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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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Erin Durant - Islands Music Album Reviews

The singer-songwriter and pianist writes quietly epic songs about heartbreak, determination, and loneliness.

There is precious little information available about Erin Durant. She was raised in New Orleans, and now lives in Brooklyn. Complementing those anodyne facts is a beguiling flash of insanity: She refuses to perform on a keyboard, and instead carts her 232-pound stand-up piano to shows around New York City, a Sisyphean folly that earned her a New York Times story in 2015. The tyrannical determination of the image is softened by Durant’s tender connection to her instrument, which is evident from her second album, Islands. Her 2016 debut, Blueberry Mountain, was recorded in her bedroom, a DIY setup that muted that vivid symbiosis. With TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone on production, Islands polishes Durant’s sound to a resonant and gently rollicking gleam, brightened by dulcimer, guitar, brass, and woodwind.


Durant’s songwriting is fine-boned and small-scale, and her lyrics are quietly epic. On “Highway Blue,” she stands in a room where she once danced with a beau, her imagery as beautiful as their vanished love: “Now it’s just an empty room/Like cigarette smoke left as an evening dew,” she sings, marveling that “electricity still plays our records” even though their spirit is long out the window.

Durant lets these moments stand without stretching them out, and this everyday quality points to her strengths as a writer. She starts “Rising Sun” full of certainty about how “making mistakes” and “costing the game” is “the only way, I think.” But as the song goes on, she crumples in real time, admitting she’s “so tired and a little drunk” and begging to be held, her confident front falling like a dropped beach towel. In the near-seven-minute epic “Good Ol’ Night,” she tells the story of her abandonment with a gimlet eye for details: one minute the “crystal chandelier is turned up bright,” the next, she’s “intensely lonely, sleeping in the car.” The picaresque narrative earns the boozy mariachi band that sways in halfway through.

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The careful detail of her writing is sometimes obscured by the blinding brightness of the music, and weakened by the songs’ relative structural similarities. “Take a Load Off” is a gorgeous invitation to trust in friends that could do with less pedal steel and fewer syllables. The devastation of “Islands”—in which Durant takes advice to go on vacation, only to find the suggestion was an excuse for the advice-giver friend to disappear from her life—doesn’t register easily amidst the sweetly swaying arrangement and Durant’s cooing voice.

As Bill Callahan once sang, Durant finds that “all this leaving is never ending.” As people, places, and time all slip away, you begin to see why Durant might lug a piano around as an anchor. On the final song, the lulling desert drone of “Another Town,” she rues those who “whisper in the wind/Thinking it’ll come back again,” and promises to seize any second chances that may come her way with hand-waving, love-pledging impetuousness. More of that spirit in her future songwriting will be the making of her.


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