[Album Review]: Lee Fields – Emma Jean

LF_Emma-Jean_Cover-smaller “No man is an island, but you cast me off”

“This is a man’s world,” James Brown once posited, before clarifying “But, it wouldn’t be nothin’, nothin’, without a woman or a girl”. On his third album for Truth and Soul Records with The Expressions, it seems these words hang heavy over Lee Fields, a man once nicknamed “Little JB” for his vocal and physical resemblance to The Godfather of Soul. After toiling away in minor obscurity for the best part of fifty years, Fields builds on the acclaim of recent years and perhaps reveals something about himself on a record named Emma Jean for his mother, where hard times and breaking hearts abound.

Partly recorded and mixed in Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys’s Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville, Emma Jean sees Fields moving at a slower, but more confident pace than previous. Rather than the kicking and screaming Fields found on Faithful Man (which featured in The Grapevine’s Best Albums of 2012), Emma Jean finds Fields settling comfortably into his role as an elder statesman of old-school R&B and reconnecting with his Southern roots on the smooth Tulsa soul of the late J.J. Cale’s ‘Magnolia’. While paying respect to the original, The Expressions trade wheezing harmonica for shimmering pedal steel and Fields’s resonant vocals lift this devotional to giddy heights. Similarly, the Dan Auerbach penned ‘Paralyze’ oozes with bluesy drama, while the reeling groove and gospel backing vocals of ‘In The Woods’ recalls the finest hours of Memphis’s Hi Records. Elsewhere though, Fields still excels in delivering hard-hitting funk, especially in the unadulterated foot-stompin’and hollerin’ of ‘Talk To Somebody’.

Throughout Emma Jean, Fields illustrates faltering relationships and the differing reactions of his male protagonists, ranging from bitterness and chest-beating to reconciliatory promises and torch carrying for lost love, which reach their peak in the closing pair ‘Stone Angel’ and ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. Left abandoned and burned by the femme fatale of ‘Stone Angel’, Fields’s outward machismo is undermined by private promises of better times which ultimately fall away to the heartfelt petition of ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. Brought to his knees, Fields wails like a man with nothing left to lose as slinky guitar and building horn blasts conjure up the spirit of Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home’, drawing Emma Jean to a triumphant close.

While the influences he channels into his work are plain to see, Lee Fields always keeps his best foot striding forward to somewhere innovative and new. And, at the age of 63, he may have delivered the finest album of his career. So far…

Emma Jean will be released through Truth and Soul Records on Monday 2nd June.



[Album Review]: Nick Mulvey – First Mind

Nick-Mulvey-640x503“Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me, / She takes me back down the vistas of my years”

After splitting from Mercury-nominated modern jazz collective Portico Quartet in 2011, Nick Mulvey’s solo career has gone from strength to strength. His dextrous musicality and yearning songwriting over two EPs have seen him hotly tipped by appearances on BBC’s Sound of 2014 longlist and tours with Laura Marling (not to mention being featured on this site last year). On his debut full-length First Mind, Mulvey stakes his claim with a softly-spoken meditative work.

Informed by his experiences touring the world over a decade and studying music in Havana and London, Mulvey’s songs blend western and world music influences into a distinct musical voice. ‘Juramidam’s driving polyrhythmic guitar figure echoes African rhythms while the lilting strumming of ‘Meet Me There’ belies more Celtic leanings. While Mulvey’s guitar and laconic vocals hold centre stage, understated accompaniments of percussion, synths and strings breathe life into his compositions. Murmuring background noises give ‘April’ the eerie air of a ghost story and strings add drama to uplifting ballad ‘Fever To The Form’, indicating that Mulvey’s strength lies in creating atmospheric melodies that pull you in.

Although seven of the twelve tracks on offer here have appeared previously as singles or EP tracks, First Mind is artfully weaved together into a gentle, consistent whole. Having said that, many of these tracks are different versions to the ones previously available and suggests that Mulvey is something of a perfectionist. Not necessarily a bad trait for an artist to have, but some of the revisions here rein in the infectious eagerness of the originals, leaving them slightly anaemic. Mulvey’s restrained vocals can also occasionally fail to push the songs to their potential heights; floating inches off the ground, but not quite soaring.

What his vocals can lack in strength and resonance though, is made up for by the swirling imagery he delivers in his lyrics. Pastoral images of plants and waterways suffuse First Mind and eddy around human relationships, as on ‘Ailsa Craig’: ‘I know you know the rushes call me on with words that you said, tying me down to the river bed’. The shifting perspectives and cyclical nature of D.H. Lawrence inspired ‘Cucurucu’ are as intriguing as the song’s hook is catchy, but Mulvey is equally comfortable speaking directly on Dylanesque ballad ‘I Don’t Want To Go Home’.

First Mind may initially wash over the listener, but it rewards repeated listens and marks Mulvey out as not your average minstrel. A slowburning delight for long summer nights of contemplation, leading through to greeting the early morning sun.

First Mind is available now through Fiction and Nick Mulvey will embark on a world tour this summer.


[Album Review]: Augustines – Augustines

we_are_augustines“My heart feels like an empty pocket, Lord”

At the tail end of 2012, We Are Augustines’ soaring debut Rise Ye Sunken Ships took the top spot on my end of year list with its compelling blend of striking honesty and indomitable energy. Now gearing up for an extensive intercontinental tour and sporting their original single-word moniker, Augustines return with a new collection of rousing anthems on their eponymous sophomore effort, Augustines.

After a gentle introduction Augustines kicks off with both barrels blazing on back-to-back lead singles ‘Cruel City’ and ‘Nothing To Lose But Your Head’. Both surge along on tsunami-scale waves of energy, powered by drummer Rob Allen’s driving rhythms and invigorating choruses aimed straight at the rafters. ‘Weary Eyes’ then takes things down a notch, but still maintains the sense of wonder with militaristic drums and jubilant background vocals. While their heartland rock core of raging guitars and Billy McCarthy’s emotive holler remain intact, Augustines also explore new pastures with a focus on background choral vocals and textural synths which lift the songs and emphasise Eric Sanderson’s talents as a multi-instrumentalist. More control and restraint is on display here too, reflecting a self-assured band hitting their stride. ‘The Avenue’ is a gentle piano led ballad while mid-album high point ‘Walkabout’ builds steadily from McCarthy’s high and lonesome falsetto into an uplifting anthem full of urgency.

While their debut finished on Sanderson’s tasteful instrumental, Augustines opt for a celebratory curtain call on ‘Hold Onto Anything’ (which is sure to make encore setlists in future) after the poignant ‘Highway 1 Instrumental’, echoing that Augustines is a product of success rather than anguish. Indeed, after the critical acclaim afforded to Rise Ye Sunken Ships and notable support slots on Frightened Rabbits’ recent US tour and Counting Crows’s Outlaw Road Show, it would seem disingenuous for the band to try and recapture the atmosphere of personal loss and desperation that imbued that album with such fraught energy. Fortunately, Augustines steers clear of this danger with triumphant songs that build on the positive energy and while McCarthy’s lyrics are still informed by hardship and melancholy, his focus is on the coming dawn rather than the long night. There are a few moments of over-ornateness which briefly overstep the line between grandeur and pretensions-of-grandeur, but when the songs are as sincere and immediately engaging as this you forgive them. Augustines is an exhilarating followup which fulfils the promise of Rise Ye Sunken Ships.

Augustines is available now through Votiv/Caroline International.

[Album Review]: The National – Trouble Will Find Me


“I know I was a lot of things, but I am good and I am grounded / Davy says that I look taller”

With a pre-release album streaming on the iTunes Store front page and an all-star cast of friends to cameo on their latest album, who could have predicted even five years ago that The National would become giants? It seems to me that with each album, The National steadily build on their previous foundations to ever headier heights. From the intimate and waist-deep scale of The National to the immense and towering sprawl of High Violet, they have, sonically, grown exponentially.

From the opening swell of I Should Live In Salt, it is clear that Trouble Will Find Me has a strong musical connection to High Violet. However, some songs have echoes of Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, such as the menacing broodiness of ‘Sea of Love’ which features rallying drum rolls from Matt Devendorf and spiky guitars that occasionally puncture into the foreground (and, incidentally, if you listen closely you can hear Aaron Dessner wailing on a harmonica). Meanwhile, the guitar driven ‘Fireproof’ and the slow-dancing ‘Heavenfaced’ both sound like they could be outtakes from Boxer. Although the tone and tempo in general hardly gets above a sombre heartbeat, there is still space for a sense of intrepid wonder, like the speeding ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’ or the glimmering sense of hope on ‘Humiliation’. And of course, it wouldn’t be an album by The National without a bittersweet send off and ‘Hard to Find’ does not disappoint, giving us one final “kiss off into the air” before the album’s close. However, it is really the unshiftable immensity of this collection which really hits home. The songs themselves are like monumental totems which Berninger wanders through, singing of the heavier aspects of modern domesticated life.

Although Berninger’s lyrics may be pensive and doubtful, as is his way, the music is confident and reflects a seamless chemistry between band members. The guitars are less pronounced than on previous albums, working more as a texture in the overall collage. Indeed, the Dessner brothers lean more on synths and piano these days to offer colour, as on ‘Graceless’ and the pre-release single ‘Demons’. Meanwhile, Scott Devendorf’s bass lopes alongside his brother’s idiosyncratic drum fills, grounding and contributing to the compositions throughout. Although these aspects have been present all along, it is here that the band seems most unified. The songs are understated in their deep resonance and they ebb and flow in a way that is reminiscent of David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy.

Trouble Will Find Me seems like a midlife crisis of a record (the “taking stock of what you have” kind, not the “buy an embarrassing leather jacket and a fast car” kind). This feeling is especially present on ‘I Need My Girl’, which navigates family tensions and personal dissatisfaction (“I know I was a lot of things, but I am good and I am grand”). After the growing pains of the first few albums and the settled confidence of Boxer and High Violet, this album is more moody and brooding. The problem, unfortunately, is that the tone just doesn’t vary much. While The National can arguably be said to only plough one particular field (scenes of middle-American strife and personal malaise), the range and depth they have managed to get out of that field in the past is remarkable and exhilarating. Even on their most pessimistic albums they could still pull out some anthems, and while Trouble Will Find Me never bores, it never really gets going either.

So, will Trouble Will Find Me turn off some old listeners? Possibly, but most fans of The National are aware that they are not the most forthcoming band. Will it garner The National some new listeners? I don’t think so. However, as with all their albums, Trouble Will Find Me will be a grower that unexpectedly slips under your skin one day and will keep you entranced for months, or even years. And for all these grumblings The National remain an endearing group who, even at their most dizzyingly colossal, still seem like they’re talking directly to you.

Trouble Will Find Me is available now through 4AD.

Originally posted on Hercules Moments

[Album Review]: Ghostpoet – Some Say I So I Say Light


“Now it’s love that soaks my heart / I contemplate the dark”

From recording and experimenting with sequencers at nights during his degree at Coventry University to a Mercury nominated debut album and a string of sold out live dates, to say that Ghostpoet’s (a.k.a. Obaro Ejimiwe’s) rise has been meteoric seems like an understatement. However, on his follow up album Ejimiwe handles the dizzying past few years of his life with resilience and humour, delivering an album that defied my initial expectations.

On Some Say I So I Say Light Ejimiwe’s recognisably soporific drawl remains intact, except now his delivery seems more focused and lucid with an energy behind it that has been honed by live performances. Meanwhile, the music has become even more minimalistic, tinged with eerie paranoia and a keen sense of uneasy self-awareness. Opener ‘Cold Win’ cautiously points out “I don’t know this place”, while ’12 Deaf’‘s disclosure that “Fear takes over me” sounds like it’s delivered from the extreme depths and pressures of a submarine. The voice and music paired together are still evocative of the creaking floorboards and trickling water pipes of streets and tenement buildings. However, Ejimiwe seems more pessimistic here, or maybe not so much pessimistic as dragged down and more accustomed to everyday pressures and grime than he was previously. He is constantly waiting on trains that never seem to arrive while staring out to sea, watching out for dark clouds on the horizon. The smouldering and brooding atmosphere palpable throughout the album is comparable to Massive Attack’s Mezzanine or Tricky’s Maxinquaye.

Moments of lightness and optimism occasionally punctuate the gloom: ‘Dorsal Morsel’ sees Ejimiwe “revel in the elegance that only night can bring” while ‘Plastic Bag Brain’ is driven by an idiosyncratically skewed guitar melody. Lead single ‘Meltdown’ is a bittersweet depiction of a dissolving relationship and is probably one of the truest break-up songs I’ve ever heard. The vocal interplay between Ejimiwe’s conversational outpouring and the yearning crooning of Woodpecker Wooliams (who also appears on ‘Dial Tones’) makes ‘Meltdown’ both mournful and uplifting at the same time. ‘Sloth Trot’ is the album’s heart, beating at a barely audible rate. Ejimiwe’s meditative vocals search through an inertia-inducing gulf of synths and echoed samples. “Is this all there is? / I’m not sure”, he ambivalently observes as a delay-laden guitar sound punctuates the haze before fading into the distance like a far-off train. Towards the end the track descends into a disorienting squall of wailing guitar, drums and clipped vocal samples.

While the minimalist approach does focus attention on Obaro’s voice, unfortunately it does mean that some songs tend to sound similar after a while. For sure, each song has character and collected together they evoke an enigmatic and nocturnal urban atmosphere, but the album does tend towards uniformity. In effect, Some Say I So I Say Light feels like Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam Pt.2. That’s not necessarily a bad thing since Peanut Butter Blues is a stunningly vivid portrayal of urban living in contemporary Britain. Rather than moving into different territory, Ejimiwe has chosen to dig deeper and explore the darker corners and heavier aspects of this area. It is as if we have followed him down the garden path which he warned us away from on Peanut Butter Blues.

Ultimately it is Ejimiwe’s naturalistic yet affable personality which really shines through and carries the album. You identify with him and, just as with Peanut Butter Blues, while things may not be at their best he’s trying anyway. At the end of the album, ‘Comatose’s affirmative assertion “I feel”, repeated amongst awakening synths and majestic strings that lift the mood, promises a brighter morning once this long night has passed.

Some Say I So I Say Light is available now through Play It Again Sam.

– Originally posted on Hercules Moments


[Album Review]: Iron & Wine – Ghost On Ghost

Iron & Wine

‘In your restless nights I swam blind, Somehow falling into the light’

In the ten years since the release of his debut, The Creek Drank The Cradle, Sam Beam has covered a remarkable amount of ground. Moving from hushed acoustic lullabies through to raucous full-band arrangements over four albums (not including a considerable amount of EP’s and B-Sides) Mr. Beam can probably afford to relax a little, as he does on Ghost on Ghost. In a press release, he said that he wished to move away from the “anxious tension” that pervaded The Shepherd’s Dog and Kiss Each Other Clean, and that “this record felt like a reward to myself after the way I went about making the last few”. While the album is the product of well-earned leisure and benefits from the relaxed approach, I would argue that this is Beam’s most ambitious work to date.

The album opens with ‘Caught in the Briars’, a jubilant, full-band anthem which centers around an acoustic guitar line that is not-dissimilar to ‘Boy With a Coin’. Although it kicks off the album on a suitably laid-back note, that doesn’t mean Beam doesn’t have a few aces up his sleeve. Along with his trademark ballads (‘Joy’, ‘Baby Center Stage’) he is equally comfortable churning out a speeding road anthem on ‘New Mexico’s No Breeze’ or pulling out a hip-hop influenced groove on ‘Singers and the Endless Song’ (that may sound awful on paper, but trust me, it works). While a jazz influence has been present on his last few albums, here it is more pronounced and takes center stage with playful bass-lines, compelling percussion and blaring brass. Throughout the album ethereal backing vocals are also never far away, like a choir of ghosts hovering just by Beam’s shoulder.

‘Grass Windows’ has a sombre, foot-shuffling beat while Beam’s wispy vocals have a gospel cadence to them. The meandering organ flourishes during the song’s middle and the stately brass sections make this seem like a funeral song performed by a lounge-jazz band. Meanwhile, ‘Sundown (Back in the Briars)’ is a majestic composition with the interplay between vocal, percussion and organ a stroke of genius. For me it ends just too soon as sweeping strings kick in and create the atmosphere of a band on a steamboat, lazing down a river on a summer’s evening. This immediately segues into the chilly overtones of ‘Winter Prayers’, a stark, acoustic ballad that is evocative of trees stripped bare and cutting winds.

The most astounding track on the album is undoubtedly ‘Lover’s Revolution’. It starts off with just Beam’s vocals, along with some bass and brass that slinks in and out. As more instruments come in the track progressively gathers speed, gaining urgency with each repetition of the refrain “I came to you, and you to me”. This eventually culminates at the middle 8 into a ramshackle jazz furore, with crashing drums, bluesy piano and screaming saxophone. The track then settles into a confident tempo before finally slowing down into the woozy and sluggish beat from which it started. All the while Beam is singing his ass off like a crazed seer. It’s a rollicking journey travelled in just under six minutes and you can tell that Beam is loving every single minute of it.

With each album Beam matures as a composer. His compositions have become more refined and complex, far outstripping his initial reputation as an acoustic-folk artist. The production on songs such as ‘Low Light Buddy of Mine’ have a scrappy, lo-fi charm, but the layering of parts clearly show that Beam meticulously arranges each song to his particular vision. At their most accomplished, they have the richness of classical suites. I’ll admit that I occasionally miss the acoustic-based Beam, but it is gratifying to see that at a decade into his career his creative thirst and inspiration remain undiminished. He shows no sign of slowing down and still has the ability to surprise.

At the time of writing I have been unable to give the album as many plays as I would have liked, but I can definitely tell that, like Iron & Wine’s most recent albums, this album will only sound richer with repeated listens. At its best it reaches the creative heights of The Shepherd’s Dog (and possibly surpasses it, I really couldn’t say at this point). What I am sure of though, is that once you get your hands on this record you will have it on heavy rotation for a long time to come.

Ghost on Ghost is available from 4AD on 15th April.

— Originally posted on Hercules Moments

[Album Review]: Richard Thompson – Electric

Electric‘There was some part of me knew, darling / To save the good stuff for you’

While many of his major label contemporaries have either faded into obscurity or ceased to put out anything of interest, Richard Thompson has been tirelessly mining his own rich seam of quality songwriting for over forty-five years. The eleven tracks that make up Electric show that he has absolutely no sign of slowing down, and further cement his status as a veteran songwriter.

For Electric, Thompson decided to take the core of his live band, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and percussionist Michael Jerome, and experiment by writing in a trio band format. The result is a concentrated and hard-hitting sound that Thompson describes as ‘a more folky slant on Cream or Jimi Hendrix Experience’. This set-up accentuates and complements Thompson’s style perfectly. Prodaniuk and Jerome lay out solid, muscular grooves throughout which offer a platform for Thompson to launch off from and show off his formidable guitar-work, while also enabling him to play off their presence. The album is a lot funkier than Thompson expected it to be, creating a form of folk-funk which Thompson says lies ‘somewhere between Judy Collins and Bootsy Collins’.

Never one to rest on his not-inconsiderable laurels, Thompson has toured relentlessly and Electric (along with 2010’s live recording Dream Attic) shows that Thompson is at the top of his game – his guitar-work is as twitchy and dynamic as ever. He is capable of spitting out searing solos that could singe your eyebrows one minute, then picking out a gentle melody the next. Album opener ‘Stony Ground’ is a foot stomping jig, while ‘Another Small Thing In Her Favour’ is a classic Thompson ballad, full of sage and melancholic sentiments. The album also sees Thompson pushing his boundaries and flirting with genres he wouldn’t normally be associated with, given his folk-rock reputation. ‘Good Things Happen to Bad People’ is a down-tempo rocker with tinges of psychedelia, featuring one of Thompson’s most demented guitar solos to date. Meanwhile, ‘Straight and Narrow’ is a ska-influenced jaunt which has been given a classic Thompson twist.

Although the focus is definitely on the electric pyrotechnics on display throughout the album, it is definitely acoustic meditation ‘The Snow Goose’ that takes the prize for me. It stands out as one of Thompson’s most haunting and poignant songs, based around a brooding acoustic melody and Thompson’s captivating voice. Beautiful harmonising vocals are provided courtesy of Alison Krauss, who admirably complements Thompson’s rough and bruised baritone. The bonus CD featured in the deluxe edition also houses some extra goodies. All are a joy, but the best of them is the traditional celtic reel ‘So Ben Mi Ch’a Bon Tempo’, which originally featured on Thompson’s 1000 Years of Popular Music.

The album title, Electric, is appropriate. Not so much that the majority of the album showcases Thompson’s intimidating electric guitar-work (in fact the latter end features some touching acoustic ballads), but because the album proves that Richard Thompson’s songwriting continues to be as exciting and vital as ever. His reputation as an elder statesman of impeccable songwriting remains undiminished, and I choose my words carefully when I say that he is a national treasure.

[Album Review]: Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again

“Tell me a tale that always was / Sing me a song I will always be in”

I first came across Michael Kiwanuka’s powerful blend of folk and soul on a Communion label sampler released last year where his debut single ‘Tell Me a Tale’ held pole position. The song immediately grabbed my attention with a sound that showed evident influences of soul artists of the 70’s, but with a definite contemporary feel. Since then Michael’s star has been steadily on the rise as his music spread further, gathering attention until finally he was announced as the winner of the BBC Sound of 2012 award. Having come ahead of such noteworthy competitors as Lianne La Havas, Frank Ocean and Friends, a weight of expectation has awaited the release of Michael’s debut album Home Again, an expectation which Michael fulfils and exceeds.

Opening track ‘Tell Me a Tale’ sets the mood for the album, with percussion, flute and horns that evoke the free-time leanings of jazz-poets, while Michael’s hypnotically striking voice is reminiscent of Terry Callier. The lazy Sunday morning song ‘Rest’ lulls you into feeling like you’re drifting gently along down a river of mellow pianos and stings, before leading into the title track ‘Home Again’. This song has gained a lot of airplay since its release as a single prior to the album release and deservedly so since it beautifully shuffles along, centring on Michael’s voice and guitar before he is joined by evocative strings. The tasteful presence of backing singers and orchestral augmentation on this song (and indeed most of the album) brings a touch of class to the proceedings, giving the feel of a gospel choir in which Michael’s soulful crooning takes the lead as he sings “And the tears will clear, / Then I’ll feel no fear.”

‘Always Waiting’ is a song of yearning and moving on into tomorrow that drives on with the momentum of a steam train and which echoes the indelible songwriting of Paul Simon. Meanwhile, ‘I Won’t Lie’ is a bold soul anthem which sounds like a cutting room outtake from a forgotten Sam Cooke or Otis Redding session. For Michael to be able to weigh in with these soul titans shows his extraordinary ambition, and even more extraordinary is that he manages to pull it off. Elsewhere on the album, ‘I’ll Get Along’ and ‘Bones’ see Michael playing the unabashed romantic with heart on sleeve proclamations like “Without you I’m just bones.”

While the majority of the album is uplifting and optimistic, the closing duo of brooding tango ‘Any Day Will Do Fine’ and closing time confessional ‘Worry Walks Beside Me’ demonstrate that Michael is not afraid to plumb the dark, sombre depths of the soul. The sweeping strings and bold brass of the former push Michael’s aching vocals and tense guitar melodies to heady heights. As the strings fade and the lights seemingly dim, we are lead into the melancholic album closer ‘Worry Walks Beside Me’. Michael’s stark guitar and even starker vocals open the track and captivate the listener as waves of strings, backing vocals and piano swirl around. As always, Michael’s yearning vocals hold precedence on both tracks which bring the album to a majestic close on a contemplative note.

Over the course of the album Michael covers an impressive spectrum of raw emotion, from uplifting affirmation of life to melancholic lows and every pit stop in between. The album as a whole expresses a wealth of personal experience that belies Michael’s age and which is coupled with a sound that is bold and audacious, but in no way sounds arrogant or overreaches. Though his influences are plain to see, ultimately Michael’s unique character evident throughout Home Again shows that these are just influences rather than sources for cheap imitation. Michael Kiwanuka is the real thing, with songs that possess a balanced gentility that touches the heart and present a budding talent that we will no doubt hear from again.

Home Again is available in record stores on Communion now.

[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

[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.