Unless you actually live in Louisiana, it's almost certain that you won't be completely sure of where this Avery Island place is. Actually, that's not entirely true. If you're a particularly devoted fan of Tabasco sauce then you might know where it is as well (due to the company which makes the hot sauce being based there). But leaving these two lucky sets of people aside, you probably won't even have heard of Avery Island. Now, a disclaimer. Although the 5th result on [url]http://www.google.com[/url] for "Avery Island" takes you directly to a page about this album, On Avery Island
should not be treated as a reliable source about what exactly Avery Island is like. I can say this with absolute certainty, in spite of never having been near Louisiana (you'll excuse me if I don't do my research into this). Like the second album from Neutral Milk Hotel, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
, On Avery Island
is another of these deeply odd trips into Jeff Mangum's mind, and as such should not be taken literally.
Of course, such a thing goes without saying to those people familiar with In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
, with it's odd tales of Two-Headed boys, Kings of Carrot Flowers, and teenage diarists during the Holocaust. Although that album effectively drove Mangum out of the music industry, there's a case to be made that this album is actually stranger. However, while that may sound like it's a good thing (as a general rule with the Elephant 6 Recording Collective, the albums get better as they get more weird), we're talking about Jeff Mangum here. So, true to form, if you're a Neutral Milk Hotel fan who's never heard this album before, you're in for a surprise. Unfortunately this surprise is based around the gradual discovery that On Avery Island
isn't actually all that good.
That's not to say it's entirely bad, and indeed there's only one song on here that dips it into the "poor" category. We'll get back to that later, but in the meantime, let's be positive for a while. Jeff Mangum normally sounds pretty positive, so think of it as a tribute, so to speak. Opening track Song Against Sex
is clearly one of the best tracks on the album, opening with the band setting up in the studio before we go straight into Mangum's trademark lyrics which could be interpreted pretty much any way the listener cares to.
"And the first one tore a picture
Of a dead and hanging man
Who was kissing foreign fishes
That flew right out from these hands "
While opinion is divided on Mangum's voice, with some describing it as a rawer combination of Wayne Coyne and Bob Dylan, and others describing it in ways which aren't suitable for a family website, he's on good form here. It's got a lot in common with the more up-tempo moments from In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
, and is certainly driven along in the same way, behind the band's trademark fuzzy production.
I know I promised to talk about the positives, but we're going on a detour at this point, to talk about the production. I really like fuzzy production in the right circumstances. The Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy
is one of my favourite albums of the 1980s. But there does come a point when fuzzy production stops being interestingly low-fi, and starts becoming genuinely annoying, and that point hits the listener during the instrumental Marching Theme
(track 5). I don't know how they march down in Louisiana, but believe me, if the National Guard march like this song progresses, then Louisiana needs every dime of funding they can squeeze out of the federal government, because this is dire. Based around a flute, an interestingly annoying series of bleeps and above all layers of fuzz, Marching Theme
saps all momentum out of the album. While that's bad enough, it's sadly not an isolated occurrence throughout the album, due to the fact that for every upbeat track which seems to be pulling the listener towards something, there's this slimy fuzz which we get stuck in, waiting for Mangum to rescue us somehow.
In all fairness to the man he does come quite close at times. Gardenhead; Leave Me Alone
is a wonderfully haunting song which sounds deeply significant, particularly when you realise that the lyrics actually make sense for once.
"So I'll meet you up high in your anger
Of all that is hoping and waiting for you
Of all that is hoping and waiting for you "
Whisper it quietly, but it almost sounds to me like Mangum's decided to make a song that his listeners can confidently identify with, rather than just feeling like they can. The other great thing about the song is the band's performance, which all too often gets forgotten whenever anyone talks about Neutral Milk Hotel. Here they constantly sound like a truly huge chorus is coming, constantly building the mood, and then keeping it interesting. The sheer range of instruments used here clearly helps with that as well. One of the Neutral Milk Hotel trademarks is the infamous horn section, and while they lurk in the background here, they're very clearly effective.
is very different, although it has some similarities in that it sounds like it could be the sort of the song that The Flaming Lips have made a career out of suddenly launching into a 5th gear on, exploding it into life. However, it's the other
type of Neutral Milk Hotel song, the wistful ballad where Mangum comes forward to take centre stage, with even the fuzz momentarily allowing him centre stage. Unsurprisingly enough, this immediately makes the song genuinely beautiful, and one of the three high points on the album.
Let's assume the album had ended here. If it had, we'd be looking at a 3/5, and a nice big tick in the "solid debut album" box. However, for reasons best known to Jeff Mangum, we got April 8th
, and the final track on the album, Pree Sisters Swallowing A Donkey's Eye
. The first of these is like many of the tracks here, fuzzy and mediocre. The second one is an excruciatingly bad instrumental, lasting for nearly 14 minutes. The title's oddly apt in fact, as I swear that the persistent noise which at first sounds like a fire alarm is in fact the aforementioned donkey trying to resist these Pree Sisters swallowing its eye. While that "only" lasts for 3 minutes, the track doesn't improve, going inexplicably down the route of disjointed keyboards, odd noise effects, and, of course, more fuzz. It's a genuinely shocking way of ending this album, and due its placing and sheer lack of any redeeming features, drags the entire album down to the level of the substandard.
In all fairness to this album, it never really had a chance of being critically acclaimed after the slow-burning success of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
. The nearest comparison is probably Radiohead. There's nothing overtly wrong with Pablo Honey
, but after they made three era-defining albums, no-one really talks about it anymore. It would be a mistake though to look at this as a reasonable album which was overshadowed by its follow-up. Although there are three songs on here which stand up to Mangum's later work, the other 9 don't, with some of them being painful to listen to. On Avery Island
is a more experimental record than In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
, and it was definitely a bigger risk to make. Unfortunately, sometimes risks don't work, even for the Elephant Six Recording Collective. And that means that Avery Island is still known as the home of makers of Tabasco sauce, rather than as the name of a second classic Neutral Milk Hotel album.