Neutral Milk Hotel in concert

I first heard “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” on a mix CD that a high school friend made for us. I felt lucky to be in the small group that received these carefully-crafted mixes, and I will never grow tired of that Neutral Milk Hotel song. The yearning, strained quality in Jeff Magnum’s voice almost mimics the singing saws in the background, and his warbling ups and downs seem discordant but somehow capture the fleeting beauty of those autumn days when we were just a bunch of teenagers, making up plans as we drove around town, letting the music wash over us: “What a beautiful dream / That could flash on the screen / In a blink of an eye and be gone from me.”

I’ve been lucky to make new friends in D.C. who are passionate about music, even though our day jobs have nothing to do with it. Earlier this month, one of these friends attended Neutral Milk Hotel’s show in Richmond and offered this lovely, thoughtful write-up as a guest post. Enjoy.

Remember when you were younger and you first heard an album that really moved you? When you would sit in your room with your headphones on and just listen to it over and over again? Those of us whose adolescence predates the use of computers would record a single song over and over again on the same cassette – that way you could hear it six times in a row without having to hit rewind. Where does that single-minded obsession go as we get older? Are we simply too distracted and too busy to commit to an hour’s devotion to four minutes worth of guitars and drums? Or is it the case, as Daniel Levitin argues, that the extreme emotional impact of music on our adolescence is a holdover from our early childhood’s focus on learning new languages and movements?
Either way, the pull of our personal listening histories is undeniable. I first came across Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” in the new music bin at WUSC, with a little Post-It note on the jewel case from the Music Director. Normally he’d annotate new albums including such important information as which tracks were instrumental, and which ones contained profanity (and therefore couldn’t be played over the air at most hours of the day). Occasionally he would star a track, identifying in advance what could turn out to be a hit. This Post-It was different. It just said “You Need This.”
He was right.

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