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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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Spencer Radcliffe & Everyone Else - Hot Spring Music Album Reviews

The more relaxed, country-adjacent follow-up to 2017’s Enjoy the Great Outdoors pairs pastoral modes with surreal meditations on a warming world.

Observational humor is a nice way to come to terms with anxiety, a good means by which to develop a gentler relationship with your environs. Spencer Radcliffe’s last full-band album, 2017’s Enjoy the Great Outdoors, was a treat for apocalyptically minded worrywarts, using dusty indie rock to frame an ill-fated attempt to escape a burning city that ended with the getaway car hitting a deer. The world evoked in that album’s sequel, Hot Spring, is just as fraught, but the songs are notably more relaxed. And it might be that by relaxing—by looking out and taking in instead projecting landscapes of nervous ideation from within—Radcliffe the songwriter can access and conjure a fraught world in richer detail. Great songs can come from both places, but Hot Spring taps something special with its wry experiential poetics.


Among what Radcliffe sees around him: birds, bugs, dirt, neighbors, love. Ever attentive to the relentless passage of time, his lyrics place the listener in seasons, even if, per the album’s title, spring’s gotten so hot it might as well be summer. The scenery activated in his songs edges into the territory of some new American pastoral, and so it fits that the music itself takes on a rootsy sound. In the early moments of album opener “The Birds,” cello and pedal steel (a new addition to the Everyone Else band, by Pat Lyons) hum beneath bright acoustic-guitar chords, soon joined by padding drums and a sweet whisper of piano. Simple structures are thickened into full-scale landscapes. If the country-music thing does occasionally slide into the realm of winking pastiche, in general the instrumentation builds a stable ground that wasn’t there in the looser, more guitar-driven sound of Radcliffe’s earlier work.

That sonic fullness translates into a kind of humidity, a persistent and sometimes dread-tinged sense of the buzz of living things. A handful of Radcliffe’s lyrical narratives hinge on journeys interrupted, which in turn become transformations of consciousness or self. On the slow-burning, sing-song “Clocktower,” he’s looking for a solitary walk when the person next door stops to chat. Their conversation shifts to an interior monologue about labor, time, and presence, and the song ends in two and a half minutes of the phrase “tick-tock” sung as a cheerful dirge over noodling guitar. In “Walking Back,” the album’s airiest and most wistful folk micro-anthem, Radcliffe realizes, mid-nostalgic stroll, the accidental violence of his movement:

Ah, you could feel the heat
Of a thousand breaths
A thousand tiny cries rising up begging for mercy sweet
Though I’d been gentle in my step
To the bugs below, I was a giant
I meant certain death
The unplanned violence of a quest laid bare

Bugs are everywhere in this album, an oddity that drifts Radcliffe’s plainspoken observations into something charmingly weird, even posthuman. “True Love’s Territory” trades environmental specificity for folk-song classicism; a chance meeting with a beau upends the narrator, who goes from a happily directionless flea to an explorer carving a path into the unknown.

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I could dig into Hot Spring’s latent themes—so delicately yet ironically tucked into all-American musical stylings—of climate change, of the (multispecies!) relationships that might guide our survival. It is, however incidentally, one of the better nature-in-a-post-natural-world albums I can think of. Still, there’s nothing lofty or terribly conceptual in the way these things emerge in Radcliffe’s breezy and mature songs, nor does the album push for anything more specific than looking closely and curiously at what’s around you.

Hot Spring is of the everyday, and so even when it opens itself to deeper, darker places, it does so in a way that’s admirably comfortable and composed. I think of the lyrical ambivalence of the single “Here Comes the Snow,” one of my favorite songs from the album, which I listened to compulsively riding my bike around my North Carolina town during the tail end of our own literal hot spring. In one verse, darkness “dull[s] out the brightest things and cut[s] right to the core” so that “they don’t shine no more”; in another, a “new kind of light” is seen “lighting up the darkest parts/Melting the snow beneath your feet.” In lightness or in dark, the weather comes to pass, but I’m glad to have my senses widened by the detail with which Radcliffe renders the changing modes of its arrival.


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