Bla'gard - Black faced clocks

This is octave heavy, mid-nineties rock and the artwork couldn't be more fitting. Straight out of Chapel Hill, Bla'gard don't play wistful alt-country or generic college rock, which the town became a hot bed for thanks to Merge records and Superchunk. Somewhere between Helmet, Bluetip and Weezer, these boys appear to be having a lot of fun with the two man band, guitar and drums set up. Sat at my desk at work today 'Black Faced Clocks' sounds awfully refreshing, when 10 years or so ago it wouldn't have. This says more about the safe fumblings of every modern rock band with an eye on the prize since the Strokes, than about the band’s concept. British band Distopia are probably doing a lot more for this (presently rather ropey) genre of Pavement fans with loud Gibson Guitars and psycho grins. On the other hand, 'Losty' is perhaps the most ostentatious lo-fi indie rock song since Urusei Yatsura called it a day.

Neutral Milk Hotel - In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (10 year anniversary edition)

Record shop employees are stereotyped. The cliché, thanks to ‘High Fidelity’, is that if you work in an independent store the person behind the counter is a know-it-all. They hate you, they think the purchase you're making is one of mainstream, MOR, shallow fodder, and that you’re not even worth their minimum wage glory.

Unless, of course, you’re buying something of highly regarded critical substance. The latest from constellation, the new New York sound, the first Velvets record perhaps? Oh yes, then you get undivided attention from the clerk, and queues gradually form behind you while you both exchange stories, top fives and eventually email addresses.

People who work in indie stores don’t like retail and they don’t like working, but it’s not that they hate you, they just don’t care. Those aren’t the clichés, they’re the damn facts! These guys are usually in a band themselves, they had MySpace before you, they go to shows and fold their arms, and they spit on your grave in their dreams if you throw around once sacred genre terms like “post-hardcore”, “lo-fi”, even emo. My point is, these kids work in record shops, form bands in their mum’s basement, write fanzines, and spend all night online with the faintest hope that they will find a common ground with another tortured soul with whom to eulogise over their favourite record or the band that defines them. These are the feelings kept for diaries and open ramblings saved for long, late nights.

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel is perhaps the album that has the capacity to warrant all of the above more than any other. It’s a secret handshake, a beacon of light. If you see it in someone’s record collection, or a stranger in the street wearing a t-shirt, that person is your friend and you can talk for hours over the subject.

9/11 survivors, holocaust survivors, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea survivors. I’ll qualify such an outrageous statement by making the point that if you know this record, then you are aware of the concept and narrative. This is one man’s attempt at vocalising his sympathy and apparent overwhelming sadness and empathy for Anne Frank. A book most Americans read in school is read by a grown man who then devotes years of his life writing about the profound feelings the diary brought out in him.

The record was originally released in 1997 and was the group’s second album. The copy in front of me is a re-issue on Domino records (do we thank Franz and the Arctic’s for the new cash flow? Probably not Clearlake, shame) and with this release, for good or bad, the sleeve is adorned with quotes from some chaps in today’s indie music scene. Indeed Franz Ferdinand’s guitar player is down as saying “friendships can be gained for a mutual love for Neutral Milk Hotel”. UK experimentalists Fog claim the album is “one of the few indie rock records I would consider to be a classic”. And so on. You get the idea.

These songs are Highway 61 Revisited tempo, have the White Album’s dreamy vagueness and Neil Young’s bright acoustic strum. It imbues Joy Division’s Closer, ‘Isolation’ and Pet Sounds’, sugarcoated summer melodies. It’s Nirvana Bleach budget with OK Computer’s vision. In short, this is now a standard bearer for the genre like all the above are in their own right. We could add Music Has The Right To Children for its electro prowess, Public Enemy, Murmur by R.E.M, and maybe a Dinosaur JR effort to the fold. All stone-cold classics by way of contextually working within a traditional genre and taking it further, pushing things further and going where no-one had gone before. Writing intensely personal songs that everyone can relate to and garnering universal critical acclaim. “Lyrically complex and gruesome- musically simple and sweetly melodic” and so never before had one man (Jeff Magnum, essentially a one man band) or one band done what Neutral Milk had done, and so far no one else has.

But boy have they tried. His presence is felt today all over the underground indie scene, and his influence is utterly undeniable: Arcade Fire, Sparklehorse, Okkervil River, Bright Eyes, just to name the ones worth mentioning.

What happened next? Well the rest is history, like every other high calibre artist before him who created the archetypal record for a generation, Magnum ended it there. No he’s not dead, but stardom did beckon. R.E.M offered to take the band on a world tour, and the rancid major labels came sniffing around. Cue existential break down and the band split up. In The Aeroplane was the bands final album and Jeff Magnum has not entered the public eye since. I guess to us die hard fans it’s the fairy tale ending, as sinister and elitist as that sounds. I know I wouldn’t have forgiven the band if they were on MTV Cribs in today’s bite size, fly on the wall, zero attention span day and age. How perfect would it have been if the Manics split up after one album of rawkus punk rock, or if Nirvana went out on Nevermind? Indeed a perfect body of work, albeit, a minimal one would have been left behind. Neutral Milk Hotel knew this, I like to think, and so the fairy tale is intact. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is the stuff of myth and legend. I play the album from time-to-time in the record shop I work in, and smile when the people stop and listen, and eventually come to the counter and ask what it is they’re hearing. I don’t hate them after tha

© 2007 Orlando Goodall