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Friday, March 1, 2019

Neutral Milk Hotel: On Avery Island


1) Song Against Sex; 2) Youʼve Passed; 3) Someone Is Waiting; 4) A Baby For Pree; 5) Marching Theme; 6) Where Youʼll Find Me Now; 7) Avery Island / April 1st; 8) Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone; 9) Three Peaches; 10) Naomi; 11) April 8th; 12) Pree-Sisters Swallowing A Donkeyʼs Eye.

General verdict: Lo-fi singer-songwriter stuff with psychedelic overtones — the doctor may have ordered this back in 1996, but it is unclear just how long it is going to last.

Recorded in Denver and produced by Robert Schneider of The Apples In Stereo (Schneider is also the second most important musician on this record after Mangum, despite never having been an official member of Neutral Milk Hotel), this is Mangumʼs first and next-to-last fully fledged LP — whose title is a geographical reference to Louisiana, but whose music is anything but, unless one counts the musicʼs overall loudness, bragginess, and occasional use of the trombone as an indirect or subconscious tribute to New Orleans.

On Avery Island never quite reached the level of critical or fan adoration that would be heaped on its follow-up, but truly the only difference between it and Aeroplane is that it is expectedly less ambitious — well, less ambitious on everything but the final track, a 14-minute long drone whose actual musical content could be summed up in twenty seconds: I think that even most of Mangumʼs most devoted admirers would, at best, mutter something about the possible conceptual importance of this piece, and that it takes a very special kind of person to sit through the trackʼs main «ringtone-on-endless-loop» section even once, let alone twice. I have no idea what Mangum had against The Pree Sisters, a short-lived musical outfit that released a few long-forgotten soft pop singles in the early 1970s, but if the composition does really convey the effect of swallowing a donkeyʼs eye, I advise everybody to stick to larksʼ tongues instead.

With that silly piece of «letʼs-find-out-what-that-button-does-while-weʼre-still-young-and-stupid» crap out of the way, what we are left with is about 35 minutes worth of real music that is a very good reflection of the mid-1990s indie spirit: worship of the psychedelic Sixties + in-yer-face lo-fi values + cryptic post-modernized lyrics + non-trivial annoying personality tottering between mental instability and narcissism. One listen to the album is well enough to understand that Jeff Mangum is not your usual average person, and that he is very talented; many more — in my case at least — are needed to get a feeling of what it is that he actually has a talent for.

It would be very difficult to find an argument for melody: pretty much all of these songs seem to be constructed from fairly time-honored chord sequences that Mangum must have lifted from his heroes. Thereʼs a little Dylan here, a little Donovan, some Syd Barrett, a bit of Fairport Convention, perhaps (or any other Celtic folk-influenced band from the past), and quite a bit of The Incredible String Band, though Jeff could only wish for the kind of musicianship that Robin Williamson and Mike Heron demonstrated in their prime. And since most of the arrangements are quite similar — the usual trick is to have a clean acoustic guitar ringing in one channel and a heavily distorted semi-acoustic in the other — it takes quite a while to learn the differences between the songs, other than «fast» and «slow».

A few of the numbers try to incorporate elements of poppiness, like the opening ʽSong Against Sexʼ, but while on Everything Is the future direction was not yet quite clear, On Avery Island makes it perfectly obvious that, despite hiding behind a «band» moniker, Mangum clearly tries to model himself after the singer-songwriter pattern (quite unlike his pal Schneider), and many of the tunes are slow confessional ballads whose effectiveness fully depends on Mangumʼs words and Mangumʼs sonic clothes for said words.

The words, ultimately, are what matters: Mangum comes across here as a skilled and curious lyricist, able to find fresh ways of looking at birth, life, love, death, and whatever shit might lie in between. Letʼs face it, not just anyone is able to express oneʼs feelings with lines like "Someone is waiting to swallow all the halos out of you" or "And I love you and I want to / Shoot all the super heroes from your skies", regardless of whether you find this imagery pretentiously stupid or amazingly witty. It is not as if any such word-weaving has not been tried before, but it seems to me to be a much better reflection of Mangumʼs own individuality than whatever musical back­ground he tries to set these words to. Much of it feels like improvised streams of consciousness, where it is useless to try and decipher every line (unless you have a degree in psychology) but useful to latch on to occasional keywords and key phrases that represent the lyrical heroʼs journey through the ups and downs of life.

Interestingly, at this point the ups still seem to outweigh the downs — quite a few of the songs, like ʽNaomiʼ, are straightforwardly psychedelic love serenades ("Iʼm hoping she will soon explode into one billion tastes and tunes"), though still somewhat offset by the love-and-hate relationship that the lyrical hero has with himself ("my emptiness is swollen shut"). On Avery Island is still quite obviously a record by a person who likes to see the world in colors rather than whine about how nobody else does, which is, by the way, a circumstance that makes me more at peace with Mangumʼs voice on this record than on the follow-up — although he still isnʼt much of a singer (or a player... or a composer... but yep, he is an artist all right). For that reason, the album still has some officially certified ties with the Elephant 6 movement, and I guess it can be legitimately brought out with you to a picnic site or something.

A few of the songs are psychedelic instrumentals, most notably ʽMarching Themeʼ that sort of sounds like a ton of Scotsmen on amphetamines (spoiler: amphetamines win by the end), and ʽAvery Island / April 1stʼ, whose half-pop, half-baroque trombone solo by Rick Benjamin might be the most purely musical moment on the entire album. They do work primarily as interludes, though, just in case you happen to forget that this is a psychedelic experience and not just a set of impressionistic songs about moms, sons, girlfriends, and bathroom reflections. On the other hand, it is hard to take that statement seriously when the very first track on the album is called a ʽSong Against Sexʼ — insert the required joke about how difficult it really must be to get laid when you are making this kind of music in the first place — anyway, whoever in his right mind would make an anti-sexual psychedelic album?..

If you did not get this already, I do not think that On Avery Island is a particularly good album. Mangumʼs poetry deserves attention, but it is hard for me to understand how this manner of presenting it could be endearing to anybody who was not 16–18 years old at the time when it came out. The biggest deficiency, though, is the personality. You could argue, if you really wanted to, that composition-wise, the stuff on Syd Barrettʼs solo albums was nothing to write home about either, but the combination of childlike innocence, deep melancholia, and drugged-out immobility in his voice was haunting even when the material was rotten. Mangum never had the same sad, terrifying magic in his voice, and for the most part, his singing is very neutral: not too pretty, not too awful, nothing in particular (except when he wrings out his higher notes, which can be murder on sensitive ears). In the end, it all comes down to the right attitude in the right chronological context — and geographical, too, so you might really want to read up on your Avery Island history before committing to this experience.

1 comment:

  1. Can't say I've ever heard much of an Incredible String Band influence on this album, other than they both use acoustic instruments. Oh well.