Sunday, September 04, 2005

beta hate milk

In the past two days, with two different sets of friends, I have gotten into lengthy discussion-cum-arguments about this album. If I were to bring it up again tonight, in either polite or mixed company, I'm sure I could pick even more fights about Neutral Milk Hotel and In An Aeroplane Over the Sea.

And it's nothing specific against NMH (save for the fact that I get those initials mixed up with Neil Michael Hagerty and think the discussion is about the Trux), except that I find the album almost-unlistenable and far too precious, precocious. Given its status in most folks' (either friend or foe) minds as perfect, classic, amazing in concept, mind-blowing, etc., as opposed to that other one they did, just some little record that you could just ignore and soon forget, as even the Aeroplane-devout are wont to do, I feel a slight dislocation, unable to find any sort of toe-hold in it. My friends can't fathom my utter disavowal of the thing either, almost shocked at my bale for the thing.

Perhaps my reaction stems from a bigger problem I have with the sea change that came over indie-rock in the mid-90s. When I was coming up, it was still in the early days post-Nevermind, when all was grunge-metal, as opposed to hair-metal. Even among the HS elite, the coolest bands were the Pixies, the Pumpkins, the Chilis, the Beatles, and other sixties' rock, from Hendrix to Zeppelin to Janis to the Doors. My best friend in HS and I bonded not just over Nirvana, but far more clandestinely, the Beach Boys, and in particular, Pet Sounds. While it would be no deal to put on The Doors when you were smoking joints and drinking everclear, no one in their right mind would drive around, much less drop to the strains of that barbershop, fake-surf, "Kokomo" wash-up un-cool bullshit.

Even then, we knew between us that what the Beach Boys were up to, with their harmonies, their arrangements, their cellos and kettle drums, their really sloooooow ballads ("Don't Talk, Put Your Head on My Shoulder"), their naming of God, their weird bright sunniness, what they were up to was some serious and irreducible scripture. They were cool to us, even if we couldn't convince anyone that when the Beach Boys wanted to do some harmonizing, they could be as avant as Sonic Youth. They recorded a Manson song! The hippies hated them! And we hated the hippies! Since he had a hand in that Humpty-Dumptied, fractured and scattered to the four winds of that most Holy of Grails, Smile, we even dug Van Dyke Parks and his two early records of Ives-tinged Americana and Hollywood imperialism as Caribbean carnival kookiness. This was our punk, since the sound of them infuriated everyone else.

As you erect such critical fortresses though, waters rise and the great unwashed breach the walls. As people swamp the Beach Boys and also recognize their greatness (and it seems impossible that Mojo would ever rank Sgt. Peppers over Pet Sounds again, though maybe both albums now lose out to Forever Changes), incorporate such overwraught productions and layering of vocal harmonies and goody-gumdrop golly-gee outlooks on life, you move onto outposts further away. Say...Nick Drake, or Vashti Bunyan, or Chad & Jeremy or the Everly Brothers, or whomever these days. As much as we loved the Beach Boys (and would now say "oh wait, Pet Sounds isn't their greatest album, but Sunflower is, or else Love You," or "They totally went downhill after Today."), we could not get with their revitalization. We won, and it was the emptiest feeling.

Whether it was in the form of Sean O'Hagan's High Llamas, Apples in Stereo, or anything out of Athens' Elephant Six, be it Olivia Tremor Control or Neutral Milk Hotel, the emulation just smacked of exactly that, and our distaste was great. Who cares if you add a French horn or mellotron or have banjo and accordion? Do the complex backing harmonies on four-track? Did it matter to me that what the Beach Boys embraced uncooly suddenly became the template itself for the dorky and disenfranchised of how to make perfect-pop? If I was still into indie-rock by that release date, would I have found the album life-affirming and mystery-of-existence-embracing (as say, the Palace Brothers were to me)? I didn't care then if it was a teenage symphony to God and I still don't care if it is a tweenie ode to Anne Frank. The most recent time I heard IAAOTS, it still struck me as pretentious, over-thought and cluttered, too aware of itself and how important it was dressing itself up as, and aside from their grating idea of 'song', just the sound of his voice made me curdle.

7 Comments:

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10:34 AM  
Blogger John Hewn said...

grump grump... "on avery island" is much better, yes. and "pet sounds" is great but ITAOTS could not be more different from tha beach boyz, from any era. whatever extra instrumentation might be present, "Plane" is all about one voice and one geetar-instrument. if you don't like that voice, or if you think the lyrics are st00pid (which yeah, they basically are), then it's gonna huff dong to the max. although some folks huff ITS dong regularly, even at this late date, i don't think it's a watershed release, just a really solid album from a guy who wrote some of the best vocal melodies of the late 20th century.

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7:07 AM  
Blogger beta said...

neither into huffing dong or huffing forex investments starts, but i'm more interested in why i had such a strong distaste for this album, and basically traced it back to its twee roots, also discovering that sea change back towards the beach boys in the process. and it's funny, as i think ryan pitchfork is on the other end, hating the beach boys but loving aeroplane (maybe that's why we hate each other?). if i could get just through that album, i may be able to precisely locate my source of displeasure, but that task is impossible for me even now.

7:17 AM  
Blogger John Hewn said...

dude, that's some heady shit. i've always been more interested in why i like bad stuff than why i don't like good stuff. schreibz also called wolfie "emo," so i would say he's got a modest case of scatocephalis

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