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She will feed Uke tomatoes and radio wires

July 7, 2010

A cover can tell you a lot about a song. It can show you how easy it is to play, or how difficult. It can highlight hidden strengths and demystify obscure arrangements. It can strip away fancy production tricks and show you a song’s backbone, or it can take a simple song and show off its complexity.

It’s safe to say I’ve listened to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea enough–in every kind of format, through every kind of headphone or speaker–to know it fairly intimately, and I know I’m not alone in that regard. Still, that hasn’t stopped an innumerable number from musicians covering its songs. Plenty of professional musicians (from obvious choices like the Mountain Goats to mild surprises like Wilco and Phish to shockers like Brand New, the Dresden Dolls and the Faint) have given it a shot, plus no small number of amateurs on YouTube (a quick search of “neutral milk hotel cover” yields more than 3,000 results). Everyone and his guitar-playing mother has played a rendition of one of Jeff Mangum’s classics.

So while Shawn Fogel’s Neutral Uke Hotel might be the only ukulele-driven Neutral Milk Hotel tribute band out there, Fogel is one of many in his imitative flattery of the indie rock icon.

I just finished up an interview with Fogel, in which he hesitated to even call Neutral Uke Hotel a tribute band, though he conceded that was probably the best way to explain it. He described it as a “musical summer vacation,” a break from his band Golden Bloom (for which he writes and records all the songs) and the others he contributes to.

He said the performances are less an imitation of the way the band played live (Fogel himself never had the chance to see NMH play, discovering them, as I did, after the band stopped performing) and much closer to the experience of listening to the record. The songs are stripped down (sans percussion but for one performance) to encourage audience participation, and Fogel has found that in most cases, crowds–made up mostly if not entirely of people who never saw the real Neutral Milk Hotel play live–are eager to join in.

Fogel said the shows are less like traditional concerts and more like when someone at a party puts on a record or picks up a guitar and soon everyone there is stomping their feet and singing along, united by a deep admiration for the music they’re hearing. A firsthand account from a friend of mine who saw NUH at the Khyber in Philadelphia a few weeks ago backs this up in full.

Though the songs are simple–and in Fogel’s hands, stripped down ever further–Mangum is a tough guy to mimic, with his unique inflection and elocution as well as his ability to hold out notes for uncannily breathless lengths of time. Fogel says aping him has made him a better singer, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about connecting with other people, and in that regard, it’s been a success.

I’m very particular about covers, which is to say I tend not to like them. It bugs me when a band covers a song by someone much bigger and/or better than they are, enjoying the fruits of a song they didn’t and probably couldn’t write, although I’m usually okay with the inverse (a big/good band covering someone more obscure or less talented), as long as the song itself is good. I’m never a fan of ironic covers. Cover bands are annoy me in practice and enrage in me in principle. Tribute bands are a little bit better, but only if the band it’s eulogizing has actually stopped performing.

So my quick take on Neutral Uke Hotel, conceding that everything I know about them I’ve gleaned from YouTube and one phone interview: It’s not as good as the real thing (not that it’s trying to be), and it’s maybe a bit gimmicky (which it is trying to be), but if Neutral Milk Hotel isn’t going to perform its songs, it’s nice that someone is, given how many people want to hear it.

That Fogel has his own band with his own songs vindicates him, too. He’s not some hack playing someone else’s songs just because he can’t write his own. Rather, he simply feels compelled to play these songs out of a connection to them and to those who share his admiration for them.

Many tribute bands strike me as uncreative drudges riding the coattails of their idols for undeserved returns, but Neutral Uke Hotel strikes me as an actual tribute in the truest sense of the word: a labor of esteem and gratitude celebrating something its members and fans sincerely love.

Photograph courtesy of Green Light Go Publicity

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