Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island

Neutral Milk Hotel
On Avery Island

Released 1996 on Merge Records
Reviewed by Robin Tripp, 25/06/2006ce

1. Song Against Sex
2. You've Passed
3. Someone Is Waiting
4. A Baby for Pree
5. Marching Theme
6. Where You'll 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 Donkey's Eye

All songs written by Jeff Mangum, except Avery Island (Mangum/Schneider) and Pree Sisters... (Mangum/all players).

Note: the UK issue of this album on Fire Records features two bonus tracks, 'Everything Is...' and 'Snow Song Pt. 1' - both of which were taken from the 1995 E.P., also titled Everything Is - as well as different art-work by Jill Carnes of the band, Thimble Circus.

As a result of the expansive greatness of the second Neutral Milk Hotel album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which recounts the life of Anne Frank against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of bizarre characters and heartfelt (yet childlike) lyrical imagery in a way that is both interesting (in a conceptual sense) and emotionally effecting, On Avery Island will always be somewhat disregarded as the clumsier, less expansive footnote, that simply worked as a necessary building block to Mangum's grand opus. Although some of these factors are true, On Avery Island remains a fascinating album in it's own right, once again blurring a fragmented and fractured narrative against a musical backdrop of fuzz-inflected bass lines, clamouring drums, electronic noise, acoustic guitars (run through amplifies and shot with distortion), and the early use of horns that would become more pronounced after the arrival of Scott Spilane and the rest of the core Neutral Milk Hotel line-up during this album's subsequent tour.

On Avery Island, like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, was recorded over a long period of time by Jeff Mangum and chief Elephant 6 guru Robert Schneider on a four track recorder, with the duo playing most of the instruments themselves, with a few friends from fellow Elephant 6 bands The Apples in Stereo and The Olivia Tremor Control offering further assistance in the album's creation. As a result, the album is more singular and intimate in sound than the aforementioned masterpiece to follow, with the continuing use of fuzzy guitars, drums, bass and various electronic touches developing a completely different sound to Aeroplane's more acoustic fuzz-folk doodlings. For those familiar with the second album, the sound of On Avery Island is most similar to tracks like The King of Carrot Flowers pt. 3 (aka Up and Over), the Anne Frank montage Holland, 1945 and the clamouring stream of conscious ramble, Ghosts. You can also see the influence of fellow American indie-rock acts like Pavement, Sonic Youth, The Flaming Lips and The Pixies, as well as those core Elephant 6 influences The Beatles, Pink Floyd and the Zombies.

The album opens with a piercing burst of electronic noise and feedback (with Schneider and Mangum conversing about the song ahead), before we surge into the distorted two-chord ramble, Song Against Sex. Like the rest of the album, the lyrics are dense and fragmented beyond recognition, so that the songs (and the album as a whole) can only really be interpreted on a personal level. Song Against Sex has been viewed as both an anti-drug song and a song against suicide, though it certainly has elements of a yearning for true love and longing, over empty thoughts of lust ("and its a lie that you've been giving / it just hurts you everyday / so why should I lay here naked / when its just so far away / from anything we could call love / and any love worth living for / so I'll sleep out in the gutter / you can sleep here on the floor"). You've Passed and Someone Is Waiting have a more 60's influenced, psychedelic edge, recalling The Olivia Tremor Control's great album Dusk at Cubist Castle, as well as Neutral Milk Hotel contemporaries the Brian Jonestown Massacre, whilst also blurring into one another to further the conceptual theme. On the other hand, A Baby for Pree establish an important part of the album's lyrical focus, acting as an ode to a pregnant friend of Mangum and Schneider, as well as introducing a mini-narrative preoccupation with suicide. In one on-line interview, Mangum talks about a friend of his who committed suicide after years of physical abuse (whether this is true or not is unknown?), which can be seen as a focal point of songs like Where You'll Find Me Now, Three Peaches, Naomi, April 8th and related songs like Ghosts, Two Headed Boy pt 2 and the unreleased track Little Birds, which is more cohesive in it's tale of sexual abuse, murder and redemption.

The three chords of A Baby for Pree are left bare and acoustic to offer contrast to the fuzzy instrumentation found throughout the rest of the album... though the same chords and structure re-appear in the later song Where You'll Find Me Now, which is further linked by the buzzing instrumental Marching Theme, meaning that the three songs are linked thematically, or indeed further linked by Avery Island/April 1st and Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone (in other words, the album should be seen as a unified whole). Gardenhead... is a fascinating song, one that captures the frenzied, stream of conscious style, with Mangum's wavering voice spilling out random and seemingly unconnected lyrics that capture a mood rather than a story ("there are beads that / wrap around your / knees that crackle / into the dark / like a walk in the park / like a hole in your head / like the feeling you get / when you realise you dead / this time"). The middle part of the song is captivating, creating a sense of confusion, dread and hazy nostalgia, with Mangum singing "we ride roller coasters / into the ocean / we feel no emotion / as we spiral down / to the world / and I guess it's worth your time / that there's some lives you live / and there's some you leave behind...", before the song breaks from the previous two chords into the second phase, Leave Me Alone...

Leave me alone, for you know this isn't the first time
in fact this is twice in a row
that the angels have slipped through our landslide
and filled up our garden with snow
and I don't wish to taste of your insides
or to call out your name through my phone
for the glory boys at your bedside will love you
as long as you're something to own

Follow me through a city of frost covered angels
I swear I have nothing to prove
I just want to dance in your tangles
to give me some reason to move
but to take on the world at all angles
requires a strength I can't use
so I'll meet you up high in your anger
of all that is hoping and waiting for you

Three Peaches, Naomi and April 8th further the story of the suicide and possibly hint to the notion of someone being consumed by a love for someone who's passed away, with Mangum talking about characters locked in the bathroom carving "holiday designs" into their flesh, or prettiness and emptiness "swollen shut". This portion of the album is both dark and claustrophobic, with none of the hope and devotion of Aeroplane..., and yet, the songs still come close to indie-pop in the traditional sense. The album ends with the 14 minute pure-noise instrumental, Pree Sisters Swallowing a Donkey's Eye, which is close to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, though with perhaps a touch more melody. For me, On Avery Island is a dark, complex and emotionally affecting piece of work that more than lives up to Mangum's more acclaimed and emotionally expansive 1997 follow up.

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