Bon Iver may be done for a little while, but between popping up on hip-hop albums big (Yeezus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch The Throne) and small (P.O.S.’s We Don’t Even Live Here), playing with his band The Shouting Matches, and collaborating with The Blind Boys of Alabama, Justin Vernon hasn’t exactly been quiet. Nevertheless, the announcement of another album from Volcano Choir, a collaboration with post-rock band Collections of Colonies of Bees, was a bit of a surprise. Their 2009 album Unmap was a solid collection of abstractions with the occasional killer song (“Island, IS”, if you haven’t heard it, is still awesome), but it was a bit unstructured (and quite strange for my tastes). However, it seems to have been an important project for Vernon. Just look at the world of difference between For Emma and Bon Iver, Bon Iver: all the layered, more complex instrumentation. The odder, instrumentally complex, direction of Volcano Choir definitely had a hand in influencing that album’s left-turn from the dude-in-a-cabin scrappiness that defined his debut. On Repave, however, it’s Bon Iver that is influencing Volcano Choir.
Besides the obvious sharing of Vernon’s one-of-a-kind voice (impressive as ever on this album), this project shares the HUGE sound of 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The swell of opener “Tiderays,” especially near the end, envelops you in sound that recalls the best catharsis The National has to offer. This leads to “Acetate,” a song with another catchy chorus and a wonderful bass groove that plays off some spare piano hits. Fans of Unmap may be disturbed that these songs resemble, well, normal songs rather than the more experimental/ambient tracks on the debut. However, even with the more conventional songwriting, Volcano Choir is still Volcano Choir. “Comrade,” with its little chopped up acoustic guitar and math-y keyboards and electric parts is a song that’s distinctly theirs. The swirling chorus, however, is certainly a mark of Vernon’s more recent work. Closing track “Almanac” also has a synth line that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of those Kanye records that Vernon has been such a captivating presence on (and a funky edge that seems to come from “Minnesota, WI” or the supergroup Gayngs).
The lyrics are also typical Vernon, more tone poetry than actual statements that should be deciphered. As always, it’s the magic of Vernon’s voice that makes these lyrics land so well. “Byegone” is an example, and another standout track on the album. Its guitar riff that can only be described as epic is complemented by a helluva chorus: a shout of “set sail!” that’ll make you want to run across a field at midnight carrying a torch and/or a flag. That titanic guitar part along with the perfectly simple drumming by Jon Mueller (who provides remarkably tasteful work throughout this album) evoke the stormy image on that wonderful cover. This track feels like a beacon of hope on rough waters, “Acetate” like living with the seemingly eternal sea, and “Dancepack” like submitting to the waves.
However, the album doesn’t quite keep up its quality. The calmer back half is much less impressive than the first, and contains one song that doesn’t work entirely (“Dancepack”) and one song that just plain doesn’t take off (“Keel”). Also, previously mentioned final track “Almanac,” while quite good, seems to cut the album off rather than bring it to a close. Even so, this is a very impressive album (hell, one of my biggest criticisms is “I wish there was a little more of it”). Vernon sounds as excellent as ever, and the rest of the band provides wonderful amount of textures to complement this once-in-a-lifetime vocal talent while also bringing their own unique sound up front. Even if it may resemble Bon Iver a little too much for some Volcano Choir fans, both parties should find plenty to love here.
Repave is out now on Jagjaguwar.
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