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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.





Slowthai - RUNT EP Music Album Reviews

This five-track EP is a dazzling sampler for one of grime’s most promising young talents and a dismaying survey from inside the life of a small-time drug peddler in a British suburb.

Kids in Northampton used to call Tyron Frampton “Slow Ty” because he’d zone out and float away into an observational bubble. He slurred his words, too. Through his music as Slowthai—a rap name that repurposes and reclaims the nickname—you get the sense he’s fed up with being seen and not heard. His verses shoot out of nowhere, bursting the seams of his beats; his voice slaps you across the face like an icy gust of wind. But he never lost that watchful eye, for better and for worse. “I’m paranoid all of the time,” he cries midway through RUNT, and by that point, he’s already shown you exactly why he has every right to be.

This five-track EP is a dazzling sampler for one of grime’s most promising young talents and a dismaying survey from inside the life of a small-time drug peddler in a British suburb. His scenes are urgent, but they’re rapped with an unnerving calm. He exists in an unblinking state of conflict through most of these songs. “They did the mannequin challenge when the feds come round/I ain’t standing there with my hands down my trousers unprepared—Let me make that clear,” he states on “Slow Down.” Syllables ricochet off one another as he reveals epiphanies earned from a life spent on edge.

The Dizzee Rascal comparison is right there for the making, but none of the rapping on Boy in da Corner was nearly as raw as this, and Dizzee could never wander into anything as pithy and powerful as the blunt force bombshell “now they’re dead like all of my dreams.” Slowthai’s writing is clever without losing any of the impact. He seeks solace even when he believes there isn’t any to be had: “Sometimes when I find myself low I look to the skies and pray/But there’s no God above me that can take my pain/And I cry out, ‘Why?’/I pray my enemies die.” The absence of God hasn’t stopped him from petitioning something greater than himself. That light at the end of the tunnel keeps him grounded, even when all seems lost.

Producer and frequent collaborator Kwes Darko lets the simple samples and arrangements breathe. Darko knows exactly what kind of sounds enable the rapper’s verses to snap right into your ear, and his productions are vivid composites that never get too busy. More than once, Slowthai hacks through between bow strokes in flittering string arrangements. Sometimes, midway through, a song will crack open to reveal a new sound that forces the listener to recalibrate and adjust to a shifted soundscape; on “Disneyland,” piano keys ripple quietly through the mix. About two minutes into “GTFOMF,” the weepy chords flip into what feels like a photo negative of the sample and he keeps stampeding through like nothing has changed. The two artists play off of each other to forge a chilling small-town mosaic.

The most gripping moment on RUNT comes at its close: “Slow Down” is Slowthai at his most perceptive and most persuasive—and grime at its best. The song is transporting and affecting, taking the listener through a joyless Christmas spent without warmth as a child, as apt a metaphor as any for the ways a lower-class existence can feel like it’s happening in isolation from the world. “Boiler broke on Christmas day/Ask Santa, ‘Why’s my life this way?’/Putting heating on my next wishlist/Fuck Santa, cuz we’re cold as shit,” he all but yells, his voice searing. Feeling profound sadness on what is the happiest day of the year for many, in a season for the jolly, is a remarkable microcosm of the Slowthai experience. He’s known joy and he’s known pain, and he’s lived enough to know that for some people those scales are dramatically imbalanced.

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