Sound — 9
'On Avery Island' has become something of a victim of circumstance over the years. Thanks to the enormous critical acclaim heaped on it's successor, the wonderful 'In The Aeroplane Over The Sea', Neutral Milk Hotel's debut has been somewhat brushed aside by both fans and critics without good reason. From the opener, it's clear that this is classic Mangum, albeit a little less focused. It would seem that all of the key elements are here, from the throbbing fuzz-bass through to the muffled horns and driving acoustic rhythms; however, there's a much heavier use of avant-garde sounds here than on their other albums, which stands out as my main criticism; even as a fan of noise music, most of the time they simply don't work. The frankly appalling 'Marching Theme', an overlong instrumental collage of electronica warbles and flute, unnecessarily interupts the otherwise perfect suite of 'A Baby For Pree' and 'Where You'll Find Me Now', and other songs fade out into unnecessary weirdness; it all feels forced, as though they're afraid of whole-heartedly embracing a pop structure. Aside from this, songs like 'Three Peaches' and 'Naomi' match up to anything on their sophomore effort, with some minimalist instrumentation allowing for Mangum's voice to ring true.
Lyrics — 10
Everyone is aware that Jeff Mangum didn't earn his reputation through virtuoso musicianship, and his vocal ability will never be envied by any singer; his lyricism is what made him stand out, and it's undeniably on top form here. Despite their abstract nature, his lyrics always have the ability to strike a chord with listeners, and are what cemented him as a true talent in the eyes of many. Mangum uses his idiosynratic approach to create a surreal, vibrant collage of images and events throughout the album, drawing beuaty from repulsive and convoluted stories. Mangum's voice will be a big dividing point for many, but his passionate delivery and conviction should help overcome any slight tuning problems; if anything, these help to humanise the music even more so, fitting the loose instrumentation and lo-fi recording.
Overall Impression — 8
Some people would happily present Neutral Milk Hotel as a one-album band, as though that somehow makes their talent seem more fleeting, and their following masterpiece more profound; one listen to this proves that Mangum always had a knack for beautiful melodies and lyrics, even before he reached his peak. As a reunion seems unlikely, and no other band sounds anything like this, it's important to acknowledge everything put out by this unique band, so as to better understand the genius behind it. The fidelity may irritate some listeners, with the bass often overwhelming and distorting other instruments, but it's all part of the charm that this album holds; conversely, any fans of lo-fi music should love everything about this. In fact, there's little on here that the open-minded music fan shouldn't enjoy; despite all their efforts to hide it under surrealism and noise, Mangum and co. created a perfectly accessible album in 'On Avery Island' that should stand side-by-side with their other work as some of the greatest music of the 90's.