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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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Vanishing Twin - The Age of Immunology Music Album Reviews

Drawing on its members’ diverse backgrounds and distinguished resumes—including work with Broadcast, Gruff Rhys, and Zongamin—the London band tilts its psychedelic pop toward a utopian future.

When the Brussels-bred, London-based musician Cathy Lucas was 12 years old, she learned some startling news about her family: She was supposed to have had a twin sister. But at some point in her mother’s pregnancy, the twin embryo was absorbed into Lucas’ own, through a process called fetal resorption. And though it’s the sort of event that many pregnant women don’t even realize has happened, it can have profound effects on the living child, who may experience deep feelings of survivor’s guilt.


For Lucas, that sadness has been offset by a fascination with the notion that her phantom sibling somehow lives on inside of her, as a facet of her personality. It’s a concept that not only inspired the name of her psychedelic pop outfit, Vanishing Twin, but also its guiding aesthetic. This is a band that fearlessly floats in the hazy space between the real world and an imagined one, blurring the line between warmly nostalgic and eerily haunted.

Vanishing Twin began as Orlando, the experimental solo project Lucas launched in 2015 after a stint playing violin and mandolin for London indie-pop hopefuls Fanfarlo. But as she embarked on her inner-space explorations, she amassed a seasoned flight crew that includes Japanese bassist Susumu Mukai (aka electro-funk producer Zongamin), Italian drummer Valentina Magaletti (whose credits include Bat for Lashes and Gruff Rhys’ Neon Neon project), former Broadcast sound manipulator Phil M.F.U. (a.k.a. Man From Uranus), and Parisian avant-garde filmmaker Elliott Arndt on flute and percussion. The group’s cosmopolitan membership initially reflected its mission to synthesize psychedelic traditions around the globe, from tropicalía to kosmische rock. But as Brexit has stoked the fires of xenophobia across the UK and beyond, Vanishing Twin now stand as a model of the inspired cross-cultural pollination that results when you encourage open borders and open minds. On The Age of Immunology, they respond to our tense present by using strange sounds from the past to light the way to a utopian future.

The Age of Immunology takes its name from a 2002 book by A. David Napier that examines how the logic of medicine—i.e., ridding the body of foreign agents—is reflected in reactionary social attitudes towards the Other in all aspects of life. More so than Vanishing Twin’s 2016 debut, Choose Your Own Adventure, the new album foregrounds the group’s international spirit: Where its predecessor positioned Vanishing Twin as eager heirs to Stereolab and Broadcast’s bottomless milk crate of Free Design and BBC Radiophonic Workshop records, The Age of Immunology better highlights the individual personalities and nationalities that inform the group’s unique alchemy.

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Lucas’ elegantly stoic voice remains the orienting focal point in Vanishing Twin’s panoramic, ever-expanding sound world. On the enchanting opener “KRK (At Home in Strange Places),” she issues the calming siren’s call that guides the song’s Brazilian psych-jazz drift. And with the divine “Magician’s Success,” she rallies the band for a hit of narcotic northern soul that suggests the first step toward toppling the forces of darkness is to picture the better world that awaits after they fall. (“The noise of hope/Is like a racket in my heart,” she sings, before letting us savor the emphatic follow-through: “Imagine that!”) But Lucas is also the sort of lead singer whose presence is amplified by her absence—after letting the band float atop the seasick disco rhythm of “Cryonic Suspension May Save Your Life” for nearly four minutes, she coolly emerges for a lone extended verse that snaps the song into taut, militaristic funk.

While Vanishing Twin have reined in their wandering tendencies in service of more sculpted songcraft and laser-guided hypno-jams (like the bewitching Can-meets-Congotronics trance of “Backstroke”), they’re still redefining their methodology as they go. On The Age of Immunology, Lucas’ star turns are supplemented by lead-vocal cameos from Mukai (on the meditative, Japanese-language title track) and Phil M.F.U. (whose new-agey drone-folk opus “Invisible World” imagines a parallel universe where Mark E. Smith detoxed, mellowed out, and decamped to an ashram). One of the album’s most sublime moments belongs to Arndt, who grabs the mic on “Planéte Sauvage” to wax rhapsodic in French about the namesake 1973 sci-fi cartoon. As the song’s stuttering West African groove gets massaged by lush synthetic strings and Lucas’ wordless harmonies, this absurdist exercise gradually fortifies into a showcase of the band operating at peak strength. Vanishing Twin started as a vehicle for Lucas to explore her unresolved feelings about the sibling she never had, but with The Age of Immunology, it’s become a communal celebration of the second family that’s helped fill the void.


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