He's better at drumming than he is at playing guitar.

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