While it may read like a repurposed Volkswagen tagline, this statement—rather, the sentiment it conveys—highlights a sometimes not-so-clear demarcation between what one might call “transient” and “lifer” musicians, the casual hobbyists and the consummate professionals, the hometown heroes and the breakout success stories, those who view their music-making as a job and those who consider it a vocation.
Granted, in the great Venn Diagram sense of things, there is a lot of overlap amongst those various groups, and most listeners would likely be inclined to draw the line (and presumably leave it) somewhere between the major and minor leagues: the musicians and bands who (maybe) release an album or two, plus or minus a hit single and an international tour, before fading away into fondly-remembered semi-obscurity versus the consistent Top 40 chart-toppers who hang around for the lifelong haul of constant radio and commercial airplay, certified gold records, studio and tour line-up changes, sold-out stadium concerts, “Best of” collections, and countless farewell and reunion tours. Which, of course, gives little to no consideration to those musicians and bands who continue to perform and record simply because—or, in the sheer absence—of a regular paycheque or widely-publicized success.
So, to cut through the muddle of the matter, the crux, the dividing line between a “performer” and an “artist”, is one’s motivation: the pursuit of fame and/or financial security versus the devotion of one’s life to the far more personal (and decidedly less fiduciary) payoff of creative expression.
It’s a thought that often kicks around in the back of my head whenever I find myself listening to music made by those who could hardly be considered breakaway success stories, particularly as they and their creative output get on in years. While this may come across as somewhat ageist, it is hard to deny that making music, particularly pop and rock music, has often been considered a young person’s game—one that does not pay particularly well, yet fully taxes those limited stores of emotional and creative energies which doubtless tend to lose their initial market value as the weight and worries of the world begin to wear away at one’s novelty, as well as lower one’s resistance to that innate desire to settle down, to plant roots, and to carefully tend to that which grows. Aside from the obvious issue of attracting and maintaining a dedicated audience, musicians and songwriters have to deal with the fact that the mind wanders, the heart moves on, and touring opportunities and studio time inevitably take a back seat to the demands of family, friends, and “real” work. Few and far between are those who can maintain their creative focus, let alone their creative desire, in the face of such worldly considerations.
Which is why bands like Volcano Choir come across as such a pleasant surprise. Specifically, that long-established musician-composers like Jon Mueller, Chris Rosenau, Jim Schoenecker, Daniel Spack, and Thomas Wincek—otherwise known as the gents behind the Milwaukeean experimental-instrumental outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees—are still actively engaged and engaging in their creative pursuits. And, with the help of fellow Wisconsinite Justin Vernon, that they are willing to put a new face and a slightly new spin on the analog-generated, digitally augmented compositions that Mueller & co. have been crafting for well over a decade.
Given this, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Volcano Choir ensemble is, essentially, Collections of Colonies of Bees plus one—that one being the sweetly-singing and strumming Justin Vernon—and, even though the most common critical pitch for the project mentions Vernon’s day job as the frontman of indie darlings Bon Iver (and, formerly, of DeYarmond Edison), listeners should not expect the same heart-wringing harmonies and acoustic pop-folksiness as heard in the likes of “Skinny Love” or “Flume”. Yes, Vernon is here, but Volcano Choir is not, and is not trying to be, Bon Iver, Jr. Matter o’ fact, many of the tunes on Volcano Choir’s debut album, Unmap, predate Vernon’s time as Bon Iver.
That said, Vernon’s vocal harmonies are still in play on Unmap. Opening track “Husks and Shells” starts out with a somewhat unsure and increasingly mutative acoustic guitar riff leading up to Vernon’s signature croons (with choral support), but the frequently layered and oft-unintelligible vocal aspect of the song is more for additive texture than narrative framing. Whereas “Husks and Shells” gives the listener a heavier dose of Vernon, “Seeplymouth” leads off with the sweet ear honey of Collections of Colonies of Bees, its low-lying rhythms and ever-increasing layers of guitar notes, vocal samples, and sundry tones building up and up and up to meet Spack and Rosenau’s drawn-out riffs, Mueller’s pulse-pounding percussion, Schoenecker and Wincek’s haunting digital effects, and Vernon’s intriguingly garbled voice. The overt focus on growth and volume in “Seeplymouth” actually comes across as a bit of a departure for both Bees and Vernon, its bass drum bombast approaching a post-rock aesthetic of explosive excess that Mueller & co.’s typically reserved compositions have heretofore largely avoided. Crank up your stereo and check the low-end response for the last two minutes of that track—it’s guaranteed to shake your windows and rattle your neighbours.
Current video-single “Island, IS” is probably the best synthesis of Collections of Colonies of Bees’ minimalist experimentalism and Vernon’s crooner folk-pop on all of Unmap, its tweaked guitars, reserved percussion, and synth effects providing a dense, head-bobbing backdrop for Vernon’s calmly sung-spoken (and oddly Tunde Adebimpe-ish) vox.
“Dote”, on the other hand, takes a turn towards densely layered sonic experimentalism, starting off with a looping background hum overlaid with ethereal tones, affected e-bowed guitar, sundry atmospherics, and Vernon’s distinct-yet-indecipherable voice—it’s all rather Sigur Rós-ian, really. Next up, “And Gather” largely eschews the electronic effects in favour of a far more acoustic arrangement of comp-contrasting guitar notes, handclaps, and vocal harmonies with only light keyboard flourishes here and there. It’s an odd one, to be sure, but hardly fair warning for the eerie strangeness of “Mbira in the Morass”, which starts off with clinking, clunking, chiming, plunking, and gonging not-quite-found-sounds that lead into, and then lie beneath, scattershot piano, reserved percussion, and Vernon’s haunting, gospel-like intonations.
The breathy ha-hummm and layered/looped vocal effects of “Cool Knowledge” give it something of an a capella/human beatbox aspect, which is a fine compliment to Mueller’s punchy percussion. Still, it’s an all-too-quick minute that fades to nothing before moving on to the more fully-developed “Still”. A fine addition to similarly lengthy tracks like “Seeplymouth” and “Island, IS”, “Still” once again finds that happy midpoint between Vernon’s pastoral, lyric-heavy tunes and Collections of Colonies of Bees’ metamorphic-minimalist electro-instrumental experimentalism. Based off of Bon Iver’s “Woods” (off the Blood Bank EP), “Still” reimagines Vernon’s original vocoder phrase, “I’m up in the woods / I’m down in my mind / I’m building a still / to slow down the time”. The Volcano Choir ensemble starts off with low-lying, drawn-out synth emanations and slow-building guitar notes before introducing Vernon’s central line, eventually adding to its central vocal melody with lush, layered guitar riffs, weighty percussion, and various subtle effects, all of which breathe new life into an already arresting song.
Closing out the album, the ominous drones, banjo, punctuating percussion, and choral harmonies of “Youlogy” once again provide a strangely affecting backdrop for Vernon’s pastoral-gospel lead. As befits its punning title, “Youlogy” is a sombre sign-off for Unmap, with Vernon’s “Amazing Grace”-like lilt calmly sending the listener on his or her way.
All told, Volcano Choir’s Unmap is one of those albums that should be thought of as an experiment, a labour of love, a group of musician-friends getting together and recording what develops. Not every track comes off as wholly listenable and attention-grabbing in and of itself, and most rely on the added context of their adjacent songs—as well as knowledge of their composers’ respective endeavours as Bon Iver and Collections of Colonies of Bees—to truly make sense of this mash-up of pastoral folk-pop and electro-acoustic sound-shaping. Unmap may not be a runaway pop hit of crowd-pleasing, chart-topping proportions, but that’s okay: it wasn’t meant to be.
Audio Reviews (March 6th, 2010)
Tags: audio, reviews, volcano choir, unmap, jagjaguwar, bon iver, collections of colonies of bees