Review Summary: On Avery Island is a peculiar and expressive musical endeavor with a heavily lo-fi sound.
Ah, Jeff Mangum. Whether or not his style is your cup of tea, you must admit that his influence on indie rock is quite impressive. Neutral Milk Hotel certainly have established a legacy for a whole new string of musicians. Over the years, however, the band's first album, On Avery Island, has been somewhat undervalued. The album finds the band at their least refined, but this record embraces that aspect. It's eccentric. It's experimental. It's youthful.
One thing that sticks out on this record is its production. The overarching sound of this album of this album is fuzzy and overtly lo-fi. Many of these songs sound like the instruments were collected through a cheap tape recorder, like on "Someone Is Waiting", in which the muddy and rugged guitar signals a sort of breaking point. While some might consider the production on this LP to be an issue, the sound actually fits in with the feel of the songs themselves. Using a sound that is primitive in nature, these songs interact with one another in a convincing way. The instrumentation on this album is actually pretty straightforward, and, thus, these tracks do not require the burden of overproduction. In fact, the raw quality contributes to the tone conveyed throughout the record.
Mangum's vocals also set a distinct path for the album and take on a variety of styles. Whether he's raising his voice on songs like "Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone" or delivering an emotionally vulnerable mood on "Three Peaches", Mangum sounds sincere. He never commits to one particular style, which makes his delivery feel realistic, unplanned, and earnest. The flow of the album is decent but not perfect. With its abundance of curveballs, On Avery Island is dynamic but unsure. The band throws in some bizarre instrumental tracks to bridge the gap between a series of multidirectional songs. Thus, the record never settles into one approach, but it comes with mixed results.
Mangum and his crew steer away from convention on this record, both in songwriting and structure. The embryonic "A Baby for Pree" highlights the rude awakening of a careless and impulsive girl but is cut short before the track reaches any form of resolution. Additionally, the band implements a hodgepodge of instruments to accompany the standard guitar and drums, like maracas and trumpets. The resulting sound is peculiar and gives Neutral Milk Hotel room to explore. Songs like "You've Passed" present such melancholy lyrics in an energetic way. On Avery Island is not a happy-go-lucky record, but it is sometimes hard to decipher the album's meaning.
Introspective tracks like "Where You'll Find Me Now" utilize lucid imagery to depict a tormented character. "Naomi" is a lovely, engaging tune in which Mangum opens up in such a genuine sense. His lovesick emptiness is not concealed and his emotions seep through his vocals just as the beauty seeps through the woman he describes in the song. Neutral Milk Hotel do not sugarcoat their music on this album, and it works for the most part. Nonetheless, On Avery Island often feels like a collection of incomplete thoughts.
On Avery Island is a lo-fi, unassuming release from one the most esteemed groups in underground music. A large portion of the album's weight falls on Mangum's vocals and the outlandish styles that populate the LP. This is not the most consistent record, but it is still an intriguing musical endeavor. From beginning to end, the album is a vicarious experience seen through the eyes of a tortured, feeble young man, and Mangum is brave enough to expose that side of himself.
Where You'll Find Me Now
Someone Is Waiting
A Baby for Pree