Review: Another Winter EP (Justin Cross)

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New Year’s may have already passed, but winter is just now settling in. In musical terms, this is usually the time of year to break out some Fleet Foxes, Jon Foreman, and George Winston. This year, Justin Cross is added to that list of writers, thanks to his elegant and December-esque new EP, Another Winter.

The EP opens with the title track, of sorts (“Can’t Take Another Winter”) – The mellow chord progression serenely painting the snow-covered soundscape a stark shade of white. Cross’s gutsy and expressive vocals then bring a fitting warmth, like fresh coffee after a trek through feet of winter’s frozen rain. The bass appears on cue – a frostbitten hand to a warm mitten, and the banjo too – icicles hanging down outside from the tin roof. The mesmerizing melody of the chorus then ties the whole song together, pitting musical gut and music theory logic – satisfying both sides absolutely with a perfect balance.

Not only are the soundscapes gorgeous and rich with winter splendor, but Cross has both the writing skill and vocal chops to consummate his musical vision. “Billy Dyer” and “Only” play out like long-lost Ryan Adams tunes (especially the former, with its icy harmonica and contagious folk sway), and “December Third” impresses thoroughly, with its Bon Iver-tinged harmonies and aching falsetto chorus melody.

The EP’s crowning jewel is “Christmas Day,” a mid-tempo number with both heart and a little bit of heartache. With instantly memorable lines like “And when the silent night surrounds us / And the world goes dark outside / It’ll feel like Christmastime,” Cross solidifies his case for why his great tunes should keep your ears warm all winter long.

Another Winter EP is available from Justin’s BandCamp page and at his shows. He will be opening for the legendary Bill Mallonee at Moonlight on the Mountain this coming Wednesday, January 16, at 7:30pm ($12).

R.I.P. Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

What an amazing innovator, speaker, and human being. We here at Headphone Transmissions owe nearly everything to Steve Jobs– Our reviews are constructed by way of MacBook, our listening experience is executed via iTunes (when not on vinyl), not to mention our own personal uses of Apple products (listening to our iPods, socializing with our iPhones, etc.).

Rest in peace, Steve. Thank you for all of the joy you brought to our lives. You will be sorely missed.

http://www.apple.com/stevejobs/

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+ ♭

The First Transmission

It is with overwhelming joy and satisfaction that I bring you my new music criticism blog, the Headphone Transmissions. Since I explore most of my musical avenues under the pavilion of my Sennheiser’s, I felt it only natural to name the blog in honor of their sonic provision.

Let me first begin with a brief summary of how I plan to go about critiquing and grading the musical recordings. For future reference, this scale is subject to change..

For the most part, I will be utilizing the standard 0-100, A-F, “schooling”-type system. For example, if I were to award a record with a perfect score, the grade would look like- 100%/A. Easy, right?

Now we’ve got “special symbols”:

♕ = King of the Crop, so to speak. Reserved for those “once-in-a-lifetime”-type albums (98%+).
☆ = Star, or Standout. You see this, you make sure you own this album, because it’s one of the best of the year (80%+).
♭ = Flat. Likely, a record with substantial hype that just doesn’t live up to the expectation. Or just a disappointing record from a typically great artist.
☂ = Umbrella. Yeah, just stay away from these records. They don’t do you no good (55%-)

So there you have it. I’ll be posting my first review shortly. Thanks for the support.

Matt