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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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Lori Scacco - Desire Loop Music Album Reviews

The New York-based electronic musician has done everything from shoegaze to pop to film scores, but her first solo album in 14 years is distinguished less by her range than by her ability to focus.

The electronic musician Lori Scacco has contributed scores and sound design to films, video games, dance performances, and art installations; she has played in Savath y Savalas’ and Helado Negro’s live ensembles; and she has worked with clients as diverse as Doctors Without Borders and Salvatore Ferragamo. In the 1990s, she was a member of Seely, a shoegaze act with the distinction of being the first American band signed to the British independent label Too Pure, and more recently, she has made lopsided electro pop in the duo Storms. That’s a lot of ground to have covered. But Desire Loop, Scacco’s first solo album in 14 years, is distinguished less by the New York artist’s versatility than by her ability to focus.

Desire Loop is an album of synthesizer music that puts the study of color and texture at the forefront. At its core are luminous tones surrounded by a faint halo of distortion, like the high-pitched buzz fluorescent bulbs make, yet the play of timbres is constantly shifting. To close your eyes and concentrate on the feel of her sounds is to be like a child at the science museum, fingertips tracing across a scrap of fur, a polished stone, a feather, a nubby sea urchin shell.

Despite the album’s generally relaxed atmosphere and often ethereal sounds, this isn’t ambient music, exactly: Scacco’s melodies feel too prominent, her compositional impulses too strong. Repetitive figures form the foundation of these songs—“Strange Cities” glides atop a pulsing arpeggio reminiscent of Steve Reich, and “Cosmographia” opens with low, clipped tones that suggest a conversation between two lighthouses—but they are driven by a lyrical sensibility that is unusual for this kind of music. A bright, confident melody runs through the bucolic landscapes of “Strange Cities”; out of “Cosmographia”’s drone fantasia grows the kind of soft riffing associated with Boards of Canada, along with a key change of an unmistakably narrative bent. Where many synthesizer musicians are primarily concerned with mood-setting, Scacco seems just as interested in storytelling.

Her palette and her melodic choices play with déjà vu, while her synth patches briefly reveal acoustic roots before morphing into something else entirely. On “Coloring Book,” the synths sound like pipe organs might after another millennium of evolution. “Interactivity in Plastic Space” transmutes harpsichords into silvery streamers. “Back to Electric” revolves around what might be a plucked acoustic bass melody while the sounds of a fast-forwarding cassette tape squeal away in the high end. There are hints of very old traditions buried deep in Scacco’s otherwise futuristic sounds: Both “Coloring Book” and “Interactivity in Plastic Space” are in waltz time, and her consonant harmonies and simple melodies are often evocative of European folk music.

Along with tone and texture, Desire Loop draws attention to the way multiple layers of sound can be combined into a whole that suggests more than the sum of its parts. It is frequently difficult to discern exactly how many elements a given track incorporates; the mechanics of Scacco’s music are unusually veiled. In “Red Then Blue,” a base of what might be backmasked synth commingles with tones that scatter like raindrops on concrete. But peeling apart the album’s layers can help illuminate some surprising influences: At the heart of “Cosmographia” runs an optimistic melody suggestive of both Laurie Spiegel and Stereolab. The almost naïve refrain in “Tiger Song” evokes Kraftwerk, while the same song’s burbling interplay nods to Mouse on Mars. And “Strange Cities,” perhaps the album’s most satisfying track, fuses American minimalism with the cosmic soundscapes of Berlin in the 1970s. Even at its most focused, Desire Loop is proof of Scacco’s range.

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