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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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Third Eye Blind - Thanks for Everything Music Album Reviews

Stephan Jenkins puts a modern-rock spin on Bon Iver, Chastity Belt, “Song to the Siren,” and more on this intentionally earnest but unintentionally tragic covers album.

Third Eye Blind reserve their rendition of Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank” until the end of Thanks for Everything, their intentionally earnest but unintentionally tragic set of seven covers. Justin Vernon’s most exquisite song, the original was a readymade finale, with the arching guitars and mewling vocals of its climax igniting the narrator’s lovesick innocence to fill the sky with phosphorescence. For their faithful take, Third Eye Blind charge from its ruminative core into the coda with cranked amplifiers and walloped drums, turning Vernon’s wistful haze into a melodramatic fit. It’s certainly a conclusive exit. But its position on the tracklist is an implicit acknowledgement of listeners’ morbid curiosity: If you’re going to listen to Thanks for Everything simply to hear what the “Semi-Charmed Life” dude does with a song by the “Skinny Love” guy, Third Eye Blind are going to make you wait, as if you’re sticking around till the end of their set just to hear “Jumper” in the encore. Except the “Blood Bank” cover isn’t worth it.

Thanks for Everything is, at the very least, a noble endeavor. Recorded at scattered tour-stop sessions over the last year, it collects the band’s interpretations of “mostly little-known” songs (as a press release describes them) by the likes of Santigold, Tim Buckley, Chastity Belt, and Queens of the Stone Age. These are songs that inspire singer Stephan Jenkins. What’s more, proceeds go to Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum, a band favorite; the EP’s cover is a cover, if you will, of Warhol’s iconic Skulls, splashed with graffiti by stencil-and-spray-paint artist Uncutt. “It’s a visual version of what we’re doing with these artists’ songs... In both cases, I hope it will yield renewed interest in the originals,” Jenkins has said, both aspirationally and condescendingly.

Without exception, Third Eye Blind are out of their league here, trying to render sophisticated and involved songs through the big, blundering vernacular of modern rock. Jenkins’ voice—a brusque, inflexible instrument better suited to declarations and exclamations than to deep questions—is the heart of the problem. During “Blood Bank,” he enunciates each word as if he’s reading from a teleprompter, stripping the song of its wintry intrigue. He can’t play it cool like Chastity Belt’s Julia Shapiro or maintain the mystery Santigold embodies on her recording of “This Isn’t Our Parade.” Happy Diving frontman Matt Berry often sounds lost amid and overpowered by his raging rock band, but Third Eye Blind’s take on “10,” which epitomizes Happy Diving’s aesthetic, always pushes Jenkins above the surface to float inside his own rock halo.

The same curse afflicts his bandmates, who move with the confidence and decisiveness of a polished, professional rock machine. With their surging guitars and meticulous rhythm section, one might say that Third Eye Blind in 2018 have real chops. But they’re tackling idiosyncratic music on Thanks for Everything, and they seem hidebound to 20 years of precedent dictating what their band should be and which standards of production it should uphold. Their quality-control mechanism strips these songs of the character that makes them interesting.

Take Third Eye Blind’s cover of the Babyshambles single “Fuck Forever.” Pete Doherty’s belligerent reflection on the choice between rock’n’roll martyrdom and real-life contentment. The original is an anthem in, well, shambles, with slurred vocals and skeletal drums and a closing kiss-off to the DJs who will “never play this on the radio.” But Third Eye Blind’s slick delivery feels custom made for the FM dial. It’s as if Jenkins is making a case for Doherty the songwriter as something more than a madman. But “Fuck Forever” is Doherty’s gleeful assertion that he doesn’t care; in his quest to sound gigantic, Jenkins gets the meaning all wrong.

These missed messages sound most embarrassing in a cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” a gentle rush of vexing questions. (At the risk of nitpicking, Third Eye Blind even insist it’s called “Song of the Siren.”) The centerpiece of Buckley’s audacious 1970 folk-and-electronics fusion experiment, Starsailor, “Siren” wonders about the doom and destiny inherent in love, about turning yourself over to something that may destroy you. But above a simple acoustic guitar arrangement that imparts none of the original’s oddness, Jenkins sings like he knows the answers, as though he’s solved humanity’s riddles of life and love.

He does the same with “In the Fade,” an irascible Queens of the Stone Age creeper about life’s seemingly endless mix of sadness and madness—a fate that cannot be fought, only endured. When Mark Lanegan delivered the song during one of his sporadic stints in QOTSA, the former Screaming Trees singer seemed to push against that burden with his hulking baritone. But Jenkins and his band sound as though they delight in it, as though misery were a gift. Rather than digging into Lanegan’s soul blues, they dig out until the song’s colossal weight is diminished to a mere wisp.

Jenkins has spent the last quarter-century striving to be more than a hitmaker—to be a misfit making weird but weirdly popular rock. He’s never gotten there. Still, Third Eye Blind’s earliest albums betray genuine art-rock ambitions, with intricate structures and flourishes of dub, post-rock, and even IDM. In more recent years, Jenkins has written candid tunes about the price of fame, his personal failures, and America’s ruinous inequality. (To wit, Third Eye Blind even released a somewhat endearing Black Lives Matter ode in 2016.) On Thanks for Everything, he is shoehorning his voice into the kind of music he wishes he could have made, daydreaming about his career had the major-label system not drained him of his best ideas and then ejected him, like so many of his peers, when his band no longer made financial sense. It is a little heartbreaking, hearing this successful 53-year-old man striving to be anything besides what he has become but getting pinned yet again inside a structure of his own design, unable to make a musical break. At least he has excellent taste.


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