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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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Stef Chura - Midnight Music Album Reviews

The Detroit indie rocker’s second album fluctuates between alt-rock and garage pop, turning up her amp and doubling down on her uncompromising style.

Sometimes empowerment arrives by way of motivational speeches or transformative adventures, and sometimes it arrives in anger. It did for Stef Chura, the Detroit-based indie rocker funneling passive-aggressiveness into music. “There are some conversations that I need to have that I haven’t,” she told her local alt-weekly. “Instead, I put them in songs.” Whereas her jangly debut full-length, Messes, wrestled with sadness—a close friend had died suddenly, an event that convinced Chura it was time to take the leap into music—its follow-up, Midnight, wrings catharsis from annoyances. By turning up her amp and doubling down on her uncompromising vibrato singing style, Chura defines her Saddle Creek debut in the image of the emboldened ’90s alt-rock feminists that came before her. She’s blossomed so much as a musician, she even surprised herself.


Chura has mastered the art of playfully selling herself short, but Midnight should put an end to that. When she sings, she sounds as self-assured as PJ Harvey and as liberated as Alanis Morissette. Producer Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest contributes bass, guitar, organ, and synths, but if it weren’t for his duet on “Sweet Sweet Midnight,” you’d likely forget all about him in the shadow of Chura’s commanding presence. It helps, of course, that she’s blowing off steam. On “All I Do Is Lie,” an exoneration of an ex-lover, and “Method Man,” a romp through the vexations of a one-sided relationship, her raspy voice pierces through spiraling noise pop. “Scream” confronts the suppression of feminine anger and finds its own solution in elongated, cacophonous hollers. It’s unfiltered and raw, the sound of someone who no longer gives a fuck. The vocals on Chura’s debut had a snuffed quality; here she and Toledo push them to the forefront, though they would’ve demanded the spotlight anyway. Even her quiet croon on lo-fi piano ballad “Trumbull” is engaging, as if overhearing a friend who’s unaware she’s not alone.

As she fluctuates between alt-rock and garage pop, Chura finds exhilarating ways to exorcise her angst. She busts out solos that teeter between full-volume shredding and coolly indifferent fret-sliding, waving her guitar like a middle finger. On the bluesy “Degrees,” she waits until the end half to burst through the door with a classic rock tone, scaling her way up the guitar neck in a headbang-worthy moment. Elsewhere, like on “They’ll Never,” she opts for a cleaner, air guitar-worthy solo reminiscent of the Strokes. Chura sounds her best when letting loose on all fronts. So it comes as a surprise when she counteracts her own brisk songwriting with album closer “Eyes Without a Face,” a crisp, double-tracked Billy Idol cover that forgoes a memorable ending for a leisurely, dragged-out conclusion.

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Several of Midnight’s most rewarding tracks—“Jumpin’ Jack,” “3D Girl,” and “Method Man”—are treasured but shelved demos finally seeing the light of day. Perhaps this helps to explain how Chura manages to sound so much like a modern-day Morissette: She’s fed up, she’s plugged in, and she’s confident enough in her craft to morph these ideas into the anthems she imagined. Midnight is a growth spurt without the usual growing pains. Toledo contributes subtle handiwork throughout, but no studio trickery could replicate Chura’s intensity. From her fuzzed-out garage guitar tone to her grainy music videos, she’s bringing back the ’90s rock truism that angst is transformative—so long as you get it out.


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