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Going beyond Mangum

October 28, 2008

Though the completionist in me is a bit irked that NPR had to cut a few songs from yesterday’s podcast, part of me glad, too.

The Elephant Six Collective as a whole often gets overshadowed by Jeff Mangum, though by no fault of his own. I’ve certainly been complicit (as recently as that review I wrote last week, actually), but I’m not the only one, and it’s sort of unfair. There were a whole bunch of musicians on that tour (which ended on Saturday), and all of them are pretty terrific, but as soon as Mangum showed up, he became the story. I’ve always thought this was part of the reason he’s hid from the spotlight for so long, but that’s beside the point.

The point is there’s more to the Elephant Six than just one man.

Hell, there’s more to just Neutral Milk Hotel. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is not merely a Jeff Mangum solo record with session musicians, as some might have you believe. Jeremy Barnes’ funereally substantive drums, Scott Spillane’s plaintive horns, Julian Koster’s haunting singing saw — it all contributes to something far greater than anything one person could muster on his own.

Take for example “The Fool,” an instrumental track from Aeroplane played here live by Koster and Spillane with Mangum nowhere in sight.

Or how about songs by Spillane’s Gerbils or Koster’s Music Tapes? Both bands — each composed of multiple people, by the way — have lush catalogues that do nothing if not prove that Mangum was not the only capable member of Neutral Milk Hotel

And that’s to say nothing of the dozens — yes, dozens — of other E6 bands that Mangum, Koster, Spillane and Barnes (who didn’t play on the Holiday Surprise tour but has his own non-NMH project known as A Hawk and a Hacksaw) are not a part of. There are too many to list here (although Wikipedia is a helpful resource), and there were certainly plenty on display at these Holiday Surprise shows.

The last thing I want to do is take anything away from Jeff Mangum. He was, for a variety of reasons that I’m sure I’ll expound on later, one of the main catalysts for my caring about and “getting” music and art in general. I unhesitantly consider him a genius, which is a word I use as seldom as any.

But the Elephant Six stands for a lot of things, and undoubtedly collaboration and unity are undoubtedly among them. Not only is it greater than the sum of its parts, but every single part is essential to the total package. Time my ultimately deem Aeroplane the essential E6 album, but if you’re willing to dig a little bit deeper, you’ll find plenty of other great stuff.

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