Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » October
A friend of Skyscraper shares this message.

A friend of Skyscraper shares this message.

When do you “know”? What does it feel like to “get it”? Why only sometimes does it all “feel all right”? Life is a funny thing, a color with its own shade depending on the view. It’s definitively indefinable. But sometimes someone has something to help those who can plug in a way to help us all understand. That’s why we have art. One of the branches of that tree is music. A few leaves from that arboretum mean a whole lot in the scheme of Things. They don’t come along often, but when they do, there is no mistaking it.

Welcome to Bon Iver, Bon Iver.

If that introduction seems a bit boastful, bombastic, and a bit melodramatic – wait until you hear the album. It’s that good. Bon Iver’s sophomore outing, sort of doubly self-titled with its Bon Iver, Bon Iver label, opens with the soft sway of loose wind chime-age and an eye-opening guitar riff on “Perth.”  After a rigid drum roll sneaks into play, the now famous lead man Justin Vernon’s falsetto breathes life into the instrumental exploration into our ears: “Move dust through the light / To fide your name / It’s something fane… This is not a place, not yet awake.”

The theme of the abstract lyrics – pairing words together that aren’t even words – to construct a harmonious dream-like song state begins here and flows through the rest of this album. It’s an album that is more like a misty mountaintop in the mind or a hidden cove of consciousness than just a music record. The first song flows into the next, never stopping, just reassessing its mood. Into the unconscious aura and synthesized organs and strings of “Minnesota, WI,” and then into the angelic instrumental and vocal pulsations like an oncoming realization in “Holocene” and the sly, syncopated lyrical delivery over a setting of bells and horns on “Michicant.” He sings: “Hung up in the ivory / Both were climbing for a finer cause…” and “Love can hardly leave the room… With your heart.”

And then, at the end, Bon Iver makes sure you’ve been listening. The final two tunes on the album change gears for a solemn sampling story told through thick synthesized structure that brings out all the emotiveness and ethereal landscapes of the mind, body, and soul. They sit together, look in each other’s eyes, and listen. The swooping pad opener of “Calgary” summons all the spaces between the closure of eyes and the opening of the mind, breaking into a soundscape mixing tribal drums and swirling strings. “Sold, I’m Ever… Open ears and open eyes / Wake up to your starboard bride / Who goes in and then stays inside… Oh the demons come, they can subside.”

Finally, we arrive at “Beth/Rest.” Citing some of his favorite songwriters, Bruce Hornsby and Bonnie Rait, the track opens with a heart-wrenchingly epic and synthesized piano riff straight from the soundtrack to the coming-of-age movie they never made about your life. A cocktail of soulfully sweet vocals, electric guitar licks, and those telling keys, Vernon sends his heart to you with his words yet again. This time it’s for good, clasping your hand through your ears straight through the radio speakers. Like when you listened to music in high school, this one speaks right to you. He finishes halfway through the runtime, letting the sounds carry you back home. “Our Love is a star, sure some hazardry… For the light before and after most indefinitely.”

It’s the end of an epic that no listener who understands it will soon forget. The last time something this true and right happened was Radiohead’s Kid A in 2000 – what a way to open the millenium. Now that it’s happened again on Bon Iver, Bon Iver, it’s only fitting it’s a decade later. Times have changed, but sounding this good hasn’t. And “knowing,” “getting it” and “feeling all right” always will.

Why a quote from Juxtapoz seems appropriate on the cover of Steven Blush’s American Hardcore: A Tribal History will forever remain a mystery. But it’s there and points to the tremendous audience the book’s picked up since first being printed in 2001, then being turned into Sony Pictures distributed documentary film.

There are, no doubt, droves of readers and film-goers who take issue with the figures included and dismissed in the first edition of the book. So, as remediation – and to make a few dollars, no doubt – Paper Magazine music editor and former fanzine writer Blush, along with the folks up there in Washington at anarchist punk publisher Feral House, went back and added-in hundreds of bands that didn’t make the cut during the first go ‘round. Of course, if those bands were given short shrift to begin with, there’s little likelihood any mattered too much beyond their native town’s borders. But that’s the point, even if listing those newly included groups in a boring, bolded type setting at the end of each chapter was the answer. Separating this edition of American Hardcore from its initial run, apart from those tacked on historical notes, is a bit difficult. The cover’s got yellow on it this time and a different picture on the back. Unfortunately, that’s it. Whatever the case, Blush’s prose and design prowess aren’t what readers are here for; coaxing stories and insight from people who ran labels, headed-up scenes, and booked shows is what makes this work worth a read.

At one point, Blush tosses out a bit of tangential political theory, making mention of syndicalism. While a haughty phrase meant for the academic set, the idea of creating an insular, sustainable culture was at the heart of hardcore’s push. The fact that teenaged bands ran around the country, scaring yokels and inspiring other kids while taking care of each other seems like a far cry from whatever the indie-landscape is today. Sure, there are bands relentlessly performing day after day, releasing music of its own volition on a spate of low-rent, hard to suss labels. But there’s not a concerted feel to any of it. Hardcore, for a brief sliver of time, represented what a constituency of people wanted. And despite the ardent distaste for hippie-types, hardcore’s culture, in its purest form, was the realization and application of all those drop out spots that cropped up during the late 1960s and then soon disappeared. Some of the music hasn’t aged all that well, but if American Hardcore makes one reader reassess D.R.I., it was a success.

Mick Harvey has always been a consummate sideman. A multi-instrumentalist with particular penchant for serving others’ muses as if they were his own, he’s shadowed legendary songwriters and performers like Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Simon Bonney (Crime & The City Solution), Roland S. Howard, and Anita Lane. When he finally ventured into producing his own solo efforts in the 1990s, he opted to translate and reinterpret the songs of Serge Gainsbourg for his first two albums rather than creating songs of his own. His third and fourth albums – One Man’s Treasure (Mute, 2005) and Two of Diamonds (Mute, 2007) – consisted mostly of cover songs, with only two originals on each. In all, this track record might indicate either a lack of confidence or disinterest in taking the role of songwriter and instead remaining a musical custodian.

With Sketches From the Book of the Dead, Harvey has stepped out of the shadows to prove that he is an able songwriter in his own right, penning all of the album’s 11 songs. As you’d expect, the songs are as fittingly dark and richly mellifluous as we’ve come to expect of his myriad collaborations. The only shortcoming, however – and also a big one – is that while all of his solo albums have embodied that workmanlike character for which he’s known, there’s little dramatic intensity nor much sense of vulnerability with which we can connect in Harvey’s solo work. In all of his collaborations, he’s worked with extremely charismatic vocalists who transform the typically placid music with their juxtaposed vocal histrionics. If we were to assume that he’s deliberately intending to avoid the grandstanding of his other musical partners, the only unfortunate conclusion is that he’s not an able conveyor of emotion.

This album began loosely as a meditation on death and the various things that we all leave behind in our passing – artifacts, unfinished conversations, et cetera. Yet, sadly, it doesn’t seem to convey any sense of emotional investment at all. I’m not looking for any sort of emotive posturing or trite drama, but the fact that his voice never alternates from a sedate, sing-song tone tends to make the album as a whole seem lacking in any sort of passion. And, this is truly unfortunate given that Sketches is, in fact, such a deeply personal work for him, ruminating on previous losses of friends and family that culminated with the death of his friend and longtime bandmate, Roland S. Howard, in 2009. There are moments of lyrical profundity – “there was nothing left to see there”, he sings, “that gave me any sense/ Of what once was, so I took your things/ Back to the present tense” (“Two Paintings”) – and deeply personal sentiments. So, it’s strange that Harvey’s delivery of the songs sounds so detached. Leonard Cohen’s notoriously dry vocal delivery has always succeeded due to his mastery of phrasing and giving the proper inflection to his words that conveys their emotional significance to the singer. While Harvey perfectly adorns his strong lyrics with delicate instrumentation, he somehow lacks the vocal cadence that makes Cohen’s songs so striking.

Vocals aside, it’s a work as musically rich as we’ve come to expect from Harvey. Mostly acoustic based, with tasteful flourishes of organ, violin, accordion, and piano, the songs flow throughout with a soothing dignity. Opener “October Boy” pays homage to Lee Hazlewood’s “Friday’s Child” with a similar 6/8 waltz rhythm and vocals declaring the attributes of the song’s protagonist (which, one would assume, is Rowland Howard). Harvey intones, “If I write you a song in my book of the dead / Should I make it carefree or make it sad? / If I write you a song in that book of the dead / Will it matter at all what’s left unsaid?” Elsewhere, “Rhymeless” is a somber lament led by a delicate piano line as Harvey sings, “All the songs that you never sang to your little ones / Like ghosts at the end of their beds.” Other tracks venture through beautiful melodies, hooks and lyrics that nicely cover similar subject matter with a fresh storytelling perspective on each that never comes across as contrived or cloying. “How Would I Leave You?” addresses the difficult question: if I could choose the season and setting of my passing, how would I want it to be? Harvey sings of the idyllic sensations of each season in a manner that’s essentially a wish for those he’d leave behind to perceive the beauty around them in the inevitable tragedy of death. In the sadness of our grief, the dying person’s wish is for our loved ones to appreciate the beauty of all that remains in the living.

It’s a mature, intelligent work from a major talent, but also unfortunately indicative that his talents are best served in support of more charismatic vocalists.