On Avery Island (Merge Records '96) Rating: A-
The most notable band in the excellent Elephant 6 Collective, which also includes Apples In Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, and Beulah (among others), Neutral Milk Hotel (NMH) is Jeff Mangum, at least on On Avery Island, though Apples In Stereo’s Robert Schneider lends an important helping hand as well. “Psychedelic lo-fi indie folk rock with horns” is my attempt to describe NHM’s unclassifiable hybrid sound, which was still being honed here, as this album is far more uniform sound-wise and is patchier songwriting-wise than its superior successor, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (ITAOTS). That album absolutely towers over this one, which has been somewhat neglected as a result, though it’s a mighty fine album in its own right. After all, Magnum’s fascinating oddball lyrics and one-of-a-kind voice (an acquired taste to many, to put it mildly) already appear, though the former rarely rises to the poetry-like level of ITAOTS and his vocal acrobatics are largely kept in check. Still, Mangum begins perfecting that oddly affecting vocal wail on “Three Peaches” and “April 18th,” both dirge-like acoustic ballads that presage the perfection of “Two Headed Boy” and “Oh Comely” but which are actually among the weaker tracks here. Of course, since both are good songs, that’s mainly because the album’s highlights are so plentiful. For example, “Song Against Sex” has a delightfully brisk, breezily upbeat melody punctuated by horns fighting through the lo-fi fuzz. Mangum’s vocals are rather flat and less affected than I’m accustomed to (having memorizedITAOTS before even hearing On Avery Island), but the song is a real grower, and the quality continues on “You’ve Passed,” whose throbbing mid-tempo groove is low-key yet somehow still epic. The song seamlessly segues into “Someone Is Waiting,” the first instance of Mangum really letting loose vocally, while “A Baby For Pree” is a super-short (1:20) “unplugged” type effort and “Marching Theme” (which begins with a loud churning sound before cool Casio keyboards come in) is the first of the album’s three instrumentals. “Where You’ll Find Me Now” is definitely a keeper, as it chugs along nicely, being both intense and pretty, and when the accordion comes in it’s one of those chill inducing moments I’m used to from these guys. Though merely a short mood piece, the lullaby-like “Avery Island April 1st” nevertheless is the album’s best instrumental, and the loud, fuzzily chugging groove (along with trademark trombone and a great vocal from Mangum) of “Garden Head Leave Me Alone” flat-out rules. The gorgeous, sing-songy “Naomi” (with more spine-tingling accordion) is another favorite of mine, though in writing this review it occurred to me that a good 2/3 of this album (at least) is fantastic. It’s just that what would could come next is that much better, making many (myself included) view On Avery Island as merely the blueprint for ITAOTS. It deserves a better fate, of course, much like similar lead ins to superior classics like Bleach, Isn’t Anything, or Gish, and the less said about the excruciating 14-minute instrumental “experiment” that ends the album the better (let’s charitably consider it a “bonus track,” ok?).
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (Merge Records '98) Rating: A+
With a full band now in tow, and with more sounds at Mangum's disposal, NMH delivered the best album I've heard from the Elephant 6 Collective, as well as the best lo-fi indie pop album since Pavement was ripping off The Fall. Hell, let's just come right out and say that this is one of the best albums of all time; certainly Magnet magazine thinks so, recently ranking it as the #1 album on their "top 60 albums of the past decade (1993-2003)" list. Most of these songs feature vigorously strummed acoustic guitars (the majority of “Two-Headed Boy” - both surreal versions - and the 8+ minute masterpiece “Oh Comely” are carried musically by a lone, loudly plucked acoustic guitar), though a couple of great songs (“The King of Carrot Flowers Part Three” and “Holland, 1945”) surge forward with a thrilling punk rush. What makes most of these songs incredibly interesting and original are the Salvation Army horns and carnival-esque keyboards that kick in at just the right times (not to mention accordion and bagpipes), plus memorably spiritual (such as a simple but heartfelt “I love you Jesus Christ” declaration), poetic (“and your mom would drink until she was no longer speaking, and your dad would dream of all the different ways to die, each one a little more than he could dare to try”), and richly imagined ("the only girl I’ve ever loved, was born with roses in her eyes, but then they buried her alive one evening 1945 with just her sister at her side, and only weeks before the guns all came and rained on everyone") lyrics whose poignant sincerity can never be doubted (it’s worth noting that many of the lyrics are thought to be inspired by Anne Frank). This is primarily because of Mangum’s fearlessly naked vocal delivery, which dominates the album. His reedy, heavily accented voice aims for gut emotion over all else, and even when his quivering voice cracks the end result is both very affecting and oddly beautiful. This is especially the case on the sad but beautiful beyond words title track, which along with other vocal-heavy tracks like “Two-Headed Boy,” "Oh Comely," and “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two” at times reaches an intensity akin to a religious experience. The album on the whole offers a nice mix of musically upbeat catchy songs with (more often) funereal-like dirges, including three brief but impressive instrumental interludes (“The Fool,” “Ghost,” and the untitled tenth track). Even the "lesser" songs here have special bits that entice; for example, the trumpet kicking in at 1:15 of "Communist Daughter" and the bagpipes/drums kicking in at :15 of the untitled tenth track are magical moments where you're simply glad to be alive. Few albums can make me almost cry in appreciation of its sheer perfection, but this is such an album, and there’s nothing else quite like this quirkily psychedelic folk rock gem, whose deft musical mingling of the sublime with the ridiculous ensures that it will sound fresh forever. Alas, the adulation that this album has received (even if it doesn't have the sales to match) must make the idea of following it up seem like a daunting task (much like My Bloody Valentine with Loveless), and as of 2010 a follow-up has yet to appear (and isn't likely to appear anytime soon if at all). Perhaps Mangum is a basketball fan and watched Michael Jordan struggle with the Washington Wizards when he should've called it quits for good after his sublime championship winning shot against Utah, the sports equivalent of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.