[Album Review]: Bon Iver – ‘Bon Iver’

‘Still alive who you love, You’re breaking your ground’

It is clear from the first listen to Justin Vernon’s music that he is particularly influenced by the seasons and his surroundings, so his choice to release this album in the middle of the year, on the cusp of summer, says a lot about the emotions he is trying to convey. In the frozen soul of For Emma, Forever Ago and the incandescent campfire of Blood Bank EP, both recorded in a creaky wood cabin in the Northern woods of Wisconsin, winter and the early thaws of spring were very much the seasons that  preoccupied Justin. Comparatively, Bon Iver begins with an Indian Summer that moves through winter and further into Spring. The album feels like a period of Justin’s life where he’s taking stock of his whirlwind success, travelling home to his beloved Eau Claire, WI and gaining perspective. Lyrically Justin still possesses that cryptically Ginsbergian quality, but like Ginsberg these vivid ramblings put you in the scene more effectively than a prepositioned piece of prose. Justin reveals very little, but in his succinctness speaks volumes: “Not the needle, nor the thread, the lost decree, / Saying nothing, that’s enough for me.”

Though I may receive a lot of flak for this comment, it is evident that Justin has been influenced by his collaboration with Kanye West on West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yes, ‘Ye can be a gayfish, but there is no denying he is a masterful and intelligent arranger. Justin was already a visionary in his compositional skills, but on this album his arrangements are deeper and more complex: Richer, lusher, more textured. After being picked up mainly for his acoustic confessionals ‘Flume’ and ‘Skinny Love’, Justin has been wary of being pigeonholed as a voice and guitar singer-songwriter: “I don’t want to be the guy with an acoustic guitar singing songs, because that’s boring for the most part.” This is probably one of the reasons Justin has opted for an even more ‘plugged in’ and layered sound than his previous efforts. Another reason probably has something to do with the process of building April Base Studios, WI which accompanied the recording of the album: “The whole time we were building the actual space is when the record was being made, sort of like this building metaphor for the record […] It just feels like this space where a lot of things happen.”Converted from an old veterinarian clinic with friends and situated three miles from the house Justin grew up in, as April Base Studios grew into a home cum studio so did the scope and depth of the record:  “I think the reason this record sounds the way it does as compared to For Emma is the excitement of not being in my early twenties anymore and building this place with my friends and really expanding on what Bon Iver could be as a project. Being like a team in building this place had a lot to do with the new record’s colour.”

Exposition ‘Perth’ sounds like the outcome of a jam session if Mogwai invited Justin to provide vocals: A towering and vast multilayered wall of roaring guitars and drums, growing and erupting around you like a volcanic ridge, capturing the infinite potential and barely contained energy of those wild summer nights. As the raging ‘Perth’ fades, ‘Minnesota, WI’ enters on an echoing guitar into a peaceful starry night. ‘Holocene’ feels like the first autumn leaves falling and the novelty of seeing your breath hang in the crisp October morning air, the signal of the changing seasons. It’s a gentle fingerpicking hymn with the tranquil energy of a running stream that contemplates the paradox of being unique but at the same time “not magnificent.” Thankfully it seems that success has not cured Justin of his introspection.

Towers possesses the reckless abandon of scattering diligently collected piles of dead leaves, bouncing along on a lively rhythm guitar before building bold horns and singing lapsteel into one of the album’s more anthemic moments. Changing gears, the grounding guitar coda of ‘Michicant’ has the cadence of a slow dance while wistful vocals remember an old love through the haze of nostalgic brass and synths. ‘Hinnom, TX’ feels like waking up one foggy day in a strange town and realising that there is nowhere you’d rather be but back home right now. The epiphanic, echoing piano offers sparse backdrop for the soothing interweaving of deep and high vocals. It seems to signal the beginning of regeneration that permeates Wash, where you step off the train in your home town, and pass all the old places steeped in memories; some changed, some not. Two piano chords gently reel as the vocals, horns and strings sweep around you like a breeze tugging at your heart, singing for Eau Claire, WI.

Mermon at April Base Studios

Lead single ‘Calgary’ wraps around you like a warm blanket in the midst of winter, helped by the warmth of being around the ones you love.  Beginning with warm synths and cumulatively growing layer upon layer of lush instrumentation, all the while centring upon Justin’s arresting falsetto and revealing the emotional core of Bon Iver. ‘Lisbon, OH’ is a brief and relaxing shoegazey instrumental that sees the ice around ‘Calgary’ thaw and flows into the spring awakening of album closer ‘Beth/Rest’. Justin really sticks his neck out on the final track artistically speaking since the heady 80’s flecked synths would not seem out of place in Top Gun. I’ll admit that it threw me, but after my initial bile simmered down a Peter Gabriel inspired love ballad unfolded which sees a yearning Justin stretching for the cosmos. It may be a little melodramatic, but ultimately love is and it is handled majestically here.

In terms of second album syndrome, there is always going to be a Catch 22 trade off. Do you consolidate your base and risk criticism for repeating yourself, or do you venture into unknown territory at the risk of alienating your followers? The answer I believe, as evidenced in this album, lies somewhere in the middle but leaning more towards pastures new. For sure, this album may estrange some fans who favoured the stark compositions of Justin’s wood cabin in North-Western Wisconsin. However, those who will continue to listen will be rewarded with the blooming of an artist who quite simply creates music unlike anybody else, transcendent music that just washes right through you. And if you scratch past the surface and listen carefully, you will hear that Wisconsin is very much still where Justin’s heart resides.

‘Bon Iver’ is available in record stores now. Bon Iver embark on an UK tour in October.

While you’re here why not check out ‘Bon Iver’ album artist Gregory Euclide’s website?

EDIT: Hear a stripped down piano rendition of ‘Beth/Rest’ here and see what you think

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[Cover Me]: Jeff Buckley and Otis Heat

‘When The Levee Breaks’ – Jeff Buckley (Originally by Led Zeppelin / Memphis Minnie)

I’ve been on a Led Zeppelin kick of late (well, since yesterday in all truthfulness) which has inspired me to upload this rare bootlegged cover of probably my favourite Led Zeppelin song. Jeff Buckley is one of the few musicians who I find truly inspiring; musically he was a visionary with many arrows to his bow. Jeff was a big fan of Led Zeppelin and his take on their reeling, apocalyptic jig is pretty close to the original (which itself was a reworking of a Memphis Minnie tune), but as always Jeff gives a weighty heartfelt rendition and drummer Matt Johnson does a fine job of channelling John Bonham’s meaty drumming.

‘Que Sera Sera’ – Otis Heat (Originally performed by Doris Day, from the film ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’, 1956)

Probably a song you heard your Mum sing in your childhood, Doris Day’s advisory sing-a-long is a lighthearted and jaunty affair. Three piece Portland, OR band Otis Heat, who claim to get their name from the mysterious driver who pulled them from the wreckage of a near fatal car crash, give the Day classic a dream poppy makeover with looped guitar harmonics, Sean O’Neill’s energetically high vocals and dramatic drums. Definitely a band to watch out for in future methinks.

If you want some more awesome Otis Heat lovin’, get a free download of their bluesy cover of swing classic ‘Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t My Baby?’ from their recent album ‘Yoon’ from their website.

[Cheap & Cheerful]: ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror Mixtape

‘We used to sleep on the beach, sleep over night. They don’t do it any more.’

Well, the festival season is well and truly upon us and pretty much everyone has planned their summer around their chosen weekend of debauchery. If, like me, you were greeted the other day by your tickets to Alexandra Palace for 23rd-24th July then you are no doubt getting excited for the first UK All Tomorrows Parties sister fest I’ll Be Your Mirror curated by Portishead. I’ve been itching to see Portishead for a couple of years now, though they are famously reluctant to tour. So being able to not only go see them, but also go to a festival the band have organised and chosen the line up for is, pardon the phrase: ‘A Dream Come True’.

So for those who need a little something to get them in the IBYM frame of mind, or simply could do with a little Portishead, Godspeed, Grinderman, PJ Harvey and Doom (previously MF Doom) in their life, ATP have released a free mixtape from the official website. It’s an awesome and heady mix stitched together in a single two hour MP3 for old school mixtape style. However, for those who want to go to the effort of editing it down into its constituent tracks, or simply want to see what lies in store, I’ll post the track listing at the bottom. Get it while it’s free people!

See you in Alexandra Palace!

  • 00.00 “…They Don’t Sleep Anymore on the Beach…” / Monheim – Godspeed You! Black Emperor
  • 13.19 We Carry On – Portishead
  • 19.44 A Cold Freezin’ Night – The Books
  • 23.04 Gazzillion Ear – Doom
  • 27.15 You Fucking People Make Me Sick – Swans
  • 32.20 Yang Yang – Anika
  • 35.11 Real Love – Factory Floor
  • 42.32 Infinity Skull Cube – DD/MM/YYYY
  • 45.51 Untilted – Helen Money
  • 51.42 “Four Spirits In A Room” Excerpt – Alan Moore & Stephen O’Malley
  • 56.50 Plaster Casts Of Everything – Liars
  • 60.43 8 Steps To Perfection – Company Flow
  • 65.23 Written On The Forehead – PJ Harvey
  • 68.49 Arabic Emotions – The London Snorkelling Team
  • 71.27 Wulfstan – BEAK>
  • 77.28 When My Baby Comes – Grinderman
  • 84.09 Paris Signals – S.C.U.M.
  • 88.30 Lovers With Iraqis – Foot Village
  • 92.18 Gratitude – Acoustic Ladyland
  • 96.29 Violence – The Telescopes
  • 100.01 Hannibal – Caribou
  • 106.15 Walk In The Park – Beach House

[Cover Me] Jack Irons Feat. Eddie Vedder and The National

Shine On You Crazy Diamonds – Jack Irons Feat. Eddie Vedder (Originally by Pink Floyd)

Jack Irons is an interesting character. A fully accomplished drummer, but never really standing out as a musician, Jack was more important as being an integral linchpin in the early 90’s music scene and for many a band during that period. He was the original drummer and a founding member of Red Hot Chili Peppers. When asked by bassist Jeff Ament if he knew any decent vocalists for the band he was forming, Jack handed him a demo tape of a local musician form San Diego, CA: The then unknown Eddie Vedder. This band would become Pearl Jam, which Jack would himself play in after the firing of original PJ drummer Dave Abbruzzese and during Jack’s tenure the band recorded two of their most creative works, ‘No Code’ and ‘Yield’. After his departure from the band in 1999 it would be another five years before he would finally venture out on his own and release his first solo effort in the form of ‘Attention Dimension’.

On ‘Attention Dimension’ Jack recorded a cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamonds’, featuring the now famous San Diegan Eddie Vedder. Whereas Pink Floyd’s original opening track to ‘Wish You Were Here’ (my personal Floyd favourite) is a gentle, slowburning epic, Jack’s version has a fervent jungle energy created by his revitalising drumming. The tempo is ratcheted up a bit for a start giving it an urgency absent from the original. Helped along by Eddie’s incomparably explosive vocals, this rendition makes the heart beat faster and faster while listening.

Pretty in Pink – The National (Originally by The Psychedelic Furs)

Okay, yes. Along with Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’, this song conjures up the 80’s, the ashamedly pleasurable movies of John Hughes and his ‘Brat Pack’. However, in the hands of The National this song becomes a delightfully mellow lullaby (albeit one about the village bicycle). As always, Matt Berninger’s soporific baritone vocals floats delicately on the harmony work of the brothers Dessner. You can download it from their Daytrotter Session way back in ’07.

[Album Review]: Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi – ‘Rome’

‘We touch the walls of the city’s streets’

When renowned producer Brian Burton a.k.a. Dangermouse and Italian composer Daniele Luppi met in 2004, the possibility of collaborating was always on the cards: ‘We really hung out like friends and exchanged a bunch of records and ideas […] I guess we appreciated each other artistically’, claimed Luppi. In 2006 Burton called Luppi into the studio to help him arrange Gnarls Barkley debut ‘St. Elsewhere’, and it was clear once in the studio that the conducive, creative chemistry between them meant that working together was a certainty. Inspired by the Italian soundtracks of the 60’s and 70’s, most notably the works of Ennio Morricone, they set off on a five year project, snatching time in the studio when they could. They assembled the original musicians from the aforementioned soundtracks, whilst also recruiting eager youngbloods Jack White and Norah Jones along the way to ‘star’ in the plot as hero and heroine respectively. The end product ‘Rome’ is an international labour of love, presenting the sound of secret trysts, broken dreams and aspirations of entangled lives on the winding streets of Rome.

By using the original musicians from the old Morricone soundtracks gives the music an archival feel, like the music is seeping its way out of a forgotten film reel can left in a dusty store room in Rome. Everything is in vintage black and white and as with those old black and white films the only colour to be had is in the soundscapes blotted onto that celluloid canvas. The nasally guitar slinks in and out like a cat, poking its head around the odd corner, while the military drums keep a restrained urgency present in the search for something on these sun baked streets. Meanwhile, the strings, organs and sublime vocal harmonies of the reunited Cantori Moderni swirl around like an unanticipated breeze that coaxes you down one street, then another.The experienced, septuagenarian musicians allow you drift away in an atmosphere that would, for the most part, be found absent if ‘Rome’ were recorded with contemporary session musicians. Burton and Luppi knew that if they were going to do this project then they were going to have to go the whole way, because there is a sense of authenticity and a breath of life present here that simply cannot be bought.

The album is divvied up pretty equally between tracks starring Jack White, tracks starring Norah Jones, interludes and instrumentals and are arranged in a way that feels naturally progressive thanks to Burton and Luppi’s arranging skills. Jones brings her husky vocals to the table, breathing life into the sultry seductress of the story. Her relaxed and jazz informed vocal delivery perfectly reflects the confident predator prowling her territory. Meanwhile, White duets with himself in both his trademark shaking falsetto and his tobacco chewing cowboy drawl, one dubbed on top of the other, adding an element of urgent self conflict to his character on tracks such as ‘Two Against One’ (‘I get the feeling that it’s two against one, / I’m already fighting me, so what’s another one?’). Jack stated that in writing for the part he tried a different approach: ‘I drove around in a car listening to that music, and I had a handheld recorder in my hand, and I sang to all the instrumentals, all the songs, and I just sang whatever came to my mind as I drove around Nashville’. This approach makes as much sense in listening to the album as it did in making it, since the album truly comes to life when passing the scenery by, even scenery as antithetical to Rome as the outskirts of Coventry or the M4. It just works.

The only thing missing I’d say is a track in which Jack and Norah duet, where the two characters finally meet. However, it is probably better that they don’t; lives often brush against each other, but do not necessarily meet. By leaving these lives unconnected the search continues and the search is what ‘Rome’, the city and the album, is all about.

‘Rome’ is available from record stores now.

[Cover Me]: Modest Mouse and Dave Alvin

Modest Mouse – ‘That’ll Be The Day’ (Originally by Buddy Holly)

I was browsing through HMV yesterday when I came across a recent release of Buddy Holly covers. It seems like a worthwhile endeavour since Buddy is a much forgotten pop genius these days, but unfortunately for the most part the album is more miss rather than hit (such as the lacklustre rendition of my fave Buddy song ‘Everyday’ from Fiona Apple and Jon Brion). However, there are a few shining renditions from the likes of Lou Reed, She & Him and Patti Smith. Modest Mouse’s inventive cover of Buddy’s rolling ‘That’ll Be The Day’ belongs to this latter category. Ever the oddballs of indie rock, Isaac Brock and Co.’s  idiosyncratic approach turns this Chuck Berryesque number into a hushed lullaby that seems more like an incredulous drunk singing to himself than Buddy’s cheeky teasing.

Dave Alvin – ‘Ol ’55’ (Originally by Tom Waits)

Track one, side one of Tom Waits’ debut album ‘Closing Time’. A hell of a song that immediately tipped you off that Waits was going to be a legendary songwriter. This cover from fellow Californian minstrel Dave Alvin also comes from a tribute album: ‘Step Right Up: The Songs of Tom Waits’. Whereas Waits’ original was a strictly solo affair, accompanied only by a ramshackle piano and his own overdubbed vocals, Alvin’s version still keeps things simple but tastefully augments the choruses with slide guitar, accordion and mandolin. Where Waits’ sunrise in the song  is the sunrise of the skulking suburbs, Alvin’s sunrise is that of the wide open Mojave desert with all the colours stretching far across the landscape. Find it on Spotify here.