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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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The Mattson 2 - Paradise Music Album Reviews

The twin-brother jazz duo are experts at channeling the sounds of light and ease, and there’s something almost alchemical about their mutual precision.

Humble ambitions are easier to realize. Opening a blank document and aiming for one perfect sentence is less daunting than aspiring to a Pulitzer; so too for the component parts of a song, where one lyrical nugget or breezy lick can become an accessible entry to a denser, polished whole. It’s easy to imagine the Mattson 2, Californian twins Jared and Jonathan Mattson, espousing this ideology as they shaped the songs on Paradise. Theirs is a variety of jazz more liquid than jagged, more 10cc than Charlie Parker, and their latest, the brothers’ second venture with Chaz Bear’s Company Records, doesn’t feign loftiness.


Paradise is chill and accessible by design, and it voyages to fewer far-out places than its predecessor, 2017’s ambitious and collaborative Star Stuff. This is “a record to throw a frisbee to,” the Mattsons write, and it’s practically suffused with the San Diego sunshine seeping into their recording studio. Jared’s guitar works sinuous loops around Jonathan’s tight cymbals and staccato snares, and like so many famed sibling outfits (think the Carter Family, the Montgomery Brothers, or the Knowles sisters), there’s something almost alchemical about their mutual precision, the way these songs feel as structurally intertwined as DNA. This sense of sequence and intuitive flow pervades the entire record, one song merging seamlessly into the next; it’s made for holistic listening over its full 32-minute runtime, rather than as plucked-out singles.

The most conventionally structured and accessible songs are, counterintuitively, the album’s least memorable moments. Tracks like “Essence” and “Shell Beach” mark the duo’s first recorded foray into vocals, and while the abstracted lyrics and affectless delivery cohere with the stoned, West Coast aesthetic, the traditional pop framework fences in some of the band’s weirder, jazzier capabilities. These tracks are by no means bad—as its title would indicate, Paradise is the equivalent of a sunny stretch of coastline, and even when the tempo ratchets down, there’s nothing to complain about. Still, it’s hard not to think of Star Stuff’s excellent “JBS” and wish for a little more intensity, for the edible to wear off so you can swim out deep again.

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Lyrically, the brothers’ sentiments are standard relationship fodder. “Your energy just seems so impersonal,” they sing on standout track “Wavelength,” before plunging further into an embellished riff. “Let’s take a walk into the dark and find the light.” The song succeeds because it manages to wiggle between both poles, the dark and the light, riffing in a place that feels more like the powerful sweep of an ocean current than an unbothered amble through the park. These moments, scattered throughout Paradise, are its best and most textured. The Mattsons are experts at channeling the sounds of light and ease, but it’s when they orient them within melancholy, distress, or oddity that the contrast is most striking. “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” sang Leonard Cohen, and when Paradise transcends chill, its fissures offer a glimpse at what the Mattson 2 are capable of.


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