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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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Robag Wruhme - Venq Tolep Music Album Reviews

The German producer offers his prettiest, silkiest, and most poignant minimal electronic music ever.

In Robag Wruhme’s world, the sun is forever on the horizon—the sky turning peach, the birds gently chirping, the moon hung just so. Once upon a time, the German producer born Gabor Schablitzki pursued a more antic muse. Both solo and in the duo Wighnomy Brothers, with Monkey Maffia, his productions epitomized the fidgety energy of the genre known simply as “minimal”: dry, scratchy rhythms, bristly as an anti-static brush, flecked with hiccupping repetitions and crisscrossing strobes. His 2004 album Wuzzlebud KK remains a masterpiece of the period, as burly a profile as minimal ever managed, but as the style’s flame faded and Wruhme’s rhythmic tics fell out of favor, he pivoted toward the moodier sounds of 2011’s Thora Vukk, finding a middle ground between his bruising dancefloor instincts and pensive jazz piano.


Now, eight years later, Venq Tolep shows how much Wruhme has mellowed with age. This is the prettiest music he has ever made: The album is suffused with the wistful glow of radiant synths, the occasional piano or string ensemble, and largely wordless vocals. Lysann Zander, of the groups Stereofysh and Send More Cats, is credited on the first two tracks, but her voice has been rendered unintelligible, as pure, silky tone color. Rather than a collection of club tracks, Venq Tolep is poised in the gray area between home-listening house, ambient, and half-remembered vestiges of IDM. Sometimes it feels like an attempt to fashion a new kind of songwriting, one less dependent upon lyrics than simple human presence.

The music isn’t beatless, by and large—as always, it swims in rippling drum programming, a stream of syncopated hi-hats and glitchy fills that move like liquid. His arrangements move in similar ways, surging forward and falling back just short of the anticipated peak. That curious sense of motion plays out across the album, translating to the only slightly frustrating thing about the record: Especially in its first half, as it skips across a succession of short, sketch-like pieces, Venq Tolep struggles to get going. The gentle “Westfal,” all backwards hi-hats and sighing vocoder, would make as fitting an introduction as the album’s actual opener, which precedes it; track three, “Iklahx,” peters out after a couple minutes of pitter-pat clicks and heavenly coos. Only with track four, “Ak-Do 5,” does Wruhme really find his percussive groove, wedding the airy sounds of early Boards of Canada to a crisp, decisive drumbeat, but then it’s back to the hammock, as though he were worn out from the brief exertion.

Still, as horizontal house goes, it doesn’t get lovelier than this, and the album’s reluctance to deliver dopamine hits when they’re expected also translates to one of its more alluring qualities: the frequent tension between the harmonic and melodic qualities of traditional song form and dance music’s linear, repetitive structure.

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There’s only one fully vocal track: “Nata Alma,” a remix of Bugge Wesseltoft and Sidsel Endresen’s 1999 song “You Might Say,” a haunting plea from the depths of a failing relationship. This actually isn’t the first time Wruhme has reworked the song; the Wighnomy Brothers delivered a punchier version of it in 2003, but this one sounds little like the earlier remix. It’s sadder, slower, and more expansive. Endresen’s delivery is the perfect foil for Wruhme’s tearjerking: There’s real pathos there—you can practically make out the contours of the lump in her throat—but there’s even more restraint.

The album ends with an outro that might at first seem like overkill, given the preponderance of intros, sketches, and interludes. It’s a simple conceit: Over plangent piano chords, friends from around the world phone in, say their names and hometown, and count to three in their native languages. Some names are familiar (Pampa boss DJ Koze, labelmate Axel Boman), some less so; they come from San Francisco, Hamburg, Tel Aviv, Santiago, and if there’s no obvious organizing principle, the scattered map points suggest a picture of international community, the kind fostered by a lifetime in independent music. It’s strangely affecting, this tender portrait of a chosen family, and proof of how Wruhme can elicit real emotion out of such humble stuff.


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