Review: Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Bon Iver)

Perhaps a not-to-size map painting of these track-title locations…

Justin Vernon, founder and leader of indie-rock team Bon Iver, has never taken the easy route. The man had spearheaded several other independent bands before his success with Bon Iver— Each previous group being critically lauded, but sadly unsuccessful commercially. Vernon fell especially hard after the disintegration of his long-time group, DeYarmond Edison, and took the breakup as a sign to seek seclusion in an isolated cabin.

For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s unsuspectingly gorgeous and additionally enduring debut album, took refuge in Vernon’s prior defeats, only to raise them from the dead and bolster them towards new heights with dignity.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the second and latest Bon Iver project, is no safe bet either. Where For Emma was uninhibited and raw, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is careful and clean. Rusty guitar strings and nearly-primal vocal outbursts are swapped for shimmering guitar strands and meticulous harmonic structures. No safe points here.

It’s not like it would be that difficult to spot the instant contrast on even the album’s opener, “Perth,” but “Holocene” is the clearest example of the “new” Bon Iver sound. The guitar picking is coated in a harp-like essence, engulfing its neighboring sounds with sincerity and serenity. The unorthodox percussion arrives late in the track; dropping subtle hints at first, and then following it with a controlled charge.

Lead single “Calgary” also displays sonic innovation, with its foggy synth padding, stirring guitar slides and methodical drum arrangement. The difference here is that the melody truly shines above even the carefully-constructed soundscape with a gripping and memorable formulation.

And that’s the true trick when it comes to Vernon’s second Bon Iver endeavor. Surely, there are some magnificent melodies aboard the Bon Iver, Bon Iver vessel. “Perth” is a truly spectacular anthem, followed by the overwhelmingly gorgeous declaration “Minnesota, WI,” and resolved by the strikingly winsome vintage-tinged finale “Beth/Rest.” But not all are quite as charming.

“Wash.,” a close relative of previously-released tune “Beach,” is not an irredeemable piece, but it is far from immediate with its seemingly unfocused melody and off-puttingly simple piano patter. Additonally; “Lisbon, OH” is purely filler material, and “Hinnom, TX” pushes the limit in the “nasally voice” department.

Now, I will admit that repeated listens to Bon Iver, Bon Iver are highly encouraged, if one is to extract the succulent juices surrounding its coveted core. Still, it’s not wholly accessible, and not generally as immediate as For Emma. If you’re already a fan and can handle a substantial shift in sound, then definitely go for it. Otherwise, I’d listen to the full-album stream (via NPR) to see if you’re up for the “repeated listens in order to crack this coconut” type of ordeal.

78% / C+ ♭

Review: Circuital (My Morning Jacket)

(The “magic tuning eye.” A bit of a departure from the “owl,” but who’s complaining?)

After many years and many recommendations from musically-trustworthy colleagues of mine, I decided to investigate this My Morning Jacket band. Critically, the band more than just “checks out.” All of their albums have received at least “generally positive” reviews, a handful of them even reaching the “universal acclaim” category, including 2001’s At Dawn and 2005’s Z.

Circuital, My Morning Jacket’s sixth official studio album, finds the band continuing their sonic experimentalism— A philosophy at which was first hinted in It Still Moves, furthered in Z, and extrapolated wildly in Evil Urges. While Circuital contains some traces of its predecessors in its general “alternative” label, it is considerably more concise— Ten nearly perfect compositions with memorable melodies, flawless arrangements, and fascinating originality to boot.

With Circuital, the fat has been trimmed, the writing has matured, the experimenting has become focused, and the band is even more a band then they’ve ever been before. If I can make the careful allusion— Circuital is to My Morning Jacket as In Rainbows is to Radiohead. No really, it’s that good.

Bass-driven numbers like “The Day is Coming” and “You Wanna Freak Out” are easily-accessible highlights, not to mention just all-around fantastic compositions. The first of the two tunes is a distant cousin to Monsters of Folk’s lead single, “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.),” utilizing the low-end tones in masterful confidence whilst leader Jim James prophesies, “The day is coming- The day is near! The day is coming, you know what I mean.”

The seven-minute title track is also agreeable, consisting of a handful of highly melodic components, colourfully weaved into a medley of epic proportions. Even the simpler parts of the lengthy track are compositionally impressive— Instead of settling for a typical I, IV, I, IV progression, the band strategically places a V in the mix, resulting in a stimulating variation (I, IV, I, V). Yes, one chord can make a huge difference, especially when the song-crafter is attempting to construct a spiritual anthem/medley, and this is something that the band accomplishes effortlessly.

Early-album track and additional Circuital centerpiece “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” is an acoustic masterpiece, fully accented with breathtaking string strands and simple-yet-lovely vocal harmony. “Victory Dance” and “Holdin on to Black Metal” are its minor-based counterparts, applying striking vocal-and-instrument combinations to achieve compelling effects. In example, “Victory Dance” combines James’s vocals with a gritty keyboard to produce a trumpet-like sound, and “Black Metal” harnesses the voices of a kid’s choir to emphasize the innocence portrayed in the lyrics of the track (“Suppose you’ll find this place in a youngster’s eyes”).

Finale “Movin Away” is yet again a highlight, showcasing the insanely-talented James and his meticulous vocal strategies, which are are backboned by drummer Patrick Hallahan’s fitting drum methods and embellished by Carl Broemel’s attentive guitar recipes.

I mean, I can really go on for awhile here.

The point is this— My Morning Jacket fan or not, Circuital is one of the year’s best releases so far, and it would serve the reader well to find a copy of this on vinyl (or CD, at the very least). The production alone is worth its weight in audiophile’s gold; plus, the ten-fecta of tunes here.. It’s a no-brainer.