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Through the retro-scope
Anniversary Album of the Moonth

Neutral Milk Hotel
On Avery Island

This is a piece in a series of 12 Luna Kafé desserts, presenting a dozen of records celebrating their 40th, 30th, 20th or 10th birthday this year 2006. I've chosen three out of each "class". Classics, milestones, favourites. You name it. Some among the global masses, others maybe in smaller circuits only. Maybe we could group them under the moniker "Pet Records" - to re-name one of the many 40-year-olds of 2006.

Jeff Mangum is a living legend. Too bad he's withdrawn from the music scene. His multi-coloured neo-psychedelic folk "band" (it was mere a project of his own, with a lot of friends and associates helping out) put out two albums, of which the second, In the Aeroplane over the Sea is a true classic. One of THE albums of the 1990s. Mangum hit the same nerve as Kurt Cobain did with his writing. Even though they wrote music in various places of the fields of rock music.

But this is about On Avery Island, which happened two years before ...Aeroplane.... It's a remarkable debut. Full of energy, highly creative and innovative sounds and music. From the opening "Song Against Sex", the album shows a tremendous feeling of some powerful, radiant, glowing, energetic self-confidence. Mangum must've been sure he had some great pieces of music coming out of his head. He must have known and been aware of his talent. Maybe that's what drove him out of the business. Not that he was much into the business of popular music.

Jeff Mangum did most of the instruments as well. Besides the trademark baritone, he played guitars, drums, air (pump) organ, xylophone, did tape loops, and a variety of small, exotic instruments. As backing he had his good friend Robert Schneider (of Apples in Stereo), who also produced the album. Other musicians were Lisa Janssen (delicious fuzz bass) and Rick Benjamin (lovely trombone). The sound and the music of Neutral Milk Hotel is so rich and colourful and fruity, much thanks to a variety of twisted brass, adding a most exotic feel. But the main reason is of course the fantastic way of writing and arranging the songs, plus Jeff's phenomenal voice.

The lyrical world of Jeff Mangum is something quite special. I won't even try to read the meanings or decode the symbolism, often related to the morbid or macabre. There's sex and religion and life and death, and a lot of wild dreams and hallucinations. In "Song Against Sex" he sings: "And the first one tore a picture / Of a dead and hanging man / Who was kissing foreign fishes / That flew right out from this hands". Quite colourful pictures, right. In verse two the song goes on, and it's so good I'll quote almost everything:

"Deli markets with their flower stands / Pretty girls and the burning men
Hanging out on the hooks next to the window displays
And I took out my tongue twice removed from my face
Across a bridge and across the mountains / Threw a nickel in a fountain
To save my soul from all these troubled times / And all the drugs that I don't have the guts to take
To soothe my mind so I'm always sober / Always aching, always heading towards
Mass suicide, occult figurines / And wasted gas-station attendants / Attending to their jobs
And a nice drive in the country / Finds a nice cliff to drop off
Oh when this world just gets so grating / All the grittiness of life
But don't take those pills your boyfriend gave you / You're too wonderful to die"

It's like a documentary road movie, a script for an unpublished beat-novel, or what?

On Avery Island flows with great moments. "Song Against Sex" is already mentioned. Then there's "Where You'll Find Me Now", and "Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone", which probably is my favourite track. I must also mention "Three Peaches", "April 8th", and, last but not least, beautiful "Naomi", about beautiful Naomi. Could that by any chance be Naomi of Damon & Naomi (ex-Galaxie 500)? I mean since the lyrics goes: "...There is no Naomi in view / She walks through Cambridge stocks and strolls...", and Naomi Yang is from Cambridge, MA...

On Avery Island. Mark my words.

Copyright © 2006 Håvard Oppøyen e-mail address

You may also want to check out our Neutral Milk Hotel articles/reviews: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Roundhouse, London, UK, May 22. + 23. 2014.

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