MUSIC REVIEW | Neutral Milk Hotel – On Avery Island (1996)

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Long before the word “hipster” became more overused than wax on a hipster’s moustache, they existed.  And the kinds of bands they loved existed too.  While the last decade or so has been all about The Arcade Fire, or Death Cab for Cutie, or The Decemberists, or My Morning Jacket, or any other number of twee bands filled with men who button their shirts to the very top, there was Neutral Milk Hotel.
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Full disclosure, everything you just read is based entirely on unsubstantiated assumptions and out of touch, aging rock fan bitterness.  I don’t even mean any of it as a criticism.  I actually really like everything I’ve heard from The Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie, The Decemberists and My Morning Jacket.  They’re just easy targets to make fun of.  So why not listen to just enough Neutral Milk Hotel so I can use a minimum amount of product knowledge to make fun of their fans too?  So strap yourselves in, synch up your waste coat and order a glass of gin served in an old timey mason jar, because here comes my review of Neutral Milk Hotel’s On Avery Island.

There’s a strange, overblown distorted sound to the first three opening tracks that I just couldn’t get on board with.  And I don’t mean the guitars are distorted and loud, I mean I had to check my headphones because I thought they must have shit themselves.  And it’s a shame, because underneath the noise, I think Sing Against Sex, You’ve Passed and Someone is Waiting might have actually been three pretty good, hooky songs.

Which is kind of proven with A Baby for Free.  None of that over compensating with production trickery and gimmicks.  Just 80 seconds of a nice little song, allowed to stand on its own two feet and do its thing.

Strangely, Marching Theme. which could be seen as fitting the same unflattering description I gave the opening trio, minus the slight signs of melody, actually really stands out as a real highlight of On Avery Island.  It’s noisy, simple, repetitive and monotonous, but something about it just grabbed and held my attention.

With Avery Island / April 1st, it becomes clear that I find Neutral Milk Hotel most entertaining when they’re indulging in little tangents.  This slow trumpet (or maybe it’s a trombone) aside is a great rest, away from the deliberately dirty dredge that fills up most of this album.

Those tangents lose their impact when they stop being little, and blow out to the wanky length of almost 14 minutes, like Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye.  Listening to that, all I could think of was the old saying, “Don’t piss in my ear and tell me it’s raining”.  There should be some sort of musical governing body who fines bands for putting this sort of shit on an album and calling it a song.

Neutral Milk Hotel is a prestige indie music moment that passed me by at the time.  And it’s something I managed to never become aware of over the years as their legacy has grown.  After listening to On Avery Hotel, I realise that doesn’t matter.  I didn’t hate it, there were a few tracks on there I might not skip if they popped up on shuffle.  But I’m definitely no musically richer for having finally given them ago.

Neutral Milk Hotel

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