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album review: bon iver, bon iver

I first got into Bon Iver back in the summer of 2009. I started listening to the band while I was living in London because one of my best friends in Arizona sent me a video and I read that lead singer Justin Vernon recorded the majority of masterpiece, For Emma, Forever Ago, in his father’s one-room cabin in Wisconsin. I was fascinated that someone created such totally wonderful tracks like “Re: Stacks”, “For Emma”, “The Wolves” and of course “Skinny Love” in that situation.

When I moved back to Tucson that following summer, I saw that the band was playing at the Rialto Theatre. That same friend and I went and truly enjoyed the band’s openness and honesty with the crowd. The live show only amplified their talent and when the band hit some harmonies in that old desert theater, our heads exploded. I was hooked. Then I found some Le Blogotheque videos that demonstrate the intimacy in the live performances and I’ve been enjoying For Emma, Forever Ago on pretty serious rotation ever since.

In the early part of 2010, the light kind of went dark on Justin Vernon and the crew. Eventually, Kanye West somehow entered the picture. I first heard “Monster” this past fall and couldn’t believe that Kanye had autotuned one of the best falsetto voices in indie rock. I was actually flabbergasted when I heard about those Bowery Ballroom shows Kanye put on back in November and worse yet, that Justin Vernon performed with him. I hated seeing someone I love so much sell out and turn his back on the kind of acoustic, intense music I had enjoyed so much. I know it sounds dramatic, but it was the same kind of feeling as when one of your favorite indie bands makes it to the mainstream, when your favorite spot in a neighborhood just isn’t there one day, or the first time you realize you not living at home any more is inconsequential to everyone you know there.

Then I listened, really listened to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and saw its genius. The more I heard “Monster” and “Lost In The World”, the more I realized how brilliant it was of Kanye, as an artist, as a marketer and as a producer, to include Bon Iver on these tracks. We all know I love electronic music as much as the next person, so as soon as the initial shock wore off, Bon Iver was back on the pedestal.

Fast forward to June 2011, when hipster Bible and American independent radio and news channel NPR provided listeners the entirety of Bon Iver’s much-anticipated second album, Bon Iver, until its June 21, 2011 release. I’ve listened to the album pretty heavily over the past two weeks and knew about Justin Vernon’s side work during the off time. That being said, I still wasn’t quite expecting the band to have the changes in sound and production that permeate throughout Bon Iver. It’s very clear that Justin Vernon has taken a serious producer note from Kanye’s life handbook. But, luckily, the album isn’t a complete 180 from the intimate folk we know and love – the amazing background harmonies and simple, honest lyrics are still there. They’re just paired with grander arrangements and masterful studio work.

Major industry publications like Pitchfork, NME and Rolling Stone each gave Bon Iver exceeding praise. While I agree that tracks like “Calgary” and “Towers” really hit the nail on the head in terms of marrying the new found electronica with the previous intense emotional folk, Bon Iver also has its growing pains. The so-called “cred” that Justin Vernon has right now is probably what most critics are responding to in giving the album such high marks. I know the band has the talent and the willingness to survive the hype, though. And I mean, Bon Iver is clearly doing something right. Some thousands of my closest friends and me bought our tickets for the August show in Prospect Park the hour they were released.

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