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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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Luluc - Sculptor Music Album Reviews

On their third record, the indie-folk duo celebrate choices but settle on none.

You are the master of your own destiny. This is the thread loosely stitching together Luluc’s latest indie-folk album, Sculptor. The third record from Brooklyn-based Australians Zoe Randell and Steve Hassett saunters to the same plodding pace as their previous records—2014’s Passerby and 2008’s Dear Hamlyn—unfolding like a collection of yawning acoustic poems. According to Randell, the titular “sculptor” is emblematic of shaping one’s own world out of bottomless possibilities—but the ambiguity of those possibilities paired with Luluc’s noncommittal compositions result in an album at odds with its objective. Sculptor is said to celebrate choices, but it settles on none.


The theme of volition throughout Sculptor is nebulous at best and precarious at worst. Randell aims to explore “the different lives that are open to us,” but it seems that “us” represents a very particular demographic of people, namely the affluent, white, and educated masochists of Alex Ross Perry and Noah Baumbach films. It’s not that art made about this slice of society can’t be affecting (just look at the literate citizens of Belle and Sebastian songs, or Pulp’s “Common People”), it’s just that the characters stalking Sculptor’s tracklist lack flesh and blood, and the record’s homogeneous arrangements aren’t enough to fortify them.

It’s hard to discern Randell’s intentions in these songs, especially when it comes to the people that populate them. Take the hifalutin writer of “Genius,” whose stodgy lifestyle and rejection of “aesthetic dress” Randell criticizes, but in a terminology that suggests it takes one to know one. She uses overwrought language to critique someone who uses overwrought language, and it’s hard to sympathize with either author. Then there’s the pair of pals drifting between the beach and university in “Cambridge.” Randell sings: “Tonight I’m here in Cambridge and I guess we’re living proof/There are other roads open to me and to you.” The song’s evasive narrative of feeling lost and then (inexplicably) found feels two-dimensional—its subjects are bursting with existential complaints but they’re shy on the subtleties of actual human beings.

Vagueness plagues much of Sculptor, cloaking the album’s protagonists in crudely formed identities, and limiting its arrangements to uninspired combinations of drums, guitar, and occasional flourishes of Hammond organ. On Luluc’s earlier records, Randell’s voice was capable of great range; her lows smoky and arresting, her higher register delicate and celestial. Unfortunately on Sculptor she occupies her deepest timbre the entire time, and her words often drown in a persistent monotone. Hassett’s multi-tracked harmonies, as well as guitar cameos by J Mascis and Aaron Dessner are sadly not enough to pump oxygen into these tracks, and you’re left waiting for the album to break into a gallop, or even a light jog.

Sculptor postures as a manifesto of independent thought, without saying anything specific or of substance. Sure, there’s a teen who’s followed by cops for wearing a “filthy punk rock tee,” but Randell’s attempts at social commentary feel thinly spread, unfocused, and self-congratulatory. On campfire strummer “Me and Jasper,” for instance, she looks back on adolescence, applauding her own rebellious nature and propensity to ponder “something different than just shallow thinkin’ and bitchin.’” But what is that “something different”? Despite Sculptor’s learned characters, we’re never educated on the matter.

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