Review Summary: I have found lead singer of Neutral Milk Hotel and notorious recluse Jeff Mangum's live album. Can you imagine how hard up I am right now???
Accompanying Jeff Mangum's ghetto-ly packaged Live At Jittery Joe's
is a video of the entire concert. The whole time, Jeff sits on a stool in a coffee bar, shadowed by an obnoxiously bright lamp that makes him nothing more than a silhouette. Playing behind him is a small child, who periodically cries out in happiness from time to time, to general "Aww's" and laughter from the crowd. It seems like a dingy place, not much more than simply a room, and the crowd couldn't be exceeding 50 people.
A more perfect setting could not be had.
Released a year before Mangum's masterpiece In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
, Live at Jittery Joe's
shows Jeff Mangum at his most lovable, and that's saying something. His inimitable voice carries naively on his studio records, with a child-like simplicity so innocent, that many times I've just wanted to hunt him down and hug him (no homo, naturally). Live, Jeff performs with even more cuddly initmacy, nervously noodling on his guitar, stuttering through personal stories between songs, and asking for requests. Despite his apparent lack of confidence in his work, Live At Jittery Joe's
is a killer performance from Mangum, flipping between past, present, and future Neutral Milk Hotel tracks (and a bitchin' Phil Spector cover) seamlessly, en route to a disc essential for anyone enamored with the legendary indie-folk icon.
Live At Jittery Joe's
is essentially highlights from Neutral Milk Hotel's discography stripped down even more from the low-fi production of Mangum's studio albums. Gone are the bombastic horns from "King of Carrot Flowers Part 2" and the layered vocals of "Oh Comely". Mangum sits alone, sounding never-more familiar than on this record. Gems are scattered throughout the concert, from the crudely fashioned (but equally as gorgeous) "Two Headed Boy" to the forgotten "Engine". Jeff's no great musician, but that makes his work all the more impressive. With standards-of-folk chord progressions, Mangum scratches through enigmatic lyrics that are effortful to decipher, but rewarding to understand. Throughout the Jittery Joe's
performance, he makes casual references to his obsession with Anne Frank, introducing "Two Headed Boy, Part 2" with "This is a little cut up song that's unfinished and probably will remain unfinished... It's about a family that lived in the 1940's in Europe... and uh... yeah... and I have dreams about one certain member of that family... and other things as well." For those familiar with the eerie finalism with which Mangum sings the track on Aeroplane
, this rough-draft cut is absolutely beautiful. Even if you're unfamiliar with the studio version, the performance here is golden, Mangum crooning "In my dreams you're alive and you're crying. Move your mouth into mine soft and sweet. Rings of flowers round your eyes and I'll love you. Nineteen-forty and five is (indiscernible)"
. Even while road-testing, Mangum is pouring into his music the same passion and heart that would make his final record so iconic and important, which is what makes Live at Jittery Joe's
a such an enjoyable listen.
As a performer, takes on the persona of a nervous, but determined troubadour. It's clear that he's anxious, as he rushes through particularly high notes out of worry his voice may crack whilst belting away. At one point, he nearly plays "Oh Comely" in the middle of the set, but ditches the idea because of the song's notorious length (It works immaculately as a finale, however). Still, he remains personable to a loyal crowd, joking around and letting them practically hand-pick the set-list. At one point late in the record, a crowd member calls for "The song about Jesus", which he momentarily denies in favor of "Naomi", but revisits and plays what would come to be known as "King of Carrot Flowers Part 2". As legend has it, the Jittery Joe's
performance was one of the first times Mangum merged "King of Carrot Flowers Parts 2 and 3," the latter being hilariously unfinished. Perhaps the funniest moment on the album comes when Mangum belts "Up and over we go/ this is the part of the song where I didn't write any lyrics/ I will shout until they know what I mean!"
At this point in the set, Mangum's performance has been so excellent, the fact he played the unfinished tune is forgivable and forms another raw moment that makes Jittery Joe's
all the more personable.
As the set winds down, "Oh Comely" drones on mesmerizingly, one of the few Aeroplane
tracks that Mangum finished and played here. In retrospect, the entire disc is thoroughly enjoyable despite some obvious flaws, and somehow maintains a high level of listenability, a difficult task for guy-with-guitar acts. Whereas some singer-songwriters unfortunately depend on the beauty of ballad after ballad to win their audience, Mangum holds the crowd's interest by throwing in some genuinely up-tempo tracks like "Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone" and "I Will Bury You In Time", the latter unfortunately forgotten in the Neutral Milk Hotel discography when it's one of the standouts of the album. Being set in a coffee house gives the whole record an intense sense of intimacy, a sense Jeff's lovable persona only enhances. Nearly as enjoyable as the masterful In the Aeroplane Over The Sea
, Live At Jittery Joe's
proves itself a strong output from Jeff Magnum, one that fans of his work will indubitably cherish, leaving one to wonder what might have happened had Jeff not played "Two Headed Part 2" in that studio and put down his guitar forever.