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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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Silversun Pickups - Widow’s Weeds Music Album Reviews

For a rock band who excels at high-intensity drama, their latest is set of mid-tempo snoozers that are over-refined, hermetically sealed, and safe.

Silversun Pickups’ greatest strength has always been turning crippling anxiety into consumable, cathartic alternative rock. Forged at the turn of the millennium in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake scene—a subculture commonly tossed aside as hipster runoff despite giving us Beck, Rilo Kiley, and Elliott Smith—the band successfully recast “California cool” as a kind of shoegaze-tinged sun poisoning. Their songs were just subversive enough to net them indie appeal, but also mainstream recognition.


Their two best-known tracks, “Lazy Eye” (from 2006’s Carnavas) and “Panic Switch” (from 2009’s Swoon) split the difference between understated seething and incendiary angst, sometimes within the span of a single verse, for a listening experience that makes panic attacks sound thrilling. Were these two firestarters sufficient to stave off their career-long Smashing Pumpkins comparisons, or their frequent write-offs as a garden-variety ’90s throwback band? Probably not—but over a decade later, the staying-power of those two songs has yet to be depleted, thanks to their legendary histrionics.

No such luck on Widows Weeds, a set of mid-tempo snoozers Silversun Pickups may well have penned after a long nap. Rather than reprise synths and sparseness, the band, together with producer Butch Vig, have catapulted themselves “into the deep end of all things warm and wooden,” or so frontman Brian Aubert says. His description dissolves into a disappointing half-truth. Several arrangements skew earthy, yes. The violin-spiked “Simpatico” weaves a bit of bluegrass into their bar-rock balladry, and lead single “It Doesn't Matter Why” fills out a minimal post-punk stomper—propelled by a hummable, sticky-fingered arpeggio from bassist Nikki Monninger—with orchestral sighs and steady woodblock plunks. But they're also over-refined, hermetically sealed, and worst of all, safe.

That album opener “Neon Wound” lacks even a microgram of the menace implied by its title is partially due to its lack of dynamic friction and wasted sonic space, but mostly because it could pass for a track off Neck of the Woods, 2012's half-baked dalliance into Metric-style electro-pop. Songs like “Songbirds” and “Straw Man” aren’t all that different from the plastic-packed fruit one finds at the grocery store; the sticker might say “organic,” but the telegraphed melodic arcs, vacuum-sealed pianos, and predictably-polished drumming suggest the opposite.

Their penchant for melodrama, too, remains well-intact on Widows Weeds. Most of it comes through in the aforementioned string sections strewn across the record, superfluous strands of tinsel, masquerading as expansive textural accoutrements. Consider the epically awkward chorus of “Freakazoid,” which pairs earnestly sung elementary prose from Aubert (”I believe you’re trying/To keep us all from dying/I believe you’re crying/To keep this whole thing flying”) with a self-serious orchestral motif made all the more stagy by the plaintive piano plinks. Or “Straw Man,” a would-be “Tonight, Tonight” weighed down by needlessly-overcrowded hooks and uninspired simpering.

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Accordingly, the album’s best moments are those where Silversun Pickups shake off their malaise, drop the Grand Guignol act, and get real. After spending so much of the record banging out anonymous motoriks (“Doesn’t Matter Why”), slackened snare taps (“Simpatico”), and standard 4/4 patterns performed as if on autopilot (“Bag of Bones”) drummer Christopher Guanlao—whose frenetic, deliriously out-of-pocket fills made him the band’s secret weapon on Carnavas and Swoon—brings some much-needed chaos to the forefront on closer “We Are Chameleons”; his staccato bursts perforate the surrounding, warped grungescape like vampire fangs, giddily feeding off his bandmates’ energy so as to sublimate it into something bigger. “Don’t Know Yet” abandons its warbling electronics partway through to make way for arena-sized choruses, wailing guitars, and a serviceable guitar solo redolent of Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper,” the album’s sole believable feint.

“Being open and vulnerable is something I’ll always have to struggle with,” Aubert admitted recently, likening his songwriting process to the classic board game Operation: “You’re just completely naked, and at any moment, something will zap.” But Widows’ Weeds contains little in the way of electrifying suspense or carefully-hidden, internalized trinkets—only empty gestures and lazy execution. Nearly 20 years into Silversun Pickups’ existence, we see them for what they are: a little big, a little brooding, but mostly boring. “You think about us all the time—don't,” Aubert instructs us on “Doesn’t Matter Why.” Sound advice, if you ask me.


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