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Neutral Milk Hotel

Live Shots

Reviewed by Luke Winkie, Fri., Feb. 21, 2014

Neutral Milk Hotel

ACL Live at the Moody Theater, Feb. 17

Neutral Milk Hotel's 1998 sophomore LP, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, was made by a band that until last year had been broken up since just before this millennium. No website, no promotion, no offshoots, no hint of new music. Plus a singer who's remained reclusive for about as long as he's been famous. Put all that together and you've got two sold-out performances at one of Austin's biggest venues. Aeroplane's built a cult. And suddenly, the high priest was there onstage, salt-and-pepper bearded bandleader Jeff Mangum, playing a guitar while singing "Two-Headed Boy" in his perfectly cracked voice. All by his lonesome, strumming carefully but firm. I still don't know what "There is no reason to grieve/The world that you need is wrapped up in gold silver sleeves" means, but I also felt immense comfort that Mangum doesn't have the answers anymore, either. He's just a vessel now. Some of these songs are 20 years old – there's no immediacy or gravitas anymore. The band's back to give the people what they want and make a little money along the way. Fair enough. They raged "Holland, 1945," a song I've imagined hearing live since I was 16. A rush of color, a few kids going nuts, and done. I dangle for a moment. So that was that, then? Starry-eyed Julian Koster of Music Tapes fame serenaded us with a singing saw for Aeroplane's title track and languid accordion through the first act of "King of Carrot Flowers." The brass, a most vital part of Neutral Milk Hotel's sound, was present and gorgeous through "Fool" and especially "Snow Song Pt. 1." Mangum's centerpiece performance of "Oh Comely" was the most eye-grabbing moment Monday, if only because the collective catharsis of fans hung heavy on the air. It capped everything you could've possibly wanted from a Neutral Milk Hotel show, performed with the accuracy and engagement that sometimes escapes the lifers. And yet, Aeroplane is loaded with tangible, violent, throat-shredding loss. I still hear its ghosts, secrets ducking behind every corner. I hear everything that made me so obsessive once. The Neutral Milk Hotel reunion tour won't quench that thirst. Nothing ever will. That's what makes In the Aeroplane Over the Sea undeniable.

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