Monday, December 8, 2008

Album Review: Bon Iver-Blood Bank EP

Success as a musician can be tricky. While the ultimate goal in most professions is to gain as much income as possible while at the same time maintaining a certain level of contentment, we, as music fans, often expect our favorite musicians to forgo the "income" in turn to gain more "contentment". From our point of view, it's impossible for a musician to be happy while creating commercialized music, and it's impossible for them to make money with music they're completely satisfied with. Thus, when a band or artist we truly adore attains some level of commercial success with an album that clearly wasn't intended to do just that, it makes us nervous for the future.

Enter Bon Iver. Originally serving as a form of therapy for one Justin Vernon, Bon Iver was literally born out of one man's pain. After enduring emotional turmoil ranging from the breakup of his longtime band, DeYarmond Edison, to the supposed ending of a relationship, Vernon decided enough was enough, and decided to pull a Thoreau. Living alone in a Wisconsin cabin, presumably in the middle of nowhere, he wrote and recorded most of what became For Emma, Forever Ago, which was a perfect example of music that was certainly not created with mainstream success in mind. Somehow, though, the powers that be found their way to make Bon Iver the "it" sound of 2008, and music from For Emma, Forever Ago found it's way onto various television episodes (including House and Chuck), and Vernon, along with his new band, made a few appearances on late night shows. Needless to say, fans that were made by For Emma, Forever Ago were a bit nervous to see what the future held.

Well, after hearing their latest, the Blood Bank EP, I find that, at least temporarily, those fears need not be entertained. The sound is as claustrophobic and "noncommercial" as ever, and even manages to throw in a few curve balls.

As with Emma, Blood Bank is the sort of collection of songs that forces you to deconstruct any ideas you may have had about pop music. After doing that, you realize the genius that isn't immediately obvious. Take album opener, the title track, for instance. While the song comprises of a clean electric guitar playing three chords over Vernon's signature falsetto, there's so much more going on than just that; what is lacking in musical complexity is made up for in atmosphere. When he sings "then the snow started falling...we were stuck out in your car", you can really see yourself sitting in a car while snow flakes fly by your window. Next track, Beach Baby, is a straight forward acoustic folk song, with a little steel guitar flavoring the sound at the end. So far, so good, but nothing really out of the ordinary.

Then, things take a turn for the cerebral, and you realize that Bon Iver clearly isn't going to be satisfied with the status quo. Third track, Babys, is probably weirder than anything that's ever been written by this band. Employing nothing but a chaotic piano riff for most of the song, it sounds like a complete mess. Then, Vernon's vocals kick in, and somehow everything makes sense. The piano is still playing the same thing, but for some unknowable reason, it doesn't sound quite as strange with him accompanying it. The fourth, and final track to this snapshot of an EP is Woods, and it's possibly my favorite Bon Iver song. An a'capella cut featuring no less than five vocal tracks, most of which feature an effect of some sort, this song has no right to be on my favorite songs list. For some reason though, it speaks to me like only a handful of songs are able to. Probably the strangest thing about this song (and the fact that I like it so much) is that the main vocal track, which starts the song off, and around which all the other tracks revolve throughout the song, employs a talk box effect. First off, let me say that I hate talk boxes under almost any circumstances. But for some reason, it sounds perfect in this setting. And when he really just lets go and begins wailing at the end, it's a beautifully ugly thing.

Bon Iver has recently exploded onto the scene, and their followup to Emma is nothing if not highly anticipated. While some who were expecting, and even hoping for something a little easier to digest than the majority of Emma will be disappointed for the most part, those of us who were looking for a challenge will be rewarded beyond anything we could have wanted.

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