This month marks the 16th anniversary of Neutral Milk Hotel's debut album On Avery Island. Dwarfed by it's big brother In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, On Avery Island fights to be heard. Opinions differ but the general consensus of On Avery Island is relatively positive. Those of us that talk about this album will mention it's lo-fi aspects and 'full' instrumentation sound which ITAOTS lacks gleefully. Filled with feedback and poetic lyrics, On Avery Island was Jeff Mangum + instrumentalist and producer, Robert Schneider's output under the moniker Neutral Milk Hotel. On release, Mangum recruited his trio to form the bulk of the band.
We begin with 'Song Against Sex'. The fuzzy production may hurt your ears, and it may put you off On Avery Island all together, but the track is phenomenally good. The lyrics flow perfectly and Mangum's textured vocals sit nicely above the rapid instrumentation. The experimental drumming works with the powerful bass and everything mixes and matches as intended. The horn section is dreamy and is among the great surprises Neutral Milk Hotel reveal as the album unfolds. The focus is on psych-folk and low fidelity. 'You've Passed' begins with the deafening percussion which holds it's place throughout the track. It's almost unheard as the distortion slams through the speakers with Mangum's high pitched vocals and typical aesthetic song structure.
The audience will hear interesting melodies and advanced indie pop instrumentation, love it or hate it, this album is unique. 'Someone Is Waiting' doesn't stretch rocks boundaries and it doesn't have the softest edges, but it's made for power and energy. It's beautiful melody splits the agonizing original distorted ending from lyrical bliss. Mangum sings, "And I love you and I want to shoot all the super heroes from your skies. Watch them bleeding, from your ceiling, as their empty anger falls out from their eyes. All alone." Enter the soft and melodic acoustic track, 'A Baby For Pree'. It's less than 90 seconds long and has four basic chords, but the imagery and structure separates itself from anything imaginable. Typical Jeff Mangum madness, or genius.
Bludgeoned drumming and a guitar drone make the backbone of 'Marching Theme'. White Light/White Heat era Velvet Underground can be a comparison with the simplistic drumming, obscure synthesizer drone and the heavy distortion, especially the part that plays out the track. 'Where You'll Find Me Now' is reminiscent of childhood. It has sweet lyrics like, "your teeth believe that teeth are for tearing, tear into me," and a melody many people will know as the 'Ice Cream Van Music'. It also has the same melody as A Baby For Pree. Yet another instrumental sees 'Avery Island/April 1st' showcase simplicity and 'indie' as fuck horns mixed with electric piano.
'Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone' has lovely fuzz. it's just a little gimmicky and the production is pretty poor here. It's one of the major criticisms for On Avery Island, and I must mention how lo-fi it does sound, even if that's not what you want to heat. Mangum delivers a strong vocal and only increases his reputation through the vocal drones leading into words. He lifts the horns from the previous track and tightens the tempo to create something meaningful and experimental. 'Three Peaches' is like a Daniel Johnston track. The imagery is supreme and the weird instrumentation adds to the surreal vibe. This is one of the few times you'll hear multi-layered Jeff Mangum vocal effects like this.
'Naomi' has everything, the three basic acoustic guitar chords with sufficient distortion, vocal layers and melody. The kick is mesmerising and the following three minutes pave the way for ITAOTS's glories. Naomi just standout, it's the instrumental and uplifting guitar work. The track pours into 'April 8th', which lacks in creativity and originality, as does the closer 'Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey's Eye'. This track is magnificent in it's own way. it opens with the regurgitated instrumental drone and drumming soundscapes. People criticise this track for it's length, beyond 13 minutes. I hear the repetition and melodic sounds n the left speaker. The track becomes otherworldly with reverberated drones and heavy bass.
The album closes with four minutes of grotesque noise. It's unique and it's the work of Jeff Mangum, but it's not a classic. Like I mentioned before, On Avery Island is dwarfed by In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, and for good reason, but does make On Avery Island bad? No, it's the opposite. The lack of listeners only increases On Avery Island's notoriety as an 'indie' album that was the appetiser for ITAOTS. Fuzz, spectacular lyrics and uncharacteristic structure make up On Avery Island, it's far more experimental than ITAOTS and Neutral Milk Hotel set their foundations with this album.