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Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the oft-overshadowed debut from indie rock icons, a smaller and more intimate look into the mercurial world of Jeff Mangum.
In the mid-’90s, Jeff Mangum moved into a haunted closet in Denver where he had dreams of women in fur coats drinking champagne, yelling at him to get out of their house. During a snowy Colorado winter, the Louisiana-born songwriter and his childhood friend Robert Schneider set about recording what would become Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut album. They worked feverishly, going out to smoke cigarettes when they hit a roadblock, until, in May of 1995, they had a finished record. The North Carolina indie label Merge scooped up the young band and quietly released On Avery Island the following March.

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Laurel Halo - Raw Silk Uncut Wood Music Album Reviews

Laurel Halo’s most ambient—and most linear—record to date swims in mysterious electro-acoustic textures; it marks a departure from her usual mode of thorny, cerebral electronic composition.

Voices abounded on Laurel Halo’s 2017 album Dust. Voices sung and simpered, voices repeating isolated Japanese words, voices intoning consonant-rich, ASMR-inducing phrases. The album probed at what exactly the voice could do if split apart and rearranged like any other piece of machinery; it destabilized the voice’s traditional role as pop music’s emotional core. Because the Michigan-born, Berlin-based artist tends to ricochet so rapidly between styles from album to album—avant-pop on her 2012 debut LP, minimal techno on the next—it should come as little surprise that her latest, Raw Silk Uncut Wood, omits the voice entirely. If Dust was a series of cubist portraits, fragmenting the human into new and startling shapes, then Raw Silk is a collection of unpopulated landscapes, pristine and placid in their emptiness.

The sense of restlessness that has characterized Halo’s work to date subsides on Raw Silk. She is no longer so invested in parrying attention from one moment to the next; she’d rather linger on one set of chords, one simple melody, or an unusual percussive pattern. The record begins meditatively on the title track, whose name derives from Ursula Le Guin’s translation of an ancient Taoist text: “What works reliably is to know the raw silk, hold the uncut wood. Need little. Want less.” An organ tone maps a soothing chord progression frosted with synthesizer pads and streaked by low notes from guest cellist Oliver Coates. It is the first of the two 10-minute tracks that open and close the record, and it preempts Raw Silk’s more jittery middle section by inducing a state of stillness. There’s no percussion, no sense of divided time beyond slow variations on a theme.

The title track’s glacial unspooling gives way to four short-form songs that find ample common ground between avant-garde jazz and ambient experimentalism. “Quietude” and “The Sick Mind” both clack away at a rapid, glitching pace, not so much following melodies as exploring the tonal qualities of a single instrument or synthesizer patch (it’s not always clear where exactly these sounds originate physically). “Mercury” matches them in speed with scattershot percussion from Halo’s Dust collaborator Eli Keszler. “The Sick Mind,” in particular, plays out like an anxious brain being observed from a mindful distance, racing but not all-consuming, free to worry itself to exhaustion. Because the tone of these songs is so sparse and so muted, even the most urgent tempos shiver inside an overarching sense of calm. The dancing keystrokes don’t break the spell cast by the album’s opening track. They just roil the hypnotic mood.

Whatever tension arises from Raw Silk’s center comes to a head on its final track, “Nahbarkeit.” Here, the unresolved experiments find closure as Keszler’s percussion stutters beneath a wash of celestial synth chords. The oceanic tone of the record’s first track washes over the agitated beats of its middle, and together, the two techniques elevate one another. The drums spur on the chords, and the chords take the nervous edge off the drums.

Halo’s music often rewards listeners who sit with it long enough to untangle all its knots. Raw Silk Uncut Wood marks a departure from her usual mode of thorny, cerebral electronic compositions, but as her most ambient record to date, it also boasts some of her most unabashedly beautiful music. The closing measures of “Nahbarkeit” feel like a revelation of sorts, a moment of surrender after so much searching. More than her previous albums, Raw Silk pursues a cohesive, linear narrative structure. It doesn’t aim to unseat the listener’s frame of reference, only to follow its own threads to the end. Rather than probe or distort the base structure of the music she’s making, Halo lets it glow for the sake of glowing.

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