Neutral Uke Hotel strum gaily over the sea

Flight from the hater brigade
By JONATHAN DONALDSON  |  April 13, 2011

 Neutral Uke Hotel
MANGUM PR “I think we came up with an idea for a project that is one of the easiest things to hate,” says Shawn Fogel (center). “I don’t want to hear the dub reggae version of Metallica.”

Shawn Fogel of Golden Bloom knows that his latest stage act is a formula for potential enormous suckitude. Take one of indie rock's sacred cows — Neutral Milk Hotel's 1999 album In the Aeroplane over the Sea — and play the whole thing, straight through, on ukuleles. Then have the audacity to call it Neutral Uke Hotel. "I think we came up with an idea for a project that is one of the easiest things to hate," chuckles Fogel from his home base of Montclair, New Jersey. "I don't want to hear the dub reggae version of Metallica."

Most of the rest of us wouldn't want to hear Metalli-jah either. Come to think of it, though, why not? Is anything really that precious? Would anyone even care if Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum hadn't tweaked out and disappeared? But people do care. Here's one comment from a Neutral Uke Hotel hater on the quintet's YouTube video for "King of Carrot Flowers": "Neutral Milk deserves so much better than this. It's going to become some dumbass hipster 'uke' movement." The comments from Brooklyn Vegan's announcement for a June 2010 show are no less ripe with New York charm: "I hate gimmicks like this. I can just see him explaining it to his grandmother at Thanksgiving."

It looks like another case of people who think they have the authority to prescribe what is cool (or not cool) defining what a lame hipster is (or isn't). What no one seems to be saying, though, is anything bad about the actual music. In a recent blog post titled "Attention Indie-Rock: No Ukes," Jim "The Dick" DeRogatis blasted Neutral Uke Hotel for being cute, kitschy, and pretentious. Finally, after a pregnant virtual pause, an unknown member of the Tiny Tim Coalition for Four-String Ass-Kickery fired back: "The ukulele is a beautiful instrument. Go fuck yourself." Take that, Jim.

In the beginning, however, there were no ukuleles. Fogel's discovery of Neutral Milk Hotel's music came in 2001 — a couple of years after the funny little band with a name right out of the NATO phonetic alphabet became everybody's pet secret. To Fogel, the discovery was less of an exclusive epiphany and more like a late-'70s kid discovering Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. What the elitist harpers seem to be missing is that indie music is about as populist as you can get. In the Aeroplane over the Sea practically laid the blueprint for the major domestic indie record as we now know it — ask Merge records, which figured out how to get from Aeroplane's cult success to Arcade Fire's Grammy-winning Suburbs.

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  Topics: Music Features , Neutral Uke Hotel, Brighton Music Hall, Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library
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