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Album review: Justin Vernon collaborates with bands, experiments with vocal tracks in ‘Repave’

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257745258The latest release in the Justin Vernon  brand is among us — Volcano Choir’s “Repave,” which unlike its predecessor “Unmap,” radiates the unmistakable warmth of Vernon’s previous works, namely last year’s “Bon Iver.”  “Repave” is a bombastic release holding the intrinsic Vernon songwriting and deeply resonant melodies. Peculiarly enough, Vernon had very little to do with the record’s composition, contributing solely to experimenting with his vocal track on the album; it was up to the various members of Collections of Colonies of Bees and All Tiny Creatures, that make up the music players of Volcano Choir, to develop the music.

Truly, Vernon’s voice on “Repave” sees alterations that had yet to be heard. There’s “Dancepack,” where Vernon seems to channel Craig Finn’s or even Bruce Springsteen’s sort of conversational vocal quality. In doing so, Vernon is as assertive as he has ever been, especially as he touts “Take note / There’s still a hole in your heart.” This is heard early on in the record as well on “Acetate,” which exhibits Vernon taking on a role as a gospel choir leader in front of a strong-willed chorus. Vernon is at the forefront here, not only as lead singer but also in the strength of his timbre. In the style of his aforementioned assertiveness, this time Vernon sings: “I won’t beg for you on acetate.”

Even though the face of Bon Iver did not produce any of the winding guitar work or hit any of the atmospheric keys on“Repave,” it seems Volcano Choir took more than a nod from “Bon Iver,” diverging infinitesimally from the psychedelic affair that was “Unmap.” “Tiderays” is a gentle opener, and is structurally comparable to “Bon Iver’s start, “Perth.” This is continued within the finger picking and slide guitar of “Alaskans” (outside of the faint Bukowski reading toward the end of the song) and even in the endlessly and beautifully flourishing “Comrade.”

Volcano Choir has somehow been subdued by Vernon, creating a record that matches the colossal aesthetic of BonIver more than the exploratory nature of “Unmap.” That isn’t to say that “Repave” is generic, in fact Vernon’s songwriting here is as strong as it has been. Merely, the songs have the same epic feel as “Bon Iver” and even in its most nominal moments, Vernon’s first release, “For Emma, Forever Ago.”

It seems that “Keel” and album closer “Almanac” are the only tunes to prove “Repave” does not subscribe to the BonIver sound ideal entirely. To a degree, these songs are laden with a singular notion, whether it be the wavering vibrato of acoustic guitar or an arcade game-like vamp. Likewise, Vernon’s vocals stretch to the equivalent energy of each song.

In times where the Kanye West-sampled Bon Iver is decked with red carpet attention, Volcano Choir may forever face the honorable and perturbing pleasure of being compared to its singer’s other band. In a sense, “Unmap” is to “For Emma, Forever Ago,” as “Bon Iver” is to “Repave.” The former of each respective band is the coarser raw half of its career, while the other is arguably refined and thus chart-making. Furthermore, with “Repave” largely covering BonIver motifs, it seems almost like a stepping stone in the Vernon/Bon Iver career as opposed to a second Volcano Choir record. Regardless, “Repave” serves as further testament that anything Vernon touches entrenches listeners with his distinguished texture.

Grade: B+

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