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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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Hermit and the Recluse - Orpheus vs. the Sirens Music Album Reviews

In a twist, the Brownsville rapper projects the streetwise narratives of his youth through the lens of Greek mythology—an audacious move, but his hypnotic voice and evocative writing pull it off.

History is likely to look kindlier upon Ka than contemporary audiences do. At a time when rap can seem overrun by teenaged goofballs with technicolor dreadlocks—each with their own signature ad-lib—Ka is an anachronism. He’s a 46-year-old New York City firefighter whose intricate lyrics can sound less like rap than arcane incantation. To enjoy his music is to feel like a member of a shrouded and especially dusty religious order; every year or two he emerges from his aerie (okay, it’s a fire station) to deliver an album to be pored over in the darkest hours. With Orpheus vs. the Sirens, he’s added another fascinating chapter to his nighttime grimoire.

There’s an epic (in the literary sense) quality to Ka’s storytelling. Because he’s decades removed from his roguish childhood, his recounting of Brownsville, Brooklyn has an aged aura—it’s all perspective, no immediacy. His late-life (for a rapper) discography, which began with 2008’s Iron Works, can feel akin to Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”: Every Brownsville moment listeners hear is a small part of a mostly unrecorded story, with Ka doing his best to re-apprehend long-since-faded happiness and ambient, resonant trauma.

It makes sense, then, that Orpheus vs. the Sirens adds a patina of Greek mythology to his personal chronicles. If that concept sounds pretentious or overbearing, well, it would be for most other rappers. But Ka—who, along with producer Animoss, goes by the name of Hermit and the Recluse for this project—is less interested in a grand, public display of intellect than he is in altering the angle from which he views his life: What if, instead of leading his own (uniquely American) life, he’s lead a life of mythological struggle, selflessness, and triumph? He was raised in Brooklyn when it was fire-scarred and rubble-strewn and, in repurposing some of Western literature’s foundational motifs, he seizes some of that immense power for himself.

Orpheus vs. the Sirens opens with a succinct summation of Ka’s beliefs: “I think it’s fine, to relinquish mine, for the life of our seeds/For the weak moves these dudes eat your food like Harpies/Not just car thieves, large pleas, came home hardened murderers/By the death toll would’ve guessed the threshold was guarded by Cerberus” (“Sirens”). Later, on “Golden Fleece,” he compares the hot-blooded restlessness and violence of Brownsville to Jason and the Argonauts retrieving a winged ram’s hide from a tree guarded by a dragon. And, before Citizen Cope’s coda on “Hades,” Ka, world-weary to the bitter end, raps in a near-whisper, “Once empty bellies are full, it houses greed/Between you and me, every knock ain’t opportunity/I hate the maybes/So wake the ladies and take the babies, in case it’s Hades.”

When Ka produced for himself, as he did on Grief Pedigree and The Night’s Gambit, he made sparse, sepulchral instrumentals that utilized drums sparingly if at all. This became the cudgel with which his critics assailed him: His beats sometimes lacked drums, thus his music lacked momentum, thus he was boring. No such cudgel exists here. Orpheus vs. the Sirens was produced entirely by Animoss, whose instrumentals deftly complement the intricacy and tension of Ka’s narrative. His samples are full of vibrating guitars, sorrowful organs, and cascading drums. They’re rich without being busy, artful without being overbearing.

And the same is true for the whole of the album. Orpheus vs. the Sirens has an exceedingly rare artistic clarity which rings sharp and pure like a Tibetan singing bowl. Here, Ka’s age works in his favor: In a genre overflowing with intemperate youth, he is a wizened, patient sage burdened only by memories of a Brooklyn past and volumes of arcane incantations for his shrouded, dusty devout.

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