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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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Kevin Richard Martin - Sirens Music Album Reviews

The low-end mastermind behind the Bug and King Midas Sound turns his gut-rumbling frequencies and queasy atmospheres to the terrors of new parenthood.

What no one really tells first-time fathers about childbirth is how intensely fucking scary it can be, especially when something goes wrong. Watching, waiting, and realizing there’s almost nothing you can do while your partner endures acute physical pain and your child struggles in its first brutal moments is a surreal, savage experience with few parallels in sanitized modern life. Kudos, then, to Kevin Richard Martin—better known for his work as the Bug and King Midas Sound—for tackling the subject on Sirens, a solo album that charts his emotional response to new parenthood, an experience heightened by his wife's emergency procedures and his son’s medical problems. The song titles alone are enough to give parents bad dreams: “There Is a Problem,” “The Deepest Fear,” “Life Threatening Operation 2,” “Necrosis.” (Fortunately, it resolves on a happier note, with “A Bright Future.”)


Sirens works as a kind of companion piece to King Midas Sound’s 2019 album, Solitude, which tracked the grim aftermath of a failed relationship. Both are howls of impotent rage at situations that seem beyond our control: childbirth and its complications on Sirens; yearning for someone who won’t be coming back on Solitude. Both albums share a footprint of drones, dread, and rumble, a kind of vaporous sonic creep that wafts out of the speaker like the pungent smell of death. On Solitude, this was balanced by Roger Robinson’s doleful vocals, which gave a stagnant, bitter life to the proceedings. But Sirens is an instrumental record, the only clear human touches provided by a heartbeat rhythm on “Too Much” and the tearjerking song titles.

That Sirens has its origins in a 2015 live performance makes sense. Room40 label boss Lawrence English has spoken of the gig’s “absolute, crushing bass,” and you can imagine the gothic distortion on tracks like “There Is a Problem” and “Life Threatening Operation 2” being majestic at skull-crushing volume. On record, though, Sirens becomes a more thoughtful work, less physically impressive but probably more interesting; it opens the door for questions. Why, for example, does the childlike sound of glockenspiel (or something very similar) feature on “Alarms,” its bell tone breaking through the ambient murk? Is it a sign that the infant life force is stronger than the drones of death? Or does Martin just like the sound? Toward the end of the album, on tracks like “Kangaroo Care” and “The Deepest Fear,” volume is replaced by whispery melody, in line with Brian Eno’s vision of ambient music as part of the environment. These delicate melodic clouds are among the most rewarding parts of Sirens: songs that invite you to lean in and lose yourself in the experience.

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At its best, Sirens is a work of deep texture and curdled shade; it resembles a smudged imprint of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 2 where only memories of melody remain. It is both abstract and primal, the recorded equivalent of a panicky feeling in the gut; its moments of staggering dark intensity bring to mind the nameless dread of the best horror soundtracks. Sirens’ unrelenting nervous abstraction can be difficult to take over 14 songs, but perhaps that’s the point: The arrival of parenthood is long, intense, and frequently troubling, so why should Sirens be any different?


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