Staff Pick: Jeff Mangum at the Southern Theatre

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From the January 10, 2013 edition

The Athens, Georgia collective Elephant 6 spent the late ’90s and early aughts compiling a marvelous array of pop psychedelia, from the spaced-out meanderings of Olivia Tremor Control and Circulatory System to the punchier, more compact delights of Beulah and Of Montreal. But in terms of cultural clout and catalyzing euphoria, one band stands alone.

That band is Neutral Milk Hotel, the sturm-und-drang experimental folk-rock outfit fronted by nasal visionary Jeff Mangum. After a decade in seclusion, Mangum began performing live again in recent years. Monday, his (possibly final) tour stops at the Southern Theatre. It’s a huge deal.

A few diehards swear by the Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1996 debut On Avery Island — a perfectly nice record, but little more than a dry run for future glories. The band’s enduring contribution to the dorm-room canon is 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a howling, harrowing odyssey marked by two-headed boys, fervent acoustic strumming, Jesus Christ, unhinged sinus, planets in orbit, ancient brass bands, awkward sexual encounters, wanton distortion and Anne Frank reborn as “a little boy in Spain playing pianos filled with flames.”

Shortly after Aeroplane, Mangum became such a hermit that his unannounced appearance at the Wexner Center during 2008’s Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour was international news. So was his 2011 set at Occupy Wall Street. Now the Wex is bringing Mangum back to town with openers Tall Firs and Briars of North America. The show sold out instantly, but extra tickets might be released Monday.