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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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Fabian Almazan - This Land Abounds With Life Music Album Reviews

Interpolating field recordings and birdsong, the Cuban-born jazz pianist's fourth album explores the sounds of his home country with warmth and fervor.

The Cuban-born jazz pianist Fabian Almazan has always been interested in roots. On his 2011 debut Personalities he paid homage to his homeland with renditions of Antonio María Romeu’s danzón “Tres Lindas Cubanas” and Carlos Varela’s “Bola De Nieve,” one of the first songs Almazan says he remembers hearing. On Rhizome, his second album, Almazan explored the idea of interconnectedness, inspired by the underground root system from which the record took its name.


Almazan draws on a similarly naturalist metaphor with his fourth album, This Land Abounds With Life. It is his most fully realized to date. In some ways, the album is a tribute to Cuba’s natural splendor: Almazan, now 35, was just nine when his family left Cuba and settled in Miami by way of Mexico. He returned to his birthplace three years ago and brought back some vivid recordings of bird song, along with the improvised poetry of a local raconteur.

The field recordings, which are featured on “​Uncle Tío​,” “Songs of the Forgotten” and “The Poets,” cast a spell, especially when juxtaposed against Almazan’s atmospheric piano playing. Almazan’s project here has something in common with that of David Virelles, another young Cuban-born jazz pianist who, for nearly the past decade, has been making a deep and thoughtful study of the disappearing folk traditions of his native country. But Almazan’s new album is both more personal and perhaps more universal in scope.

For the most part, This Land Abounds With Life makes the case for Almazan—who also plays in the trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s band the E-Collective—as a soloist. His previous albums were more form-focused and classically oriented, with heavy string accompaniment. But on this record there is only one track with strings, a reprise—from Personalities—of “Bola De Nieve,” which in Spanish means “snowball,” the nickname of the great Cuban singer and pianist Ignacio Jacinto Villa Fernández.

On this record, Almazan gives himself the chance to stretch out, accompanied by his longtime trio mates, drummer Henry Cole and bassist Linda May Han Oh, who play on all of his previous albums. Cole’s funk beats are like water; he creates rhythms that expand and contract. Oh’s bass work, meanwhile, is thick like molasses, keeping everything in place, even when she takes a solo.


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Almazan navigates each track with a dexterous touch. On the first tune, “Benjamin,” so named for the donkey in George Orwell’s Animal Farm—one of a few overtly political compositions—Almazan begins with an impressively fleet-fingered introduction. “Jaula,” on the other hand, dedicated to Nelson Mandela, is a solo number, slow and contemplative.

If the album itself has a narrative, it exists first and foremost as a catalog of Almazan’s own diverse and ecumenical interests as a musician. And that makes sense, given that, at root, Almazan’s long-term project, going back at least to Rhizome, seems to be focused on music’s binding power, whether it comes via bird song, poetry or piano. It’s a lovely thought when filtered through his hands, because it is implied rather than stated. The record’s unofficial anthem appears to arrive, quaintly, at its end—a sweet solo rendition of Willie “the Lion” Smith’s understated stride composition “Music on My Mind.” There is, his own playing suggests, no higher pursuit.



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