Not Preaching to the Choir

justin vernon makes music for the season

volcano

After 2008’s widely acclaimed For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon, sole member of the group Bon Iver, could have easily resorted to some laurel-resting.  Instead, he toured extensively and put out an EP at the beginning of 2009 that, while clearly recognizable as a Bon Iver creation, marked a significant departure from the hermetic recording process of the first album.   Blood Bank entailed more production, revealing the desire of an artist to not only push the envelope but actually put a stamp on it and send it to the next zip code—but not international priority, like some places in Zappa’s catalogue.

Vernon has now released a new album, Unmap, under the name Volcano Choir, which is a collaboration with fellow Minnesota act Collections of Colonies of Bees.  Kindred spirits of groups like Explosions in the Sky, these post-rockers provide a new platform for Vernon’s instantly recognizable vocals.  One hesitates to call the different tracks on the album songs, simply because they feel like artifacts of experienced moods; the smallest item can be a trigger and something even smaller can cause it to fizzle and fade.

Where Vernon’s past lyrical work had some structure and even narrative elements (see “Blood Bank” and many of the tracks off of For Emma, Forever Ago), on Unmap the instrumentation seems to push him in the direction of using his voice more as instrument than as conveyor of lyrical ideas.  It wends its way around the pulse and doubles and triples itself over top of chaos that resolves to calm.  Think of an accomplished slide guitarist, with a wealth of effects at his disposal, jamming over typical post-rock instrumentation, and that’s the idea of what Vernon does on some of the tracks.

The push of the rhythmic backing tracks contrasts well with the pull of Vernon’s lilting voice which wraps itself around the beat.  He mentions “serpentine” in the spectacular “Island, IS,” giving an apt description for his own method.  Perhaps he’s trying to shed his own skin.

Other standout tracks from the album include “Seeplymouth,” a track that precedes “Island, IS” and is somewhat similar, and the sparse yet enveloping “Mbira in the Morass.”  The mbira is an African instrument made with strips extending over a hollowed gourd—don’t call it a thumb piano because it predates the piano by many many centuries.  Coupled with some piano and ambient noise, it makes for a great complement to Vernon’s mumbled musings.

“Cool Knowledge” is an idea that, sadly, hasn’t yet reached completion.  Markedly different from every other track on the album and only a minute long, it features a driving drumbeat, baby whining, and a Barry White-esque vocal groove.  If Vernon truly has a musical chameleon in him, it should have yearned to get out and play on this track.

If For Emma, Forever Ago was a soundtrack for the sad, sludgy slide into the winter of 2008, then Unmap might be this year’s follow-up.  Put it on during those slow, steady rains that herald the cold fronts bringing the winter with them.  Or let the swirling sounds intertwine with the first snow.  To define the album by stating what it’s not, it won’t be suitable for a gorgeous fall day.  Borrowing a phrase from a group far removed from Volcano Choir, the Grateful Dead, the environment might need a “touch of grey” for the most satisfying experience.  Vernon has certainly expanded his horizons and defeated expectations with Volcano Choir, but the times and places best for listening to him are hardly different.