PITCHFORKMEDIA.COM
August 17, 2001

Jeff Mangum
Live at Jittery Joe's
[Orange Twin]
Rating: 7.9
(Above average; enjoyable)

Once upon a time, singer/songwriters walked the Earth proudly. Armed with acoustic guitars and words of personal experience and political protest, they set out to teach the world how to think, feel, and listen. Fortunately, the Earth caught on pretty quickly, and it soon became apparent that scraggly individuals whining about failed romances and their inability to pay rent can only entertain for so long. Without the benefit of a massive meteor to help thin their ranks, singer/songwriters were left largely to wander the streets, looking for coffeehouses and bars where they could force their misery upon unsuspecting patrons.

Live at Jittery Joe's is a decent-quality recording of a man playing an acoustic guitar and singing at a local coffee bar. But this is not by any stretch of the imagination typical singer/songwriter fare. This is Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum spinning his unique, beautifully tangled web of visceral flesh imagery, odes to Anne Frank, and cryptic, vivid storytelling.

The material on Live at Jittery Joe's, which was recorded after the release of Neutral Milk Hotel's debut 1996 debut, On Avery Island, but before the release of their masterwork, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, consists largely of material culled from these two albums, as well as a few unreleased tracks and a cover of Phil Spector's "I Love How You Love Me." The set starts out with a version of "A Baby for Pree" and a shortened, heavily altered version of "Where You'll Find Me Now," a two-song sort-of-suite from On Avery Island. Mangum heavily alters the lyrics of "Where You'll Find Me Now" to include lines like, "I will be strong/ Strong enough to shout/ Above your voice that's blaring on/ With your face that's falling out/ Into the dust of what you are." The lyrics don't approach the beauty of those in original version of the song, buy they afford it a fresh, stream-of-consciousness feel that makes it somehow more affecting.

Another song to appear in a different form on Live at Jittery Joe's is "Two-Headed Boy Part 2" from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, possibly the most heart-wrenching moment to be found on that album, and one of a very small number of songs that has been known to move my cold, cynical self to tears. Introduced as a song about "a family that lived in the 1940's in Europe," "Two-Headed Boy Part 2," like many of Mangum's songs, transmits raw emotion through cryptic, evocative lyrics. When he sings, "In my dreams you're alive/ And you're crying/ Move your mouth into mine/ Soft and sweet," his voice aches with an intensity that seems to defy the limits of human emotion and expressiveness.

The acoustic treatment fits some album cuts better than others. Tracks like "Gardenhead" and "King of Carrot Flowers Parts 2 & 3" lose a good deal of their impact without the fuzzy, explosive backing found on the album versions. But songs like "Oh Comely" and "Two-Headed Boy," both of which appear on Aeroplane as essentially acoustic numbers, gain a harshness from the live treatment that suits them perfectly.

And then there are the unreleased tracks. "I Will Bury You in Time" is the only Mangum original that's available only on this recording, and it unfortunately fails to stand up against the featured album tracks. Perhaps the only Neutral Milk Hotel song I've heard that sounds awkward and clumsy, "I Will Bury You in Time" is definitely on the weaker end of unreleased Neutral Milk Hotel song-spectrum (my two personal favorites being "Oh Sister" and "Little Birds," both of which can be found on live bootlegs).

A much better non-album track comes with "Engine," a b-side from the "Holland, 1945" seven-inch that recently appeared on a Merge Records compilation. Written as a song for children, "Engine" contains fanciful yet typically strange lyrics about, among other things, round captains talking to tigers from cafeteria trays. More importantly, "Engine" has one of the most haunting melodies I've ever heard, ensuring that those odd, vivid images won't be leaving you any time soon.

Rounding off the unreleased portion of Live at Jittery Joe's is Jeff Mangum's cover of the Phil Spector classic "I Love How You Love Me." Mangum's voice absolutely brings the song to life, making Spector's simple words seem profound and beautiful.

Of course, the true brilliance of Jeff Mangum is that everything he sings sounds profound and beautiful. His lyrics are visceral and unique, but it's the wrenchingly powerful way in which he sings them that makes them resonate so intensely. Live at Jittery Joe's certainly resonates, but a few weak tracks, some intrusive crowd noise, and the informative-yet-distracting between-song banter prevents it from striking with the power of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

But that's not the point. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea will always stand as a perfect example of Jeff Mangum's almost superhuman talents as a singer and songwriter. Live at Jittery Joe's documents a less refined, more casual side of Mangum, and does a pretty damned good job of it. I get the feeling that this show wasn't recorded with "live album" in mind, and that element of candidness makes it essential for Neutral Milk Hotel fans such as myself, who weren't lucky enough to see Jeff in concert.

Even with the candid and casual nature of this recording, there remains an element of mystery and otherworldiness to Jeff Mangum. Live at Jittery Joe's comes with some gorgeous video footage of the entire performance. Very dark and difficult to make out, Mangum's face appears as little more than a shadow, writhing in time with the alarmingly affecting words he sings-- almost as if the words are being driven by an intangible force. And it's these moments, when it's hard to separate the mystery from the humanity, that make the album absolutely worthwhile.

-Matt LeMay


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