As Justin Vernon takes some needed time off from his celebrated Grammy-winning musical outlet of Bon Iver, he has thankfully focused his creative talents on many other projects — from releasing a full length with his longtime friends in Shouting Matches, to producing the forthcoming Blind Boys of Alabama record, as well as completing Repave, the magnificent second album from Volcano Choir.
Vernon formed the group in the mid-2000′s with his fellow Wisconsin musical cohorts in Collections of Colonies of Bees, and while their entirely collaborative 2009 debut, Unmap, took a few years to coalesce and take shape, the ethereal, inventive sounds generated on that record elegantly complimented the delicate music Vernon was crafting in Bon Iver, and gave late-arriving fans another side of the burgeoning musician to dig into and discover.
But on Repave, Volcano Choir takes a bold, assertive artistic leap forward, with songs that are luxurious as well as inviting, allowing the listener to blissfully lose themselves within the evocative, intimate arrangements that the group poured over during the past few years. The results are immediately lush and warm, as the studied tracks frequently build like a summer wave that crashes majestically at all the right moments, as the songs become awash in surges of intricate guitar work, understated piano strains, and Vernon’s impassioned vocals. It becomes obvious that a lot of care has been shown to these imaginative, stirring numbers, and the tracks reveal more inspired musical gems with each rewarding listen.
The album opens with the simmering tranquility of ‘Tiderays,’ which gradually blossoms into a soaring, deeply revealing number. Vernon quietly pleads “Wake up” at the start of the track, serving as a gentle prompt to listeners that they would be best served to start paying attention to what’s unfolding straight away. ‘Acetate’ finds Vernon singing at his normal register, with the band crafting a tight, pulsing beat around him as the slow-burning track builds to a cacophony of full, rich voices that seem to come from everywhere within the pristine mix.
Vernon seems to have grown quite fond of surrounding himself with talented musicians following the unexpected success of his one-time solo project, and on Repave he graciously lets the rest of the band handle all of the arrangements, content to just sing over the sumptuous musical magic that guitarist Chris Rosenau and the rest of the group are crafting. And that frees Vernon up to deliver some poignant, powerful verses throughout the record, spurred on by the swelling, expressive orchestrations of the band which always seems to be building towards another grand, exultant release.
The triumphant ‘Byegone’ is a fine example of this, with the band hooking you straight away with a driving, insistent riff, before retreating a bit to allow the song to establish a pensive, plaintive mood, until the track explodes with the euphoric lyrical call-to-arms of “Set sail!” It’s as perfect a musical moment as any in Vernon’s already impressive back catalog.
The second half of the record starts with Rosenau’s delicate, mournful guitar strains which are subtly augmented by elegiac piano fills and Vernon’s reflective vocals. It’s a tender, melancholy number that never approaches the saccharine falsities that plague much of the music of this sort, while tenderly giving the album its title as well as forming its heart. The track ends with a grainy recording of Bukowski reading a poem of his called, ‘The Shower,’ which only adds to the resounding poignancy of the heartfelt number.
‘Dancepack’ and ‘Keel’ both take a while to reveal themselves, with lengthy intros setting an introspective tone and tenor for both numbers before they gradually flourish, as the vulnerable sentiments of the tracks eventually forms the sonic surface of the songs. “Take note, there’s still a hole in your heart,” Vernon cautions on ‘Dancepack,’ in case you were mistaken that these songs were carefree, buoyant expressions by artists who were content with their lot in life. There is a searching, penetrating quality to this entire record, both on a personal level and a professional one – Volcano Choir are determined to find their way artistically as well as emotionally.
Repave ends fittingly with a song called ‘Almanac,’ with the band mapping out this journey they’ve taken us on, as well as the musical adventure of simply making the album in the first place. There is an electronic pulse that forms the centerpiece of the song, with Vernon alternating between his recognizable falsetto and his more earthy baritone, as the tempo of the unsettled number changes with each turn of the page. What started as a musical collaboration that took years to fully come together has now fully blossomed into Repave, a daring, self-assured statement by a band who have finally figured out just what a special thing they have created with Volcano Choir, but still aren’t aware of where it’s going to take them next.