When the music of Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver initially appeared in 2008 via the fine debut FOR EMMA, FOREVER AGO, it felt like a fleeting bit of very welcome lonely folk, a possible one shot from a remote place and a tender, sincere heart. But EMMA ended up making one hell of a splash (for a debut anyway), and when that happens, barring premature death or something equally unexpected, one-shots are essentially out of the question. Simple audience expectations (We Want More!!) coupled with natural artistic tendencies (They ain’t seen nothin’ yet!) basically insures another record. The following year’s BLOOD BANK EP made some nice minor adjustments to Vernon’s template (in a nutshell: a mixture of scaled-down Sufjan Stevens and slightly tougher Iron and Wine). It shrewdly added a little bit of M. Ward (known to many as the male half of duo She and Him) to the equation, but it was still a largely folkish affair, just not as distant as before. To elaborate, it actually felt like the songs on BLOOD BANK were conceived by an assertive performer, not an artist that thrived in solitude. There was also some unexpected vocoder stuff to thicken the plot. Just who was this guy, exactly? In the end however, the release was an EP and it felt that way; while short-playing records can surely add spice to a discography and even stand as masterpieces on their own, that was not the case (or even the intention) here. It instead felt like a pleasant stopgap until the next big, hopefully satisfying statement. Well, the sophomore Bon Iver full-length has been out for a month or so, and it’s proving to be not only a grower of a listen, but also a display of significant and frankly unexpected stylistic development. What he still continues to share with Stevens, Sam Beam and M. Ward is an approach that see-saws between eclectic and accessible. In fact these three names sorta form an auteur triangle, with Vernon’s being the least experienced point in this particular neo-progressive-folk polygon. But he’s already adjusted Bon Iver’s sense of scale away from the sensibility of EMMA and BLOOD BANK’s rustic, snowy cover scenes toward a more urbane, citified sound (even with liberal doses of lap steel) that feels created inside of a studio instead of a cabin. True, the new one’s cover art is still decidedly pastoral, but it looks like it could’ve been painted by a city-slicker. BON IVER excels at a pretty melancholia that hovers between lush and spare, blending confident fragility and a casual strangeness, with the results being largely successful. Vernon’s most unique attribute is his voice, possessing a seeming airiness in the upper register until upon consideration it’s revealed just how solid it is. Musically, BON IVER leans toward Sufjan’s expansive studio-bound playfulness, though it eschews the layered complexity of ILLINOIS in favor of a sonic-patchwork approach, with sounds methodically drifting and swelling in and out of the mix, achieving an almost collage-like effect at times. Additionally, the individual songs often twine together or glide into one another, with no sharp definitions between tunes, forming a flowing aural tapestry that really promotes the notion that Vernon conceived and ordered this music with a deliberateness that suggests sequential listening. BON IVER is smartly weighted to its mid-section; things really cook up with the sweet ache of track 3, “Holocene” and continue unabated to track 8, “Calgary”. Along with the aforementioned lap steel, the instrumentation craftily utilizes synthesizers, programmed and live drums (including some fine snare work as a recurring motif) and most notably saxophone (by killer experimental horn blower Colin Stetson). In short, the palate has been expanded and the playing field has grown. “Towers” almost borders on jangle, and “Lisbon, OH” is basically a calm bit of experimental drifting. While no masterpiece, BON IVER is certainly a record possessive of some great moments, if a sadly disappointing ending. Vernon still shares something with Sam Beam, namely the embracement of an often denigrated tradition: in Beam’s case he’s recently snuggled up to soft-rock, for Vernon it’s the realm of the singer-songwriter. Some of the synth work here can sound deliberately antiquated in a way that recalls ‘70s album rock, but for me that’s not really a problem. I do however experience a substantial disconnect with BON IVER’s closer “Beth/Rest”, a tune that overtly recalls the ‘80s piano-driven work of Bruce Hornsby. I don’t really hate Hornsby’s work, but he’s certainly not someone I’d ever listen to outside of an elevator. An additional problem with this cut is its more subtle gestures toward the work of Jackson Browne, another guy of which I’m not particularly fond. It’s the singer-songwriter thing, up close and personal. On BLOOD BANK Vernon was often within striking distance of ‘60s pop-folk tradition (with country touches), a vibe that suited my disposition rather well. This turn toward the more upscale California canyon/bungalow sensibility that Browne embodies (which surely does extend to the ‘80s work of Hornsby, now that I think about it) doesn’t please me a bit. But hell, it’s only one track. Maybe he got it out of his system. I sure hope so. BON IVER proves that Justin Vernon can satisfactorily fill a large canvas, but I’m thinking it might be wise to scale it back from here. Regardless, this effort easily avoids the dreaded, clichéd sophomore slump, and if it’s being overhyped by some (trust me, it is), I do think that overall it’s quite up to snuff.
2000’s PEOPLE GET READY, the debut LP from The Mooney Suzuki, is accurately summarized as a garage-rockin’ soul classic. For good times just cue it up and then stomp, shout and work it on out. Make no mistake; this is an impressive achievement. Pulling off non-dud-like garage moves into the 21st century is difficult enough without complicating matters with defiantly non-purist distorto-R&B gestures. Suffice to say, the chances for looking foolish are quite high. But these suave gents pull it off with seeming ease, at least on this slab (I’ll confess to being unfamiliar with their latter stuff, mostly because I was/am gun-shy, having convinced myself they simply couldn’t keep it up). In the grand scheme of things, PEOPLE GET READY is what some killjoys might call a derivative record. Like the blatant Can rip of their name, The (Malcolm) Mooney (Damo) Suzuki flaunts its influence without even a hint of apology. Early Kinks riff delirium; Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels style throat purge; a primal approach to garage structure reminiscent of The Sonics; an MC5-like ideological party-communion; New York Dolls-esque strut and swagger; and they top it all off with an undiluted glaze of ’77-punk grit ala The Dogs’ “Slash Your Face” or the numerous one-shots in the Raw Records roster. It’s enough to persuade a discerning set of ears that these guys just have to be from Detroit (one of the true hubs of pure Rock ‘n’ Roll motion), or at least some suffering Pacific Northwest lumberjack town/polluted British working-class factory environment. But no: that enclave of sophistication New York City is the point of origin. On top of that, I’ll just bet that at least a couple of these dudes were freaking rich kids. I’m tempted to dislike them (at least a little bit) just thinking about it. This is music that sounds best blasting loud from cheap-assed overtaxed speakers while tossing a few back with a select group of old friends on a hot humid night, perhaps on a rooftop with dancing and singing and sweating and of course some making out, pushing stress and lingering problems to the side as dawn approaches bringing with it the endless oppressive cycle of a new day. But until that point just turn up the volume a little louder and keep those tensions and distractions at a distance. Now, insufferable grumps might accuse these guys of playing dress up and trading in unearned cool, but I’ll decry those naysayers as either clueless or bitter. The tightrope walk between style and substance is one of the recurring themes of modern music, and it can be a particularly thrilling experience in certain corners of the rock/pop universe: the dynamic showmanship of soul music’s elite class, the excess-peddling outrageousness of certain glam-rockers, the studied nihilism of young punk hooligans and the scientific cocksure self-promotion of many top-flight hip-hop MCs being just a few prominent examples. And on this record at least, The Mooney Suzuki manages a fine handle on the combination of attitude and execution. If seeing a person wearing sunglasses indoors gets you all hot and bothered, perhaps you should just stay home. The lights are bright, ya’ know? There’s really no denying how these dudes are a prime exemplar of rock music’s social functionality on a grand scale; listening to PEOPLE GET READY by my lonesome for purposes of this review made me pine for a backyard shindig with good conversation, happening tunes, an abundance of food and copious amounts of flowing cold suds. Who’s having the party?