Friday, September 06, 2013

Repaving The Way To A Fantastic Fall

Others have probably pointed out that not everything Justin Vernon touches turns to gold, but he's had such a charmed career since his Bon Iver debut in 2007 that I think it bears restating. Just a few months ago, in fact, he met up with a couple of old cronies who perform occasionally as The Shouting Matches and released Grownass Man, about 40 minutes of pointless blues rock. Maybe it was fun at the time, but he should have left it in the garage or released it for free. While The Shouting Marches is certainly the least interesting of Vernon's many side projects, others such as Gayngs and Volcano Choir have been hit or miss affairs. The one Gayngs album was almost one long 10cc-inspired inside joke (to be expected with the regrettable inclusion of horrid Har Mar Superstar), while the first Volcano Choir album, Unmap, alternated between classic Vernon and self-indulgence.

While I enjoyed Unmap, it didn't live on my iPod for very long, unlike both Bon Iver albums (and the Blood Bank EP), which remain there to this day. It was starting to seem as though, aside from his spectacular contributions to Kanye West songs, Vernon's best work was always going to be as Bon Iver. But now all that's changed, with the release of Repave, the second Volcano Choir album. While it's still a collaborative effort, with the six members listed in alphabetical order, the sense that we're getting the full Vernon is evident from the opening track Tiderays. Introduced by an organ drone and a circular acoustic guitar figure, Vernon's voice enters loud and clear and cuts straight to your heart. The lyrics are occasionally oblique but also descriptive and relatable: "You wake up/Soft denim on the floor/Spent nights last sleeping like two fours." Tiderays builds up to a rousing finale that feels completely organic, which may be a good word to describe the whole album. While there are startling moments, like the processed vocals in Comrade, nothing feels forced, as Unmap often did.

It helps that Comrade features a towering performance from Vernon, with his falsetto sounding more assured than ever, along with a new toughness in the lyrics, which may be a result of all that time spent in the company of Kanye and Pusha-T. The fourth song, Byegone, features a massive ascending guitar riff that should be on the radio and will surely be transcendent in concert, along with the "Set sail!!!!" refrain. While its lyrics are nearly incomprehensible wordplay, the brilliant arrangement and passionate vocals communicate very directly. The same can be said for Alaskans, with it's spare instrumental backing and its crystal-clear note of regret and loss.

Keel is another stunning falsetto outpouring, with its outré poetics coming to a focal point at the heartbreak of "Just stay here/Stay here just loving me/or just STOP bloody loving me." The album closer, Almanac, has a stomping beat when the drums come in, and goes out in an anthemic haze of stately guitar and vocal susurrations, ending a perfectly sequenced and soul-satisfying album. Follow @VolcanoChoir on Twitter and Instagram. Also, try to catch them on tour. Having seen Bon Iver in the past, I can safely say that Vernon is one of the great performers of our day - he gives his all, every song.
Repave is merely one album that, along with the masterful Hesitation Marks from Nine Inch Nails and the slyly groovy AM by Arctic Monkeys, is leading the way to what is shaping up to be a spectacular series of fall releases. Here are just a few that I'm looking forward to.

Jonathan Wilson - Fanfare: Following up 2011's wondrous Gentle Spirit, genius producer, guitarist, songwriter and singer Wilson is expanding his sound with legendary guests like Graham Nash, David Crosby, and Roy Harper, along with Pat Sansone of Wilco, Father John Misty and others. Get tantalized with Dear Friend.

The Darcy's - Warring: These moody Toronto-based art rockers got my attention with their pitch black full-album cover of Steely Dan's Aja, but their self-titled debut proved they have a number of arrows in their quiver. Warring should only further establish their great sound. Take a trip on The River.

Juana Molina - Wed 21: It's been nearly five years since we were last mesmerized by this former TV star from Argentina. I am more than ready to get obsessed again. Here's Eras to start the induction process.

Jonwayne - Rap Album One: A series of mixtapes, the last three on cassette, has established this Bay Area rapper-producer as someone to watch. And based on Reflection, he's playing for keeps on his debut album.

Matthew E. White - Big Inner: Outer Face Edition: Like the slow-burning songs within, White's first album has taken its sweet time getting properly noticed. Capitalizing on the growing interest, he will be putting out an expanded edition with five additional tracks. This is one case where I will feel no conflict buying the album all over again, if that's the only way to get the new songs. Have a taste of Hot, Hot, Hot and the others.

There have also been rumblings from the camp of Brooklyn titans TV On The Radio, with a new song from them and an upcoming release from Tunde Adebimpe's side-project, Higgins Waterproof Black Magic Band.

Whatever else comes down the pike between now and the first snowflakes, a musically memorable autumn is a certainty. What new releases are you anticipating?

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