Melodic miscellany 

A formulaic tribute and an ode to a two-headed baby

Jeff Mangum, Live at Jittery Joes

Jeff Mangum sings like a man fighting to be heard above a constant din of voices. On two albums recorded with a loose collective of musicians calling itself Neutral Milk Hotel, the din was usually an unearthly congress of singing saws, uilleann pipes, flügelhorn, accordion, singing saw, zanzithophone, and whatever else turned up under the sinks and in the attics of Mangum’s lunatic psych-folk vision. Drawling, quavery, and prone to give out on the flat side of the high notes, Mangum’s delivery is a peculiar study in how a singer who can’t always keep a melody under control can carry the hell out of a tune. It’s definitely an acquired taste. Once it incubates with you after a few listens, you just can’t get enough of it.

Mangum’s lyrics, on the other hand, are pure bedlam. All binding treaties on syntax and agreement fly out the window when Mangum really gets cranking. In many respects, NMH’s sophomore long-player, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, can be listened to as one long song that’s been broken up into eleven parts just so Mangum can suck in a lungful of air from time to time. “Holland, 1945” is only one manifestation of Mangum’s fascination with a fictional (?) European family that perished in World War II, and he belts this line out all in one breath: “The only girl I’ve ever loved was born with roses in her eyes but then they buried her alive one evening 1945 with just her sister by her side and only weeks before the guns all came and rained on everyone now she’s a little boy in Spain playing pianos filled with flames on empty rings around the sun all sing to say my dream has come.” It’s like he’s channeling Faulkner through a musical monkey house, and the resulting fracas is irresistible and damn catchy.

“Two-Headed Boy,” on the other hand, has the distinction of being the only telepathic love song ever penned for a baby preserved in a jar. At least that’s one way to look at it: an unlikely (as is the case with almost all of his songs) eulogy to the life the two-headed boy never gets to live, but seems to have lived anyway. It’s also catchy, only more sublime and, at any rate, way too whacked-out and stream-of-conscious to really interpret at any one level. As he sings to the baby in the jar: “I am listening to hear where you are.” The same could be sung back to Mangum himself, whose osmotic relationship with the fourth dimension occasionally leaves the listener wondering where he went and how he got back.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is probably the better place to start exploring the strange musical world of Jeff Mangum. Live at Jittery Joe’s is a no-frills live recording of a very chatty coffeehouse show complete with audience banter and squealing babies. While it’s long on Mangum’s unforced charm, most of the material is actually drawn from Aeroplane and it seems like it would be more edifying for the uninitiated to hear these songs for the first time in their original form. One exception: there’s a touching version of Phil Spector’s “I Love How You Love Me” that’s almost worth the price of the purchase alone. Get Aeroplane first and save this outing for a time when you can better appreciate it. Various Artists, Give the People What We Want: The Songs of the Kinks

It had to happen. After 10 years of labels packing their own bands and bands they like onto hit-and-miss tributes to everyone from the Sonics to the Smiths, it’s remarkable that no one thought of plundering the legacy of the Kinks any sooner. It’s sad. Tribute albums used to be like love letters from a new generation to an older one, but now they just seem like label samplers product-positioned to suckers who won’t put down $15 for a compilation of the original music.

You have to admit, it’s cagey marketing: Give the People What We Want is a Whitman’s sampler of Sub Pop artists past, present and future. If you like the way a band plays your favorite Kinks song, you might be more inclined to take a chance on their new album next time you’re at the record store. If not, oh well, next please. With 19 tracks to choose from, you’re bound to find something to your liking.

Ever heard Mark Lanegan? You don’t have to be a genius to figure out what kind of chain-smokingly baleful number he’s going to do on “Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ’Bout That Girl.” You don’t even have to hear Mudhoney do “Who’ll Be the Next in Line?” to know what it sounds like, because it sounds like all of Mudhoney’s cover songs: diminishing returns on the trademark Mark Arm yowl.

A couple of good surprises here, though, especially the rootsy Larry Barrett version of “Act Nice and Gentle to Me.” The Fastbacks and the Young Fresh Fellows acquit themselves nicely, as usual, although I think the YFF version of “Picture Book” that appeared on This One’s For the Ladies is superior to their version of “Gotta Get the First Plane Home” on this tribute.

The album’s not great. It’s not terrible. It’s rote. A couple of good versions can’t relieve the tedium of the Murder City Devils playing “Alcohol.” Buy the BBC sessions or any of the other legitimate Kinks releases coming out these days instead.

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