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Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island

  by Chris O'Toole

published: 11 / 1 / 2008

Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island
Label: Select Label
Format: N/A


In the latest in our Re : View column, in which writers re-examine albums from the past, Chris O' Toole examines Elephant 6 group and lo-fi psychedelic outfit Neutral Milk Hotel's 1998 influential debut album, 'On Avery Island'

Operating as a key component of the Elephant 6 musical collective (which also included Apples in Stereo and the Olivia Tremor Control) Neutral Milk Hotel were active during the mid to late 1990's, taking many guises and rarely being quantifiable in number or form. Although they issued only two albums and an EP during their brief tenure, they remain to this day one of the most referenced cult bands of the last decade, with music lovers still enjoying recommending their work to each other only to find their friends already have all their records - b-sides and demos included. While the band’s albums - 1996’s ‘On Avery Island’ and 1998’s ‘In the Aeroplane over the Sea' - never bought them widespread popular acclaim, they did allow the group to build a formidable reputation amid critics for their unclassifiable, eloquent style. Neutral Milk Hotel themselves designated their work ‘fuzz-folk’, but the term belies the complexity of their records; incorporating as they do elements of psychedelia, tape loops and marching beats – filtered through a four-track recorder into a lo-fi cacophony of their finest proportions. While 'In the Aeroplane over the Sea’ can be considered the complete realisation of Neutral Milk Hotel’s sound, ‘On Avery Island’ contains the blue-prints which would later be expanded into the masterpiece. Essentially the work of singer-songwriter Jeff Magnum, the former album is a loosely themed concept recording, addressing universal concerns in bright marker pen colours, but also containing the finest watercolour detail. Elements of despair, loneliness, redemption, hope and everything in between are covered, sometimes in a single song, as Magnum muses over a life ill-spent. Opener ‘Song against Sex’ sets a pace where other would love to follow. It has a cracked logic of a mirage, making it impossible to get a sense of its scale. It flows forward with an unimaginable magnitude, but has a sense of total simplicity and serenity. Magnum sings a manifesto of articulate alienation, of unobtainable or disinterested beauty, applicable to any time or place. The depth and warmth of the lyrics are a counterpoint to the content despair, giving the impression of a truly desperate character who knows how to do nothing but fight ever onwards. In the background overblown horns battle the ragtag drums and guitar for supremacy, creating a beautifully ramshackle accompaniment. ‘You’ve Passed’ flows seamlessly in the wake. It is as though the album is a carnival procession which could careen off the road at any moment. The piece is concerned with the death of a loved one, of the regret of opportunities missed and the immediacy of the event. Magnum, however, does not take possession of the events, singing “We all must make mistakes” and offering his grief for others to share. ‘Someone is Waiting’ hurries along behind and is a natural completion of the former; fading to a dissonant scramble, with the guitar tuned close to the top of the mix, gradually overwhelming even the loudest wall of fuzz. Throughout the album is a kaleidoscopic, fractured imagination of what music can be, a hundred thread wound into rope to create a beautiful whole. ‘A Baby for Pree’ and ‘Marching Theme’ flow passed next, filled with huge buzz-saw guitars and bubbling, gurgling noise, before 'Where You’ll Find me Now’, offers a more simplistic and direct follow up. Later ‘Gardenhead’ is a stately meander through the walls of a ruined church. The bass stumbles along, accompanied with maudlin horns and keys, slowing the pace to a crawl, but still offering an enigmatic language to be interpreted in a hundred different ways. This is followed immediately by sister track ‘Leave Me Alone’, rejoining the rollercoaster pace set earlier in the album, as Magnum wails another epic opus in a single line. 'On Avery Island' is a semi-lost masterpiece of the highest standard. The Neutral Milk Hotel fell from the face of the planet after the release of their second full length, with only brief glimpses of Magnum being seen since. Late in 2007 the key protagonist of Neutral Milk Hotel resurfaced to inform the world a new project was in the pipeline, but warned listeners not to expect the follow up to ‘…Aeroplane’. What form these new recordings will take remains to be seen, but they should be awaited with baited breath. Included in the re-release is the group's single, ‘Everything Is…’, which shows although the group's sound was ragtag and semi-improvised it displayed a remarkable continuity. Throughout their career they played with the limits of shape and form, cramming as much as possible into the shortest spaces. Moulding vast atmospherics into their simple pop to give them proportion and weight beyond the sum of their parts, Neutral Milk Hotel were experimental without being indulgent, enigmatic without being detached and beautiful without being untouchable. The group were immediate, irrepressible and present a treasure trove waiting to be rediscovered.

Track Listing:-

Picture Gallery:-
Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island

Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island

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In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (2005)
Timely re-release for Neutral Milk Hotel's 1998 album, 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea', which has been an influence on the likes of Arcade Fire, Franz Ferdinand and Caribou

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