If you've listened to any indie music in the last five years, there's a good chance you heard something made by Justin Vernon. The Eau Claire, Wisc., musician is best known as the singer / songwriter behind Bon Iver, a former solo project that achieved widespread acclaim on the back of a series of hushed ballads and an oft-repeated story about recording his 2008 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, in a cabin in the woods.
Since then, he's shown up just about everywhere, making vocal appearances on just about every release affiliated with Minnesota's Doomtree collective, singing backup on The National's High Violet, doing his best black-metal croak on Colin Stetson's New History Warfare Vol. 3 and bleating through an Auto-Tune filter on the last two Kanye West albums.
Oh, and his 2011 album Bon Iver, Bon Iver earned Vernon two Grammys—one for Best New Artist and one for Best Alternative Album.
However, the precise moment when Vernon reached pop-culture critical mass was last Feb. 18. In a Saturday Night Live sketch, Justin Timberlake impersonated the singer, crooning a lullaby to Blue Ivy Carter that puts himself to sleep. Hilarity aside, I can't help but agree with the kernel of truth behind the joke: Bon Iver's music is pretty boring. It's sometimes delicate, sometimes lush and often very pretty, but even at its most gorgeous, it feels inert. And on Bon Iver, Bon Iver in particular, Vernon's compositions sound like nothing so much as a contemporary, Urban Outfitters-outfitted equivalent of Bruce Hornsby-style soft-rock (see: "Beth / Rest"). I'll admit that the one time I saw Bon Iver live in an opening slot before Phosphorescent in 2008, at The Che Café of all places, Vernon and his backing musicians put on a surprisingly powerful show— at one poignant moment literally leaving the room speechless with his unmic'd vocals. The problem is that I've yet to hear a studio recording that comes close to capturing the beauty and intimacy of that performance.
Vernon's other band, Volcano Choir—who'll play House of Blues on Sunday, Jan. 19—is an entirely different story. A collaboration between Vernon and members of post-rock band Collections of Colonies of Bees, Volcano Choir is less about gentle, stripped-down melodies and more about texture and momentum. Their music is hypnotic rather than sleepy, more disorienting than comfortable. And what they partly sacrifice in accessibility, they more than make up for with intricate songs and arrangements that reveal something new and more compelling with each listen. On their 2009 debut, Unmap, and standout track "Island, IS" in particular, there's a lot going on: finger-tapped guitar riffs, numerous electronic loops and brushed drum beats, all of which provide a more interesting, slightly eerier context for Vernon's own reverb-laden falsetto.
The band's second album, Repave, released in September via Jagjaguwar, is an extension of the ideas explored on Unmap, but with some of the mathematical complexity of its predecessor swapped out for a more immediate approach. In the first minute of opening power ballad "Tiderays," there's a sense that Vernon & Co. could easily backslide into the comfortable territory of Bon Iver. But out comes a thunderous boom of electric guitar, a strange backing texture of Auto-Tuned vocals and an eruption of pomp and drama that its hushed openings barely even hint at. Volcano Choir aren't just pursuing subtly seductive grooves or nimble instrumentation; now, they kinda-sorta rock.
It's a beautiful thing, really. While Volcano Choir achieve a kind of stadium-rock dazzle through subtle means, they still manage to stack up a long list of jawdropping moments of musical drama throughout Repave. There's the choral eruption that happens 85 seconds into "Comrade," the ascending electric-guitar riffs that open "Byegone" and the group vocal chants during the chorus of "Acetate." It's not as if anyone will mistake this record for Back in Black, or, for that matter, anything by Vernon's other other band, the bluesy, schlocky Shouting Matches. But it's clear from the sound of Repave that this is more about a dynamic group of musicians creating music than, as Vernon put it in a Pitchfork interview last year, "a whining guy with a guitar."
So, about that whining guy with a guitar: Given the amount of acclaim that Vernon has earned via his work as Bon Iver, clearly I'm an outlier for not being moved by his pastoral lullabies. And that's fine. I certainly understand the appeal—it's pretty music, sometimes made with luxurious arrangements, by a musician with an interesting backstory. And it certainly doesn't hurt that Vernon comes across as a genuinely humble person without much pretense. (How often do you get to say that about somebody on Kanye West's speed dial?)
To put it in more diplomatic terms, it's not that I'm anti-Bon Iver; it's that I'm pro-Volcano Choir. Bon Iver is the crowd-pleaser—the unlikely hit-maker. And if the success of that project is ultimately what leads to Vernon's capacity to take more risks with his music, then that can't be a bad thing. Because if Volcano Choir proves anything, it's that Vernon is capable of something much more exciting.