Aug 27, 2013

Music Review: "Repave" by Volcano Choir

By Ian Cory

The closer you get to Justin Vernon, the further he runs away from you. After his first record as Bon Iver, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon was quickly anointed as the new face of sensitive dude singer-songwriting, complete with an appropriately mythic origin story, the details of which have now been repeated endlessly. Just two years later however, Vernon retreated back into the company of a full band, made up of pre-Bon Iver collaborators. This first Volcano Choir record was also a retreat from the direct lo-fi acoustic sound of For Emma, Forever Ago into something far more abstract and impersonal. These experiments eventually found their way into Vernon’s more traditional arrangements on 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, a record that, along with some key collaborations with Kanye West, launched Justin Vernon into the pop consciousness, earning a Grammy in the process. And now, two years later, Vernon has again regulated himself as another face in the crowd of a larger ensemble.

Instead of serving as a laboratory, like 2009’s Unmap, Repave is something of a return to the earthy tones of Vernon’s Bon Iver debut. While this might be seen as a step backwards from Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s anything goes approach to arranging, it’s also a natural evolution for Volcano Choir as a separate entity. Like on their debut, the band is fascinated with the process of transforming seemingly natural sounds into disjointed glitches that slowly wrap themselves into defined patterns. The difference is that this time those patterns eventually grow into full-fledged rock songs. Vernon has retained the knotty and complex guitar work of BI,BI’s highlights while adding the driving pulse that that record often lacked. This potent mix of deft musicality, sonic tinkering and semi-soulful balladeering make Justin Vernon the possible nexus for math rock nerds, hipsters, and chill bros. But despite this oddly broad appeal, or perhaps because of it, Vernon remains oddly unknowable through his music.

At this point, Vernon’s unintelligibility* has become as big of a part of his persona as the genesis of his first record, but that’s only the most surface level impediment to getting to the core of his music.  Ultimately, what makes his music so hard to access is that his melodic writing tends to be intentionally indirect as of late. Vernon is often concerned with the way his voice, his smooth and nuanced falsetto in particular, can work as a textural element than as something for the listener to actually latch onto. The emotional power of Vernon’s voice comes from the way it sounds, not what it's singing. As such, it’s just as dependent on what surrounds it. On Repave, Vernon is accompanied mostly by conventional rock instrumentation, the usual suspects of acoustic guitar, piano, bass, and drums, all panned hard and often playing dense polyrhythms against each other. As if this didn’t distract from Vernon’s melodies enough, his voice is often only one of many, all stretched out over the mix in a rough gang vocal style. Vernon is deliberately faceless on this record; interested in building an intricate web of tones that he can obscure himself behind, rarely even using his upper range to pierce through the veil.

There’s something to be said about the power of this obfuscation. Hidden from us, Vernon can become the avatar of a whole host of emotions, some of which may have no root in his own intentions. The references to nautical travel and the album title suggest that the Repave is about distance and reinvention, but it could just as easily be about pretty much anything. The explosion of lightning-fast guitars in “Comrade” could be the soundtrack to a hiking trip or a breakup, and the crescendo at the end of “Almanac” is equal parts triumphant and melancholy, depending on how the light hits it. Vernon clearly has the power to speak directly; it's one of the reasons people were so drawn to him to begin with. It’s a shame to have someone stuck in a pattern of running from the spotlight when they could so readily steal it.

Grade: C+

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