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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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Jake Xerxes Fussell - Out of Sight Music Album Reviews

Neither rigidly authentic nor conspicuously modern, the North Carolina folk scholar honors the past through transformation rather than reinvention.

Musicians like Jake Xerxes Fussell are nearly as rare nowadays as the material he performs. “All songs are traditional & in the public domain,” reads the sole composition credit on Out of Sight, Fussell’s often-transcendent third album. Put another way: Each of these nine songs survived the great folk-pop copyright round-up of the 1950s and ’60s (and beyond), when publishers hunted down and claimed untold numbers of “traditional” melodies as their own. Fussell, as well as contemporaries like House and Land, Marisa Anderson, and others, are folk’s equivalent of organic farmers, reclaiming the genre from clever songwriters and pop mutators alike and expressing their voices by different parameters. Calling something “traditional” can be misleading—as House and Land’s Sarah Louise recently pointed out—but Out of Sight is a powerful reminder of music’s many vital, noncommercial pathways.


More than a mere interpreter, Fussell is a folkie in the preservationist, pre-Bob Dylan sense—learning from field recordings, folklorists’ transcriptions, archives, other musicians, and even YouTube videos, notating his sources, and reanimating the music through rites of joyous antiquarianism. Arrangements like “Jubilee” and “The River St. Johns” honor the past through transformation rather than reinvention, placing Fussell closer to the ideals of the reverent ’50s folk revivalists than their radical ’60s counterparts. Most often playing a clean electric guitar rather than the expected acoustic, a subtle and effective twist, Fussell’s touch is light and dreamy. While the tempo and density might scan as “chill,” the music is so elegant as to resist stereotyping. It’s relaxing in the way that pondering a Zen koan is relaxing, and sweet in the way that the wounded, honey-voiced blues of Mississippi John Hurt are sweet.

At its best, Out of Sight is timeless, both contemporary and not, its logic and concerns relatable, its arrangements neither rigidly authentic nor conspicuously modern. While this strategy might yield middlebrow twang in lesser hands, Fussell steps into the space naturally. On his earlier solo recordings, he created an ambience with only his guitar and voice; this album is his first to feature a band on all tracks. Drums make any patch of folk melody sound “new,” but can be a challenge to pull off without diminishing the music’s atemporal mysteries. On “The Rainbow Willow,” especially, Fussell’s next-level mellowness seems to emanate through the surrounding players, particularly pedal steel guitarist Nathan Golub and drummer Nathan Bowles (himself an acclaimed modern folk revivifier). When the rhythm section falls into this mode, they find that ambience, too—a warm and collective musical charisma that defines the sound of Out of Sight.

On occasion, the album hovers at the fine line between laid-back and merely tasteful. The Irish song “Michael Was Hearty” (“See: ‘The Grand Match,’ Moira O’Neill, Songs of the Glens of Antrim, 1900”) edges on pub-folk fare. The music loses some of Fussell’s glow when it builds more on Bowles’ drums, finding grooves that veer towards the earthier sides of classic rock. “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” (learned via Pete Seeger) sounds a bit like the Band, and the conversational pocket of “Oh Captain” (“a variant of deckhand’s song” first recorded in 1927) isn’t far from off-brand early-’70s Grateful Dead. It’s all enjoyable, but Fussell’s uniqueness gets lost.

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Most often, his bliss comes through in the atmosphere, which is when the music transcends notions of new or old, and Fussell’s particular creative voice rings most clearly. On “16-20,” a minimalist interpretation of a folk dance, Libby Rodenbough’s violin, Casey Toll’s bowed upright bass, and James Anthony Wallace’s organ combine and shift under Fussell’s guitar. It is perhaps the album’s most startling and contemporary-sounding moment, the instruments locking together into a powerful and nearly electronic vibration. It’s easiest to call it folk music, but it also resembles some of Yo La Tengo’s dronier moments.

Though the music isn’t always urgent, Fussell is no nostalgic channeler, either, even if the songs are nearly 100 years old. For all its wholesome ingredients and folk-on-sleeve earnestness, Out of Sight settles into a space out of time, one immediately adjacent to our own, where perhaps the ancient magic hasn’t dissipated. The past is always present; Fussell’s trick is to reveal that—if you know how to look—the present is always past, too.


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