Originally founded as a side project of Elf Power member Jeff Mangum, Neutral Milk Hotel has progressed from there to be one of the most renowned bands in recent memory. They are most well-known for their 1998 release of In the Aeroplane over the Sea, which has been among the top selling vinyl records every year since its release.
Neutral Milk Hotel, alongside The Apples in Stereo and The Olivia Tremor Control, formed a cornerstone of Athens’ Elephant Six Recording Company. Elephant Six, in turn, was a major player in Georgia music, and really all indie-music, throughout the nineties with their reach still being felt today via association with acts like Of Montreal.
When Jeff began recording in the late 80s and early 90s, he released more than a few self-produced cassettes that did not have initial success. Many of these early demos were produced, and distributed, in very small quantities. A few had titles such as Invent Yourself a Shortcake, and Beauty, both of which can be found online without much effort. These early demos were mostly traded around among friends, and were likely not meant for wider consumption.
Many of the songs featured on these early demos were undeveloped and poorly recorded versions of later songs. For instance, Beauty contains an extremely raw version of Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone. Later iterations of the song can be found on Hype City Soundtrack, and the 1996 release of On Avery Island. This song demonstrates the evolution in Jeff Mangum’s writing process – as he adds additional instruments and melody.
While the band’s first official album was released in 1996, it is 1993’s Hype City Soundtrack that is of interest here. Hype City was recorded and released independently, much like the band’s earlier demos. In this case, however, many of the songs were recorded in actual studios, and several hundred copies of the cassette were created and released through a small Italian duplicating plant. Hype City bridges the gap between the early/unfinished demos, and the later/more polished studio recordings by existing in a kind of hybrid state. The recordings are almost polished; the material is almost finished.
Hype City Soundtrack could easily be considered the band’s first album, were it not for the fact that it has remained unreleased (and legally unobtainable) since its initial run in 1993. In fact, it wasn’t until 2012, after the band’s post-hiatus reformation, that the cassette was leaked online. For that reason, many long time fans of Neutral Milk Hotel have never heard, or even heard of, Hype City Soundtrack.
Due to the evolving nature of these albums, it may be best that newcomers to Neutral Milk Hotel begin with listening to Hype City Soundtrack before any of the LPs or earlier demos. While Beauty, Invent Yourself a Shortcake, and several other demos tapes came before this album, Hype City Soundtrack is recorded with much better quality and the music is MUCH more accessible. With that in mind, I recommend listening to the Neutral Milk Hotel discography in this order:
1. Hype City Soundtrack
2. On Avery Island
3. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
4. Other releases (Invent Yourself a Shortcake, Ferris Wheel on Fire, Beauty and any other demo tapes)
Hype City Soundtrack begins with a simple track, The Synthetic Flying Machine. The lyrics, melody, and some of the instrumentation were later copy-and-pasted into The King of Carrot Flowers Part 3 – an opening song on the band’s later release, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It’s simple and empty compared to the later version of the song, which might be why I love it so much. The raw and grainy aesthetic illustrates the bands origins; recording in a garage and printing on dollar store cassettes.
There’s something beautiful about that kind of simplicity.
From there, we move onto my two favorite songs from this album, Wood Guitar and Tuesday Moon. Again, the minimalism of Jeff’s writing is easy to hear. Basic chord progressions, flowing melodies, and that blue gritty tone. Be sure to listen in for the subtle instrumentation at the end of Tuesday Moon, it’s the kind of ominous and dense composition that is found in later Neutral Milk Hotel albums.
The following three songs are filled to the brim with samples, dinging bells, heavily distorted guitars, and Jeff’s SCREAMING voice. Honestly, these tracks are quick, and are more about fun than any musical significance. These songs put one in mind of a less abrasive and far jollier tribute to The Beatles’ Revolution 9 or some other equally odd sound sculpture.
Conversely, the next track is Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone. This tune would later be featured in the album On Avery Island. The song, as it is presented here, feels complete, unlike on earlier demos. It flows, and grows, and tells a story that seems familiar and impossible. Distorted acoustic guitar and Jeff’s nasally voice – that’s all that’s in this song, and it’s more than enough to create a solid track.
Biscuit is the following song, a noisy folk song with some samples, some spoken word, and A LOT of banjo. Los Angeles and Piggy come right after and they’re two other noisy, lo-fidelity tracks with some weird instrumentation and samples.
Engine closes this album – a Neutral Milk Hotel classic that they continue to play live to this day. It’s a somber and eerie melody, a continuous theme of Neutral Milk Hotel’s. This is partially due to Jeff Mangum’s singing, and partially from his mysterious lyrics.
“Then take up your windows and watch as the sweet babies crawl AWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY”
Hype City Soundtrack is completely indicative of Neutral Milk Hotel’s origins. While some of the albums songs can seem unconventional and challenging, Jeff Mangum manages to create a solid release that paved the way for many later works. It’s a gem that even devout Neutral Milk Hotel fans may have overlooked.
Favorite songs: Synthetic Flying Machine, Wood Guitar, Tuesday Moon, Engine, Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone, and Biscuit
Least favorite songs: Los Angeles and Piggy