Volcano Choir

No one deserves a victory lap more than Justin Vernon. For Emma, Forever Ago, the brilliant debut he recorded as Bon Iver, was a blog-buzz phenomenon that, over the last two years, burrowed into our hearts and asserted itself into the modern indie canon. But while Vernon’s been jet-setting around the globe charming festival crowds, he has also quietly recorded a batch of experimental folk songs with the band Collection of Colonies of Bees under the name Volcano Choir that are worth mentioning not only for the weather-worn Wisconsinian behind the mic, but also for the songs’ adventurousness and originality. But while it’s admirable to see Vernon explore new arenas of sound at the height of his popularity, artistic courage doesn’t invariably translate to artistic quality. Vernon’s chilling falsetto, so powerful when telegraphing the emotional highs and lows of a break-up, sounds comparatively ordinary here, used largely as a vocal instrument that eschews words in favor of Sigur Ros–esque oohs and aahs. And while there are enough inspired moments to merit the curiosity of both Bon Iver fans and experimental enthusiasts, Unmap is hampered by half-formed ideas as the band struggles to fill its brief 35-minute running time.

Vernon and his associates utilize tape-looped acoustic jitters reminiscent of the Books, but the best tracks have more of a live-band feel despite the elaborate studio trickery needed to record them. “Island, IS” is the closest thing to a traditional rock song, as the band complements an ornate sonic atmosphere with insistent percussion, recognizable vocals and a bassline that adds a fullness missing from the rest of the album. “Mbira in the Morass” makes a solid case for introducing the thumb-piano into Western music, and the pleasantly brainy “Seeplymouth” lays heavy distorted guitar lines over a dense, cataclysmic backdrop that calls to mind Steve Reich.

Experimental heads will find much to enjoy within the folds of Unmap’s variegated aural landscape. But apart from the first three songs, there is very little that catches the listener outside of the ridiculous cat sounds used on “Cool Knowledge” and the misplaced vocoder on “Still” (while it was a novelty on Bon Iver’s “Wolves,” Vernon should really leave the auto-tune to the hedonists of pop radio). Nevertheless, this project has undoubtedly expanded Vernon’s musical palette, which is never a bad thing. With a little more focus, he has the potential to create some astounding music outside of the woodsy heartbreaking folk he’s already nailed.
David Holmes

MP3: “Island, IS”

The Black Heart Procession
Temporary Residence Ltd.

Listening to the Black Heart Procession can often make you feel as if you’ve just walked into your friend’s apartment on the morning after his love has gone forever. There is the bitter stench of cheap whiskey and cigarettes whose filters were left burning. On the floor, a shattered glass lamp with its bulb still lit. Then there is your friend, disheveled and still in the clothing he was wearing four days ago. You may have missed the excruciating conclusion of this doomed relationship (which you predicted all along), but you watched, said nothing and waited it out, as everyone tends to do when they know their friends’ relationships are destined for disaster. You’re speechless as you recognize there is no right thing to say that doesn’t sound like “cheer up” or “no one liked her anyways.” Luckily for their following and anyone who takes a listen to Six (yes, their sixth album), the Black Heart Procession is that friend that does not want you to say anything, but instead to listen to the gut-wrenching narrative that climaxed just hours earlier.

The album’s opening track is the Cohen-esque and piano-driven “When You Finish Me”. This slow and delicate arrangement may be the most perfect use of Pall Jenkins’ trademark “cry in the dark distance” vocal style to date and fortunately, it is utilized throughout the record. There are a couple tracks that venture into some strange territory, as is the case with “Rats,” an odd boogie tune that just doesn’t work. Otherwise, the BHP continues its own tradition of diverse rhythmic arrangements and overt morbidity both lyrically and tonally. Yet again—and especially on tracks like “Wasteland” and “Drugs”—the band’s Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and aforementioned, Leonard Cohen influences are evident and honorably integrated.

As the album draws to its conclusion, the band reprises some of the earlier cuts’ rhythms, jangles and lyrics, as it has done on past albums and will most certainly do in the future. It’s a device that showcases the cohesive nature of their craft. Commitment to such motifs, however, should never be confused with their raw songwriting talent. The Black Heart Procession may be that heartbroken and abandoned friend, telling us a story we’ve heard many times before, but the intensity of its delivery, and the subsequent sense of relief created when the story is through, is why we stay.
Phil Goldberg

MP3: “Rats”

Basement Jaxx

Of the big-box, ultra-house trinity, that also includes the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk (there are likely more), it’s Basement Jaxx who have had the greatest success in collaboration. Despite current trends that might malign their brainless maximalism out of vogue (less is now more), every new Basement Jaxx release, garish cover art and flamboyant guest stars included, imagines cause for celebration, no matter how flimsy the music. I’ve never truly considered the South London DJ duo to be creators of albums—sitting through an entire record is not an option, especially on Scars. Instead, as bloated and dated as much of Scars first comes across, the heinous sense of humor and ornamental beat deluxe on singles such as “Raindrops” and the Santigold-led digital-dub of “Saga” tend to transcend any expiration date. Like their peers, Basement Jaxx has no trouble crafting euphoric dancefloor innovations in slickly packaged chunks. It’s when their rolodex rings thin that they falter, trying to string together swaths of neon street-funk (“Twerk,” featuring Yo Majesty) and classically cosmic R&B (“A Possibility,” featuring Amp Fiddler) with stock disco and false attempts at avant-garde noise (Yoko Ono, nuff said).

Blame can be pointed either towards the lengthy wait for Scars or the artists’ questionable tastes, but tracks that couple the twee-pop ransacking of Lightspeed Champion (“My Turn”) and the faux-funk of Eli “Paperboy” Reid (“She’s No Good”) sound years removed from the aforementioned “Raindrops,” a song that deserves a healthy portion of this past summer’s playlist. Pick apart the myriad layers of stringed samples and electrocuted glitches and synths that zig-zag throughout though, and you’ll hope for the duo to abandon this grating mash-up shtick to which they keep coming back. There are plenty of singles playing flash-bombs on Scars, reminders of Basement Jaxx’s still firm grip on their genre, which at least bodes well for their future.
Kevin J. Elliott

Lou Barlow
Goodnight Unknown

Lou Barlow seems like a really nice guy. It’s not hard to picture him lounging at the corner coffee shop grappling with the New York Times crossword puzzle over a soy latte or driving a hybrid (below the speed limit) to pick up his daughter from kindergarten. So it doesn’t seem strange that the man who helped found Sebadoh, the Folk Implosion and Dinosaur Jr. met his latest producer in a dog-walking scenario. Or that they carpooled to the studio together. Or that, instead of having his Merge publicist write the press sheet for his new album Goodnight Unknown, he penned it himself in friendly and familiar terms.

On his second solo effort (in name) Barlow delivers uplifting indie folk lullabies smothered with distortion. He pastes seemingly simple love songs into a layered decoupage of synthesizers, chord organs, and baritone guitars. Similar to Emoh, Goodnight Unknown yields 14 brief cuts that sound like they were run through early Sebadoh and Folk Implosion conveyor belts. The fuzz-rock title track sounds most like an amalgamation of every band in which Barlow has played. “Too Much Freedom” is a massive soul torchsong reminiscent of Joe Strummer’s “Johnny Appleseed,” while “The Right” thrives on inspired key changes and glimmers of Peter Gabriel. It’s when he tries to prove that he can rock as hard without as with J Mascis, in songs like “Sharing” and “One Machine, One Long Fight,” that he loses his instinctual tranquility and comes off contrived. This bent is further emphasized by the fact that the album was produced by Andrew Murdock (Godsmack, Avenged Sevenfold) and features a guest appearance by Melvins drummer Dale Crover. (Lisa Germano and guitarist Imaad Wasif, who collaborated with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O on the upcoming Where The Wild Things Are soundtrack also helped out.) But while Barlow may consider his latest record to be his most aggressive, its best moments are still when he burrows in cushy acoustics and alpaca-soft vocals.
Alexandra Kelley

MP3: “Gravitate”

Mission of Burma
The Sound the Speed the Light

Whoever said that it was a bad idea to get the band back together after 20 years? Okay, maybe most bands have no business even considering it—Led Zeppelin’s attempts post-Bohnam were horrible across the board, for example—but Mission of Burma, truthfully, had unfinished business. With the original line-up, they only produced one proper LP (Vs.) before disbanding in 1983 on account of main man Roger Miller’s tinnitus problem. In ’02 they got back together with Bob Weston (of Shellac and Electrical Audio fame) manning the tape effects and recording machinery in place of original mechanist Martin Swope. This is all old news and should be forgotten, because The Sound the Speed the Light might as well be the follow up to Vs, more so than the previous two with Weston, ONoffON and The Obliterati.

Aside from the obvious fact that Weston’s deft hand at the board might have swept away the washy cymbal clouds that drizzled over Vs, MOB has retained the jittery energy and the post-punk (as in post–Sid Vicious) tonality that defined their early sound. Sure, they’ve grown up a little; the guitars on “After The Rain” sound like Sugar ripping off Mission of Burma, and the jangly hook and three-part vocal harmony on “SSL 83” could be a Superchunk cover of a Mission of Burma song. Come to think of it, it’s useless comparing MOB to other bands, because it’s usually the other way around. The obvious fact here is that MOB didn’t reform to wring a few more pennies out of a nostalgia tour. They just couldn’t hold in the urge, as cheesy as it sounds, to totally rock. This is clear on the lead off track “1, 2, 3, Partyy!” (“Don’t look at anyone, drink only when drunken to”) and “So Fuck It” (“I won’t take shit from you or anyone else, so fuck it”). Both songs have crushing 4/4 beats and would sound perfect at a basement hardcore show. Who knew nostalgia could sound so fresh?
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

MP3: “1, 2, 3, Partyy!”