Neutral Milk Hotel vs. Pavement
It's interesting that the selection committee* decided to let these two albums square off in Round 1 as there are perhaps no bands more responsible for laying the foundation for year 2000 era indie rock than NMH and Pavement. This is not to say however that the two attack from the same angle. The boys in Pavement - Stephen Malkmus, Scott Kanberg, and Mark Ibold, along with various drummers - particularly on what is perhaps their most accessible album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain seem to embrace their inner rock star. Tracks like the opener "Silence Kid" and equally aggressive "Unfair" show that Pavement weren't afraid to turn the amps to eleven and take their at times jammy guitar solos on a stroll through more focused power pop territory. Throughout their history though, this half-hearted proclivity toward underground heartthrob status was always balanced by a total refusal to take themselves too seriously; particularly as evidenced in Malkmus' lyrics which were at times throughout the 90s the only media that seemed interested in poking fun at the absurdly inflated collective ego of the grunge movement. This trait is prominently displayed again in the Stone Temple Pilots/Smashing Pumpkins skewering "Range Life" and what became their biggest "hit"** "Cut Your Hair." What I love most about this album though is simply its pure listenability***. From beginning to end the album keeps you chuckling at the cleverness of the lyrics and hooks you musically with its sweet and simple pop melodies. All these forces come together just over halfway through the album with the standout track, "Gold Soundz" which represents everything that's great about the album as a whole.
Neutral Milk Hotel on the other hand approach from a completely different direction. While not venturing into stock indie rock snobbery, the work of singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum seems in no way interested in pop success. On In the Aeroplane Over the Sea we find the now reclusive Mangum writing what seems at times to be a painful ode to Anne Frank of all people and at other times to be a rumination on some other past love. At any rate, it seems that Mangum's personal demons are on display... it's just nearly impossible to tell what they are. As you listen to tracks like "The King of Carrot Flowers" and "Oh Comely" where in a very Anne Frankish manner pathos always manages to give way to a subtle sense of hope and at times optimism you feel the meaning of the songs in a way that defies explanation. Mangum's yelp over the rollicking fuzz of "Holland, 1945" is this closest the album gets to accessible but still stops well short of the territory in which Pavement ventured. The standout here though is the title track, where buried in lyrics that are focused upon mortality one can find the essence of the album as Mangum suggests, "So now we are young, let us lay in the sun, and count every beautiful thing we can see."
It's this key difference between the two albums that makes the winner in this first round matchup so apparent to me. Despite the fun and refreshing honesty of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Neutral Milk Hotel reaches a point on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea where the honesty is felt uniquely by those listening.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea will face the winner of Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation and The Shins' Chutes Too Narrow in round 2.
**meaning they got to play it on Leno and the Real World London played it during a scene featuring the burgeoning love affair between British rocker Neil and whatever that American girl's name was.
***not a word