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Neutral Milk Hotel
Credit: Will Westbrook

When Jeff Mangum’s name showed up in connection with a planned Chris Knox tribute album this summer, you could almost hear the collective gasp issuing from the indie-rock world. New music from the genius who more or less retired after recording two all-time classic albums with Neutral Milk Hotel in the ’90s? (That’s them in 1998, pictured. Mangum is second from the left.) Could we really be this lucky?

Believe it. Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox, which went on sale today as a digital download at Merge Records’ website, comes with an unfortunate backstory: Knox, a great and underrecognized singer-songwriter from New Zealand, suffered a stroke in June, and an impressive list of friends and fans put together this covers album to raise funds for his recovery. But Mangum’s take on “Sign the Dotted Line,” originally recorded by Knox’s band Tall Dwarfs for 1990’s Weeville, is reason to rejoice.

Unless I’m forgetting something, “Sign the Dotted Line” is Mangum’s first proper new release since Neutral Milk Hotel disbanded. (I’m not counting his various credits on friends’ albums or 2001’s Orange Twin Field Works Vol. 1, a set of field recordings from Bulgaria.) It’s just wonderful to hear him again — that clangorous acoustic guitar, that uniquely sorrowful voice straining upward to hit the high notes. And this is new, all right: A rep for Merge tells me that Mangum’s Knox cover was only submitted to the label this past week.

You can check out a preview of “Sign the Dotted Line” at Merge’s site, but really, this is worth your 99 cents. So are the Knox covers performed by artists like Bill Callahan, Jay Reatard, Lambchop, Yo La Tengo, and many more. What are you waiting for? Go download “Sign the Dotted Line,” then tell us whether you’re as psyched as I am to hear this.

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Photo credit: Will Westbrook

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