Jeff Mangum and The Music Tapes, Union Chapel, 13/03/2012

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No-one really thought these shows would ever happen. Following the word-of-mouth success of 1997’s In the Aeroplane Over the SeaJeff Mangum‘s sophomore recording as Neutral Milk Hotel – the pressure of graduating from Athens, Georgia’s latest musical wunderkind to the most beloved figure in American indie rock became too much, and he retreated from the public eye, a self-imposed exile that lasted for well over a decade.

In the interim, his fan base grew exponentially year by year. Tapes and CD’s were passed around circles of sensitive literary kids, lyric sheets were studiously pored over, hidden depths and alternative readings were uncovered. On the surface a concept album about the death of Anne Frank, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is by turns nightmarish and life-affirming, constructed with startling, arresting imagery; bodies as organic machines and instruments, landscapes built from fluids and tissue, mass graves filled with families. By having his subjects interact in the most intimate ways imaginable, and contrasting the purest evil with the innocence and unconditional love of children, Mangum crafted something emotionally involving on the deepest level, a timeless work that will remain resonant as long as sensitive souls have ears and eyes.

So, the setting of Union Chapel makes perfect sense in this context. For the uninitiated, Union Chapel sets itself apart from the likes of Heaven and Fabric by actually being what it says on the tin; wait around long enough for an autograph and someone may start shaking incense at you. You only have to listen to WU LYF‘s debut (or, y’know, attend mass) to see just what a large stone room can do for live acoustics, but more meaningful is how this setting frames what is a hugely significant event for all in attendance. Was this concert, with pew after pew of hushed fans gazing in adoration upon their own messiah figure, really all that different from a religious ceremony? At least Indie Jesus actually showed up to his second coming!

But first we have Indie John the Baptist, Julian Koster, mastermind of The Music Tapes and sometime NMH singing saw player, who’s appeal depends entirely on whether you think he’s genuinely mad or just putting it on. His set was more installation than gig, consisting mainly of drone pieces based around simple, ear-worm melodies and experimental instrumentation, ranging from his singing saw and a banjo played with a violin bow, to a wind-up organ and static from an old television. This was interspersed with rambling stories about childhood and a group of thin, pale men who pulled dehydrated cities from their mouths (you heard), and performed largely by a man who may or may not have been dressed as Noddy.

But there’s a peculiar alchemy to The Music Tapes. Koster is a man for whom melody comes effortlessly, and he’s blessed with an ear for off-beat, haunting sound textures . In a manner not dissimilar to Daniel Lapotin’s use of samples, these pieces were less likely to grab you than to gradually lull you into a trance and hold you there before releasing you, disorientated, back into the room. Some were more effective than others, but if the heart-in-mouth set closer – more clearly defined and composed chiefly of conventionally strummed banjo and Koster’s stunning voice, reminiscent of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James – was anything to go by, Koster is getting better and better at tying his myriad ideas to songs with the power to profoundly move as well as entrance.

But then there are, of course, other opinions available: ‘If he spent less time trying to be so self-consciously weird, he might actually write a half-decent tune,’ was an opinion shared by a number of the audience. Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks, I suppose.

As a shy, unassuming man in a green sweater shuffled onstage half an hour later, the room sharply, audibly inhaled before unleashing deafening applause, but still all shared the same concern: is this going to hold up? Mangum’s acquired taste of a voice might be capable of heart-stopping emotional nuance when laid to tape, but is he still capable of pulling that off in front of an audience, and will they catch it in the cheap seats if he is? Will those all important lyrics even be audible? Worst of all, is his heart still in this as much as ours are?

We were mad to doubt, of course. From the opening lines of ‘Two Headed Boy Part Two’ to the melancholy double-header of.. er.. ‘Two Headed Boy Part One’ and ‘The Fool’ (the oldest trick in Mangum’s book; Part Two’s outro acting as a teaser for Part One, giving the set the impression of a cohesive but entirely fresh narrative), Mangum consistently delivered, his voice as powerful a weapon as ever as he tore through a set heavily weighted towards his opus, but liberally sprinkled with rarities and heavy hitters from his debut album, On Avery Island; most notably, glorious renditions of ‘Song Against Sex’ and the heart-stopping ‘Naomi’.

In a 1997 interview with Puncture magazine, just before the release of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Mangum talked about how his writing process is entirely internal: ‘All the words are me playing and singing and opening my mouth and letting them come out.’ Though this probably seems unlikely to anyone who’s ever studied those lyrics in detail, in a live setting it makes perfect sense. Mangum’s delivery was as effortless as someone to whom these songs are second nature, but with all the conviction and tics of a fresh pair of eyes. The devil is in the details; take ‘Oh Comely’ (a firm personal favorite), a structurally simple and musically repetitive song turned emotional tour de force by the way he attacked ‘I’ll crush him with everything I own’, or the catch in his voice at ‘the movements were beautiful / all in her ovaries’. Many vocalists lose this dynamism in a live setting, but here it’s amplified.

The audience response was predictably rapt, silent and reverent while Jeff sang and polite, though emphatic when applauding. More interesting was what happened when he actually encouraged everyone to sing along for a few numbers, which is to say that almost no-one did. There’s a number of possible reasons for this; your typical Neutral Milk Hotel fan is awkward and easily embarrassed, and the acoustics in Union Chapel work far better facing out then in. More likely, though, is that no-one dared. No-one came here to listen to the atonal chirping of strangers, and everyone was pretty respectful of that. As long as we’ve ill-advisedly gone with this whole Christ metaphor, it’d be a little like chiming in with your own interpretation of a sermon. Mangum seemed disappointed, almost hurt by the lack of response, but really it was entirely complimentary.

There are gripes – there always are – but this wouldn’t be music criticism without a little pedantry. A few of these songs do suffer a little for the lack of a full band. ‘King of Carrot Flowers Part 3’ just about gets away with it thanks to some frantic strumming, but ‘Holland, 1945’ cries out for percussion and loses a lot of its grandeur along with the wall of sound. When The Music Tapes march horns and a bass drum through the audience for ‘The Fool’ the effect is stunning, but the lack of a band elsewhere is even more keenly felt. There are also, for what is a relatively short show, a handful of puzzling emissions: ‘Communist Daughter’ was sorely (and, post gig, vocally) missed, though perhaps the instrumentation was deemed too spare, the vocal too mumbled. And everyone will have missed their own beloved deep cuts; personally, I really had anticipated ‘Little Birds’ making an appearance.

But then, during the encore, we reach the bridge of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea‘s title track and the evening hits its emotional peak, Mangum rising to the moment as emphatically as he does on the recording. The ripple in the audience is palpable. The one or two quietly singing along fall silent, and many more fall back in their seats, stunned to the point of a visceral reaction. And there we have the power of Jeff Mangum; a quiet, humble man whose words and voice are capable of reducing grown men to trembling wrecks who then stumble out into the night, order a stiff drink and try to get their head around what they’ve just witnessed.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.