Review Summary: Either the work of a madman or a genius, On Avery Island is one step closer to Jeff Mangum's Neutral Milk Hotel that we know and love today.
A bit of history. Jeff Mangum had recently help found the Elephant 6 Recording Company with a group of childhood friends including producer Robert Schneider. Mangum began his music life with the Olivia Tremor Control but soon moved on to his own solo projects. These included tape looping and many experimental techniques that Elephant 6 became known for. In 1994 Mangum assembled a few musicians from the Recording Company and subsequently recorded Everything Is, the group’s first EP. Though the record was recorded under the name Neutral Milk Hotel (the name was apparently created through a random word generator), it was really a solo effort by Jeff himself with some help from friends. With his sights on the next record that would become On Avery Island, Mangum enlisted producer and long time friend Robert Schneider to help with the album.
As an album On Avery Island is not as complete as its successor, nor is it crafted as meticulously and carefully as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. However, in order to get the best listening experience possible, this record should not be compared to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as they are completely different albums with completely different personnel.
On Avery Island takes the listener for a ride with every song. The constant change of tempo, the fuzz pedals, and Mangum’s tape loops are all charteristics that makes this LP a unique insert to the NMH discography. The album’s loose concept of “Pree” often gets lost in the music and Mangum has since stated that he had no intention of a concept album but simply songs that he tried to fit together. The record makes for an enjoyable piece of music (mostly) but it is clear, that this is a stepping stone, and a growing point for Mangum. Its catchy melodies and provocative lyrics allow it to stay together but he threatens to go completely off the rails at any moment. Many first time listeners might argue he does just that on Marching Theme, a three minute experimental piece that rivals the most avant-garde composing of Philip Glass or John Cage. This sense of experimentation, sound collage, and tape loops are even more evident on the album’s 12 minute closer, Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye. This work of art as some may call it, is not for everyone. The piece draws comparisons to the Beatles eight minute long Revolution 9, a complete experimentation of its own.
The remaining parts of the album are just that. Pieces of a puzzle that Mangum can’t seem to ever put together fully but manages to hold the pieces together long enough for the listener to catch a glimpse of his immense talent and skill. A story-teller by nature, Mangum does not shy away from this on tracks like Where You’ll Find Me Now, Song Against Sex, and You’ve Passed/Someone is Waiting. A great opener, Song Against Sex brings out Mangum’s voice and playing ability while You’ve Passed continues the trend and seamlessly connects into Someone is Waiting. This idea of no spaces between songs is further explored on Neutral Milk Hotel’s next album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
Avery Island/April 1st (Composed jointly by producer Schneider and Mangum) is a beautiful piece with a flowing melody provided by trombonist Rick Benjamin. The track soothes and balances the rest of the album just before heading into the hard rocker Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone. Mangum provides great imagery here and keeps the audience entertained with tasteful horns and fuzz bass. It is also important to note that Mangum provides almost all drums on this album as well as guitar and tape loops, something he would relinquish for the next album.
The album climaxes on the beautiful Naomi, perhaps Mangum’s finest work in Neutral Milk Hotel. The track is unlike anything else on the album and really shows where the band was headed. A very forward and expertly crafted piece, Naomi drives the album forward once again after the slow ballad Three Peaches (which draws similarities to Oh Comely). Naomi is a simplistic sing-along song that is inserted in a place where the record sorely needs it.
Though not as cohesive or emotionally driven as its successor, On Avery Island possesses a certain old-timey charm that draws the listener in a creates a whole world for them without ever having to leave their headphones.