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Bon Iver

+ {Justin Vernon} + {DeYarmond Edison} + {Volcano Choir} + {The Shouting Matches} + {Big Red Machine}

Of all the mournful acoustic strummers to come out of America’s backwaters, few people’s money would’ve been on BON IVER to hit the big time.
How Justin Vernon’s debut came together is now the stuff of indie folk legend. Reeling from a break up of his then band DeYarmond Edison (his middle names), his relationship with his girlfriend and a bout of glandular fever, the singer-songwriter relocated from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina, secluding himself away in his father’s hunting cabin in northwestern Wisconsin, where during three months alone, chopping wood by morning, he took inspiration and wrote and recorded the bulk of the tracks that would appear on his debut set.
From the early 00s, JUSTIN VERNON (born April 30, 1981, Eau Claire, Wisconsin) had self-financed a handful of solo CD-r’s in the shape of HOME IS (2001) {*5}, SELF RECORD (2005) {*6} and HAZELTONS (2006) {*6}, while the aforesaid DeYARMOND EDISON – also featuring Phil Cook (banjo, keyboards, Brad Cook (bass) and Joe Westerlund (percussion), completed three of their own by way of the eponymous DeYARMOND EDISON (2004) {*7}, SILENT SIGNS (2006) {*6} and the live-in-concert THE BICKETT RESIDENCY (2006) {*6}.
BON IVER’s FOR EMMA, FOREVER AGO (2008) {*9} was nothing short of breathtaking. Stark, beguiling, filled with layer upon layer of vocal harmonies underpinned by austere guitar and percussion, this is an intimate and compelling as folk records should sound. The album received universally great reviews and was a fixture in end of year polls and critics “best of” lists on both sides of the Atlantic. In a novel twist it caught the attention of several TV producers and songs from the album ended up soundtracking pivotal moments in US TV series such as Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill and Chuck. The album also came to the attention of US rap star KANYE WEST, who, not known for his indie folk leanings recruited Vernon to work on his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album, eventually contributing to tracks `Monster’ and `Lost In The World’.
Vernon managed to shock everyone and do the unthinkable – he bettered his debut. His self-titled sophomore effort BON IVER, BON IVER (2011) {*9} was recorded in a remodelled veterinary clinic and an adjacent swimming pool in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, which was converted into a studio by Vernon and his brother. The recordings sat Vernon firmly at the centre of the process but he augmented it with usual suspects Mike Noyce (guitar, violin, vocals), Sean Carey (drums, keyboards, vocals) and Matthew McCaughan (drums, bass, vocals), plus the addition of seasoned session players like pedal steel guitarist Greg Liesz, bass saxophonist Colin Stetson and string arranger Rob Moose. The heart of the songs was Vernon’s evocative, stirring whine and growl musically, while more expansive and exploratory he never lost the rural, earthy feel of the productions. Each song, Vernon claimed was based around thoughts of a particular place.
The album was a massive initial success both critical – again, near universal critical acclaim was his – the album sold over 100,000 copies in its first week of release in the US alone – debuting at No.2, only kept off the top spot by soul diva JILL SCOTT.
What most fresh fans like in the all-encompassing Justin Vernon was his adaptability, and squeezed in between both BON IVER sets was a tribute feature recorded with Eau Claire Memorial Jazz 1: A DECADE WITH DUKE (2009) {*5} – the Duke was Ellington. A hipster spot in the multi-faceted Jagjaguwar-sponsored ensemble, Gayngs, for the 2010 album, `Relayted’, was next on the cards.
Prolific was a word often over-used for aspiring artists, but not in the case of Justin, who spread his talents on not only one moonlighting project, but three or four, if one counted these aforesaid ventures plus VOLCANO CHOIR (aka Collections Of Colonies Of Bees: Chris Rosenau, Jon Mueller, Daniel Spack, Thomas Wincek and Jim Schoenecker) and The SHOUTING MATCHES (alongside MEGAFAUN’s Phil Cook and PETER WOLF CRIER’s Brian Moen).
While the latter combination was slow to make their mark, having been formed in 2006, VOLCANO CHOIR was, in many respects, the closest in sound to Justin’s main BON IVER enterprise. 2009’s Jagjaguwar release, UNMAP {*6} scraped into the Top 100, but within its un-folk post-rock, eruptions were scarce as the outfit free-floated and noodled toward some other avant-garde/ambient agenda. The record starting out promising much by way of `Husks And Shells’ and the atonal `Seeplymouth’, but in the mid-to-end section (from `Dote’, and `And Gather’, to `Still’ and `Youlogy’), one could almost imagine the test card.
The SHOUTING MATCHES finally chalked up their inaugural album when GROWNASS MAN {*7} was released in spring 2013; almost simultaneously released to whet the appetite of their audience, the 2008-recorded EP, `Mouthoil’ was unfettered at gigs. As gritty and bluesy as The BLACK CROWES (or even BAD COMPANY) there was thankfully no crossover of tracks; the EP bulging with great tunes such as `Another Man Done Gone’, `Bear’ and the slow-beat `House Call’. If ‘Iver acolytes were expecting to hear selections of back-porch folk, then they’d be in for a nasty surprise, but not too nasty as the trio swaggered through some rousing rock, including best bits `Avery Hill’, `Heaven Knows’, `Gallup, NM’ and the instrumental `Three Dollar Bill’.
Not content with one album that year, Vernon and Co popped up with the sophomore set for VOLCANO CHOIR: REPAVE {*7}; the only difference was that Schoenecker moved over for bassist Matthew Skemp. Looking to be much more streamline and accessible, their three years in the proverbial wilderness yielding some attention from record buyers on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere. It was fair to say that without Justin it would’ve been just a “…Colonies Of Bees” – quite literally, when one equates with the other members of said bands. Slow-burners cascading into brief crescendos, the layered and intimate cues strengthen with each listen; `Tiderays’, `Almanac’ and `Alaskans’ recalling RED HOUSE PAINTERS.
Vernon’s next away-day venture was when he featured with Charles Andrew Bothwell (aka ASTRONAUTALIS), S. Carey and GAYNG’s Ryan Olson – as the group JASON FEATHERS – on the album, `De Oro’. Not his best ever move.
And just when one thought Vernon had moth-balled BON IVER for ever, album three, 22, A MILLION {*9}, surfaced in September 2016. Retaining Carey and McCaughan, but stretching out the line-up to house fresh musicians, Michael Lewis, Andrew Fitzpatrick and Emily Staveley-Taylor (her sisters Jessica and Camilla helped her on backing vocals), the reviews were glowing for the man’s squint into electro-land. As strikingly hot as RADIOHEAD’s “Kid A” when that surfaced at the turn of the millennium, Vernon could’ve easily been tempted to go by another pseudonymous moniker. The music world will always be interesting in artists attempting to expand the boundaries of pop/rock music, and “22” was a perfect example. If one can imagine The NEVILLE BROTHERS performing alongside an ENO-produced DAFT PUNK, then the spiritual `33 “God”’ and `715 – Creeks’ were something along the lines of techno-gospel. Had a new genre been created? Probably not, as BON IVER seemed to be in a world of his/their own. Folktronica and intentionally chopped up and cutting off staccato-like, opening salvo `22 (Over Soon)’ strayed far from convention, whilst the sample-tastic `10 Death Breast’ was equal to anything his old mucker KANYE WEST could muster. As time will unfold to find this set as evergreen as any other seminal work of art, songs like `29# Strafford Apts’ and `666 (Upside Down Cross)’ – complete with distortion and frighteningly heavenly-high vocals – probably rested uneasily with bible thumpers. Reminiscent to the EAGLES in their prime, Vernon avoided the use of the vocoder on anchor piece, `1000000’.
Replanting the seeds of an all-too-brief liaison that stretched back a decade, Justin Vernon and The NATIONAL’s Aaron Dessner fully blossomed for the eponymous BIG RED MACHINE (2018) {*7}; named after the dominating 70s baseball teams of the Cincinnati Reds. Word of mouth promoted this dream collaboration, though surprisingly, the record stopped short of any major chart action, despite the guest list of Nick Lloyd, Richard Reed Parry (of ARCADE FIRE), violinist Rob Moose and drummers James McAlister (of Ester Drang) and Bryan Devendorf (also of The NATIONAL). Under a heavyweight of instrumentation, electronica and production sample blips, the whole project worked well for the most part (e.g. `Deep Green’, the trip-hop `Lyla’, the glitchy `Forest Green’ and the anthemic finale `Melt’), whilst `Gratitude’ mirrored a lonesome BON IVER impressed by The BLUE NILE.
It was safe to say that Justin Vernon could probably shop at any supermarket in the world and not be recognised. What other multi-platinum star could get away with that claim to non-fame. This was of course down to the mysterioso manifesto that the avant-soul singer-songwriter/musician had brought to the table. The modern maestro’s choice to initially drop a fresh set of songs by way of i.i (2019) {*8} by streaming-only, gambled slightly with the public’s perception of how they obtained their pop/rock in these austere troubled times. And if music was to save our souls from impending “on the beach” oblivion, then it’d be the binding, hands-across-the-sea soundscapes of BON IVER’s emotional gospel hip-hop hue on `Hey, Ma’, `Naeem’, `iMi’, `U (Man Like), `Faith’ et al. that would help ease the pain. For fans worried that the hp#26 (UK hp#11) chart positions were lower than usual, then the dispatch of the CD/LP was just around the corner: August 30 to be exact.
© MC Strong/MCS 2011/MR-GFD2 // rev-up MCS Oct2016-Aug2019

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