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Volcano Choir - Repave

This time around, the band's aspirations are much bigger.

Additional Info

7.6

ALBUM: Repave

ARTIST: Volcano Choir

2013

Alternative

Justin Vernon's work ethic is nothing if not commendable. In between Bon Iver albums/EPs and hype, he has released a full-length with his Jagjaguwar labelmates under the guise of GAYNGS; A Midwestern take on soft-rock, Vernon's input was largely vocal, and the album featured his nebulous songwriting talents alongside two dozen other songwriters and musicians. Then there were Vernon's numerous cameos on Kanye West's Yeezus, continuing the a fan-fictional pipe-dream. Vernon's contributions to Yeezy's latest were slurred, high-pitched, and served as an ersatz for Kanye's self-confessed poor singing voice, and the lyrical content was nothing like Bon Iver. That is not to say that Yeezus had a Midwestern vibe to it, but the fact that Justin Vernon has sung a duet with Chief Keef over a pulsing guitar solo in 2013 is fucking incredible in some kind of capacity.

Volcano Choir marks a welcome departure from the Vernon repertoire, but one that ultimately fits soundly within the Jagjaguwar canon. Gone are the acoustic warblings and auto-tuned experiments of the Blood Bank EP and 2011's Bon Iver. Focusing on vocals and song-writing while members of Collections of Colonies of Bees handle the instrumentation, Vernon's vocal range is deeper than ever: at times a silky baritone, at times a Springsteen-like balladic roar. The songwriting and lyrical content remain as cryptic as ever - dotted with Midwestern trivia obscura - but set against lush synth-lines and driving percussion, the lyrics ride shotgun while Vernon the vocalist, and more importantly, Volcano Choir the band take center-stage.

That being said, the band rely a little too heavily on the formula of their compositions; all of the tracks on Repave build from soft instrumental roots, swelling to chants often underwhelmed by the band's subtly lush compositions. Had some of these tracks been a little longer, or certain samples and effects left on the cutting room floor, many of these ideas could have hit with more accuracy. And there are the occasional hiccups, exemplified by the vocoder on "Comrade"; an awkward handling of a tried and true tool. But the will to experiment is rewarded on tracks like "Alaskans" and "Almanac," where the balance is found and toed with grace.

"Well, were off and definitely stumbling/Tossin’ off your compliments/Sexing all your Parliaments"

1. Tiderays
We begin the album the morning after, "soft denims on the floor" and all. The album's first lyric is a call to wake, and the humming organ seems a cliche employed wisely. The acoustic guitar and Vernon's falsetto seem a tad too familiar, but as the song progresses the falsetto falls to the wayside and back-up vocals accentuate a drumroll, which in turn gives way to what sounds like a didgeridoo. The drums on the chorus feel a tad uninspired, but the track builds exactly as a post-romp morning should, slowly and with charm.7.5
2. Acetate
Instrumentally, "Acetate" is driven by an understated bass-line, one that comes off like a Death Cab for Cutie B-side. The stereo on the intro is dynamic, Vernon's vocal performance is one of nuance, with several different takes forming a one-man chorus. Another slow-burner, but one that builds to a stadium-ready call and response in the latter half, and one that makes up for what feels like lackadaisical songwriting with a tightly arranged instrumental.7.5
3. Comrade
At his best, Vernon's lyrics are lucid while formless, and at their worst they are still captivating in their obscurity. "Comrade" falls on the latter side of the spectrum, but this marks the first time on the record that the frontman plays second to the band's instrumental section. A mash of vocal samples and whorls lends little charm to an uninspired bridge, and the act begins to tread water with the anthem idea. Then there's Vernon's cringe-worthy droid-like vocoder crooning on the track's finale.6.0
4. Byegone
"Byegone" uses negative space, and sparser drums than on previous tracks, to assert itself as the album's strongest instrumental; Vernon weaves a narrative, of neighbors in coffins and a ruinous countryside, all over soulful keys and driving acoustic strumming. As the song opens up, Vernon lets loose a heroic "set sail!" over pounding percussion and one of the best indie riffs in recent memory. "Byegone" marks the first track on Repave that could have kept on going, kept on building, but as it stands, it is the closest the album gets to confident and bombastic. 8.0
5. Alaskans
A crown jewel on a very personal work, "Alaskans" marks a perfect synthesis of cohesion and influence; Charles Bukowski's tearful reading at the end marks a wonderful parallel with the reclusive frontman whose lyricism reaches a personal high water-mark, citing "days in the park" in restrained baritone. It delivers simple rhymes with declared emotion, sad and mournful and weeping in their mantra-like quality. And the instrumental itself is wonderfully underplayed: there is no deliverance, no show-stopping percussion with a vocal centerpiece, just a tragic soundscape for Justin and Bukowski to collapse over.9.0
6. Dancepack
"Take note, there's still a hole in your heart". Just as "Tiderays" kept didgeridoos on deck, "Dancepack" holds a vocal howl of microphone feedback and fuzz. It is rife with in-jokes (Volcano Choir's guitarist is named Dan Spack), but Vernon abstracts to the general with the chest-pounding refrain, and with lines like "my young little soul's unlearning to walk", one can only hope for more attempts at traditional lyricism elsewhere in the catalogue. 7.5spotify:track:4pNTWULLWjWqzDm4WvhQhb
7. Keel
And just like that Vernon is back at it with his usual lyricism: "The propheteer/ the profit's here." Iffy homophones aside, Vernon's vocal performance is at its purest on this track; The lyrics veer back into the riddle-like half-truisms, with none of the vivid, crystalline imagery that so many of the other tracks have hit on so well. Definitely the most boring track on the album, it will probably only appeal to hardcore fans of the greater Vernon oeuvre. 5.5
8. Almanac
Many of the other tracks on Repave shoot for frisson; "Almanac" is the most successful, starting with a slow-burning riff and Vernon's Johnny Cash-like cadence. But the true beauty in the song is in how it delivers on its promise; at six and a half minutes, it is the longest track on a relatively succinct record, and one that only truly explodes after pounding synths and bass continue 'til four and a half minutes in, when all intricacies are tossed aside to the sounds of distant fireworks, muffled, cannon-like. "Shed skin for kin, we'll all be alive when all of this is over, when all of us are sober." 10.0


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