Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island Review (1996)

In 1998, one of modern music's most important years with the likes of Outkast's Aquemini, Boards Of Canada's Music Has The Right To Children, and Massive Attack's Mezzanine releasing to critical acclaim, there stood one quaint album that harped on one man's love of Anne Frank. Out of those three genre benchmarks listed above, none influenced a generation more than Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Surprising, considering it's the least assuming of the bunch. But it was exactly that nonchalant display of talent that allowed Jeff Mangum and company to become forebearers for the ensuing wave of Indie music following the turn of the century. That, and their sudden, mysterious, and quiet disappearance. Two years prior to their defining piece however, the group released On Avery Island, often acknowledged as one of the most famous overlooked LP's in existence. The tracks were less cathartic, catchy, and compelling, but that doesn't nullify Avery Island's importance in the scope of Indie. While In The Aeroplane sought to define the genre's heights as it pertains to a dignified concept, Avery Island dabbled in what the genre would soon be like on regular basis. Love songs centered around birth, death, joy, and pain.

The one catch to Avery Island was something Neutral Milk Hotel still proudly holds as their singular shtick; that of a carnival scene. Whereas In The Aeroplane rose above the old-timey marching band theme, faintly still heard in the distance, Avery Island finds solace in the panicked joy of the curated aesthetic. To Magnum, the sounds of collective happiness brings out his inner-most demons, causing horns from a parade, fuzz guitars from under the shady tree, and organs from the circus to manifest themselves under frightful proclamations of heartache, agony, and suicide. Don't let the cover fool you, Avery Island is a dark album. The opening track sets the tone, even though Mangum's spider web poetics aim to confuse. 'Song Against Sex' tells the story of a gay man surrounded by troubles, either from his love or from religious fanatics set on tormenting him. The track, like a handful of others here, draw illusions to suicide or murder, in this case ending with the character burning down a house with his former lover trapped inside. Talk about a grim start. 'You've Passed,' ensuing track, doesn't ease up either, as a dying woman gets confronts with Mangum's indecisiveness, his regrets and mistakes billowing up inside.

For all the influence Neutral Milk Hotel handed down, nothing was more seminal in the group than Mangum's lyrical astonishments. While nothing here compares to his greatest work, 'Communist Daughter,' Avery Island boasts a slew of intriguing lines and concepts. Two examples in particular, both coalesce through multiple tracks. 'Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone' speaks of a peeping tom who would watch Mangum from afar, and the singer's wishes that he'd simply disappear. Ironically, two songs later, Mangum inadvertently turns into the ogler himself, this time focusing on Naomi Wang of Galaxie 500 on the beautifully freaky 'Naomi.' The man had no limitations for which to write about. That's best seen, however, on the wretched pairing of 'A Baby For Pree' and 'Pree-Sisters Swallowing A Donkey's Eye.' Initially seen as a joyous reflection of birth, 'A Baby For Pree' takes a decisively morbid turn in its final lines. "And when the day it came to pour all her babies, all across the bathroom floor, she will be swimming in them all forever more." Song ends. And on Avery Island's final breaths, for 13 agonizing minutes, we watch the Pree family tear apart, left with the forbidding silence of death.

There's times when Avery Island is one of the more disturbing records I've ever heard. That, coming from a clean-shaven man sporting over-sized sweaters and a love for Jesus Christ is abominable. While all the aforementioned songs give indication to that, it's the periods of hollowness in-between that truly brings the eeriness out. Mostly harmless carnival music, the end of 'Someone Is Waiting,' 'Marching Theme,' and 'Avery Island / April 1st' all add to the uncomfortable ambiance presented. They act as detached interludes, as if the vocal songs are what's going on in Mangum's head and the instrumental pieces are what's going on around him. As was the case on In The Aeroplane with 'The Fool' and '[untitled],' these segues are some of my favorite pieces, promptly pushing antiquated musicianship to the forefront, causing some seriously discomforting juxtapositions. Both 'Marching Theme' and 'Avery Island' are harmless, innocent, and filled with bouts of joy. Surrounding them with despair just seems so wrong. On 'Someone Is Waiting's' finale though, the two join forces, creating a Noise Rock precipice that haunts using the rose-tinted past instead of living through it.

While In The Aeroplane garners all the attention, rightfully so as it's a masterstroke for Indie music of all kinds, On Avery Island sulks in the shadows content to have merely facilitated that project's mammoth success. The sinister means by which it exists would've been far too rough for millions of ears to enjoy. In that sense, Aeroplane hid the scorn better, especially considering the album was about the Holocaust. Magnum's love letter to Anne Frank wasn't more relatable, it may have very well been the strangest concept to amass critical attention, but it was heartfelt, and as we've learned by dissecting the opposite on Avery Island, love is a mighty force in music. Musically, Neutral Milk Hotel's debut is not all peachy though. Namely, 'Three Peaches' and 'April 8th,' which advertise Mangum's weak singing voice without means to disassemble it. as various instrumentation does on the other works. 'Three Peaches' in particular lasts twice as long as it should have, causing an awkward low point in the midst of a crucial home stretch. And while I'm pro 'Pree-Sisters,' even I can admit 13-minutes is a bit much, especially considering there's a solid four-minutes of empty drone once the last instrument is heard. Nonetheless, On Avery Island excels at not just being forward-thinking, but riveting in its strangely creative impulses.

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