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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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Animal Collective - Tangerine Reef Music Album Reviews

Composed by Avey Tare, Geologist, and Deakin, AnCo’s second audiovisual album reckons abstractly with the environmental devastation and the potentially horrifying consequences yet to come.

Avey Tare’s voice floats adrift on Animal Collective’s second audiovisual album, Tangerine Reef. Made in tandem with Coral Morphologic, the Miami-based duo who merge art and science by growing and photographing coral, the film’s soundtrack plays out like a defeated, sunken warning. Coral, like the polar bear and the oil-covered seabird, has become a symbol of human recklessness as our species stares down apocalyptic climate change. It’s not cute or warm-blooded, but it’s brilliant with fluorescent color when alive, and it bleaches, like bone, when it dies. As the sea warms, coral acts as an emotional thermometer. Unlike Animal Collective’s more pop-oriented albums, which carry within them a strong, if occasionally flippant, utopian grain, Tangerine Reef feels saddled with existential weight, preemptively mourning a future vacant of the living color Coral Morphologic capture in stunning high-definition video.

Coral Morphologic’s Colin Foord and J.D. McKay first met Animal Collective in 2010 at a screening of the band’s first audiovisual LP, the sticky phantasmagoria ODDSAC. The two groups collaborated on and off over the next eight years and made Tangerine Reef in commemoration of the third International Year of the Reef—an effort by the International Coral Reef Initiative to encourage the preservation of aquatic ecosystems. The album follows AnCo’s Meeting of the Waters EP, another soundtrack to visual documentation of environmental destruction, but it’s closer in tone to Avey Tare’s most recent solo album, 2017’s Eucalyptus. Composed by Tare, Geologist, and Deakin (no Panda Bear this time), Tangerine Reef reckons abstractly with the environmental devastation already wreaked upon the earth, and the potentially horrifying consequences yet to come.

It’s a timely release. Record wildfires are singeing California, and people are dying from heat waves around the world. Global warming should be a hot-button issue, politically, and yet it is rarely spoken of on the campaign trail. A certain fatalism seems to have set in among Americans; Tangerine Reef’s slow, sad notes reflect that ambient despair. Through a soup of effects, Tare sings like he’s watching something precious slip away from him. While his voice was clear and at the forefront of the mix on Meeting of the Waters, he sounds drowned here. And yet it’s beautiful what he’s drowned in, these strange, delicate notes that sound primordial and ancient even though they’ve probably been cranked out of something pedestrian like a guitar. Toward the end of the album’s first track and lead single, “Hair Cutter,” Tare trails off, out of lyrics but still singing, and a bouquet of alien synthesizer notes rise up around him, buoying him. That song boasts the album’s loveliest vocal melody, and its strange melancholy serves as a portal to the rest of the album’s murky psychological excavations.

Coral Morphologic’s wondrous, psychedelic video work dovetails smoothly with Animal Collective’s dazzling electronic pop, but of the two groups involved in making Tangerine Reef, it’s Animal Collective who comes off more sedate. The weight of the music lends the visuals a foreboding feel, as if to remind us of the dangers these organisms face. Without Panda Bear on board, Animal Collective lose the pop edge that has resulted in their most commercially successful music, but this isn’t a project for scoring hits. It’s a meditative, hypnotic experience, and it’s not without the sense of playfulness that has driven Animal Collective throughout their career. Hearing Tare vocalize over a bouncing bassline and offhand organ riffs on “Inspector Gadget” sparks some of the same pleasure as listening to Animal Collective’s earliest albums, back when the band members obscured not only their faces but their voices and their words. Even on vocal-heavy songs, like the lurching “Coral by Numbers,” it’s hard to make out what Tare is saying. It’s as though he’s simultaneously singing and gasping for air—light on diction, heavy on desperation. “The time is now/Now is the time,” he calls out on “Hip Sponge,” like he’s begging for action, for something to change, and nothing does.

In a 2015 Vice documentary on Coral Morphologic, Foord and McKay point out that certain species of coral seem to have adapted to humanity’s incessant pollution. They’ve found organisms thriving even in the filthiest waters off Miami, growing on artificial rock substrate amid unidentifiable sludge and discarded plastic cups. This discovery runs contrary to the common, simplified narrative of human activity wiping out all life by way of environmental disregard; it suggests that the natural systems we’re disrupting are hardier than we think. The two artists aren’t shy about suggesting that Miami may be underwater by the end of the century, but they find a certain macabre poetry in the image. They see coral climbing submerged buildings, recolonizing their space. Perhaps this is the only flavor of hope to be extracted from the persistent narrative that life on earth is doomed. Even cities are organic structures, and whatever happens next on earth may just be life playing itself out, arriving at the conclusion to a story far bigger than any individual.

Tangerine Reef, in its wide, sloping compositions and glacial, dreamy pace, hints at such a frame. Its most human element—the voice—gets decentralized, swept away, blurred over by its overall flow. The music itself is beautiful and expansive, if slow and occasionally stagnant, and the perspective it asks you to take offers relief from the anxious refrain of climate doom. There’s no real protagonist to this story, no hero’s journey, no Superman crashing through the atmosphere to save us from ourselves. There’s not even cosmic retribution in this telling: The earth’s not exacting revenge on its tormentors. We’re not so important to be the targets of revenge. We’re just animals scuttling across the planet’s surface, swept up in a geological saga we barely understand.

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