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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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Popcaan - Forever Music Album Reviews

Popcaan’s second album is full of faith, joy, and the wealth of his international pop celebrity, but falters when it comes to his idea of romance.

Dancehall veteran Beenie Man took shots at Popcaan twice this year. Man’s first video accused the 29-year-old Jamaican deejay of putting on false airs about his humble roots, and the follow-up diss track warned him against surpassing his place. In the past, Popcaan might have entertained a response, like the “Stray Dog” clapback when Alkaline took jabs at his masculinity. Now, though, he prefers leaving those badmind rivals on read. For Popcaan (born Andrae Jay Sutherland), asserting dominance over the Kingston microcosm is an unspoken flex: He lets the private jet, the gold chains around his neck, and a Midas-touch cosign from Drake do the talking. Landing a full four years after his summer 2014 debut Where We Come From, Popcaan’s second album peacocks the wealth of his international pop celebrity. Forever is an overflowing chalice, and he’s is overly eager to offer us a sip.

In late June, the head of Unruly records described manifesting his destiny (in the form of high-profile collaborations with Jamie xx, Pusha-T, Gorillaz, among others) to radio host Zane Lowe, saying: “I keep my thoughts clean and positive.” Fittingly, Popcaan continues to boast his untouchable purity on Forever. The first song “Silence” contemplates the paranoia of fame, but gives reassurance: “And my heart clean, filled with love/And mi meditation sharp like studs.” His chief conspirator and Mixpak Records’ Brooklyn beatmaker Dre Skull makes an equally dignified return, imbuing the song with sonic gravitas through quickening thrums of bass and misty atmospherics. Spirituality is the current that electrifies Forever. On “Firm & Strong,” the glory of a 20-person choir shake stained glass windows with Popcaan’s soulful affirmations. The bookend “A Wha Suh” is a sincere pep-talk from a psalm-slinging confidant—only to be rendered banal by mid-range piano chords from step-in producer Not Nice.

Each blessing Popcaan counts strengthens his carefree swagger. Rather than the accidental intersection of pop and dancehall that sprung from Where We Come From, his sinewy melodies and Dre Skull’s grooves here are more deliberate angles towards mainstream audiences. He claims this bid for the spotlight with the same rigor his soaring croons hurtle over the sparkly synth lines on “Superstar.” Framed within a rags-to-riches context, the singalong chorus, “Man a star, man a star/Man a super,” knows everyone cheers when the underdog punches the air amidst a thrilling recovery. Equally infectious is “Happy Now,” where Popcaan’s wavering ad libs undergo a slight AutoTune treatment, a correction very evocative of pop tradition.

Forever falters when Popcaan confronts romantic limitations. At least the lusty rhapsodies on “Naked” and the cries of “Wine fi the money now” on “Dun Rich” own their irreverence. He barely musters a convincing lilt to carry the words “Girl you love me for free, yeah/This must be love” on the vapid “Through the Storm.” What’s worse is the cloying guitars in the background with a twang borrowed from sine feeble boy band 10 years his junior. Wrestling ballads away from weak sentimentalism requires a higher degree of finesse than assembling hip-swaying hits.

Entering the big pop arena often comes with the question of superficiality, of watering down truth, or tuning up reality for the onlooker. The charisma underneath Popcaan’s veneer of wealth saves his work from feeling entirely contrived. However, like panning for precious metals, Forever requires sieving through plates of glinting sediment before discovering treasure. The album is best when luxuriating in its own divine intensity, when an earnest Popcaan reconciles the hunger of his past with the feasting of his present, hands clasped in grace.

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