Volcano Choir - Repave

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Volcano Choir wasn’t supposed to become a real band who make great albums. By this point, I’d come to understand Justin Vernon as the type of great artist who only gets around to making great art after he’s already exhausted every form of procrastination he can find. Four years separated For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and it felt like longer, since Vernon never went away. When he’s not busy with his main band, he stays out there, indulging musical whim after musical whim and cluttering up his discography. Vernon did the blooz-band record, the record with the Minneapolis prom-soul collective, the unlikely Kanye hooks, the production gigs, the guest appearances, the reunions with old bandmates, the one-offs, the constant neverending tours. And a lot of that stuff is good. The Gayngs album is great, he always sounds amazing on Kanye tracks, and I once saw him sing an absolutely shattering rendition of Donny Hathaway’s “You’ve Got A Friend” with his reunited old band DeYarmond Edison. But there’d been an understanding that none of this stuff would add up to the general glacial beauty that he’d conjure whenever he got it together to make a new Bon Iver album — that it would take time and mental energy for him to conjure this glacial beauty in the first place. The first Volcano Choir album, 2009′s Unmap, seemed like a side project, much like all the other side projects: One truly gorgeous song in “Islands, IS” and then a whole lot of formless pretty-enough ambiance. But now we get Repave. And Repave is something else.

If Vernon had gone ahead and called Repave a Bon Iver album, and preceded it with a few months of lead-up hype, I don’t think anyone would’ve complained. Bon Iver’s actual membership shifts enough anyway, and the sound is closer to the widescreen drift of Bon Iver, Bon Iver than that album was to For Emma, Forever Ago. More to the point, Repave is not a small album, the way Unmap was. It’s an album with big goals and a big sound, and it invokes big feelings. This is canyon-spanning music, soaring-eagle music, music for deserts and mountain ranges and skyscraper rooftops. If you were to wake up one morning with the ability to fly, it’s the music you might want to have playing on your earbuds when you watch the world disappear beneath your feet for the first time, when you first feel cloud-vapor in your lungs. I want to make a triumphant underdog sports-movie just so I can use “Byegone” to soundtrack the climactic inspirational locker-room speech. It’s that kind of album.

I know basically nothing about Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, the Wisconsin post-rock band whose members make up the non-Vernon parts of Volcano Choir. I’d never heard of them before Unmap. And yet Vernon has spoken of them as his teachers, as the band who opened up an entire world of music to him. We all have bands like that, local heroes whose names we speak in hushed tones even though people two towns over have never heard of them, whose genius seemed obvious to us even if nobody else ever noticed it. So maybe Unmap was Vernon using these guys, his teachers, to explore the outer edges of his own ideas, or maybe they were pushing him further out into the ether. But on Repave, Vernon and COCOB somehow ground each other without tying each other down. Rather than experimental minimalist post-rock with really good singing — which is what Unmap was — Repave sounds like what might happen if folk and R&B and granola-indie and U2 met in an underground lab somewhere, agreed to liberate themselves of the tyranny of pop-song formalism, and then decided to team up and take over the world.

Lyrically, it’s pretty silly roaming-free poetics. Vernon is newly single, and so there’s a lot of talk about roaming the earth unencumbered. I spent a little while scrutinizing the lyric sheet, trying to make some sense of it all, until I got to the part on “Alaskans” where he says he wants to re-up on that real love, and then I just stopped trying. “Alaskans” also samples Charles Bukowski reading a poem in the documentary Born Into This, which is a total college-sophomore move and also the exact same move that DOOM made on his album Born This Way. But what matters isn’t the words — Vernon’s or Bukowski’s — it’s the sound. In DOOM’s hands, that Bukowski sample was apocalyptic, but on Repave, we hear the slippery drunk warmth in the crackle of that recording. And similarly, the lyrics on Repave aren’t the show. The important thing is that this thing has goosebump moment after goosebump moment; the all-out beauty never stops. Consider, if you will, the opening of “Bygone,” the moment where the slow-surging piano thrums and guitar-twinkles drop away and an absolutely triumphant riff, one that splits the difference between the Edge and Explosions In the Sky, wanders through. The dynamics of that moment are just astonishing, and you might not even notice it at first, since it comes after four songs of moments just like that.

It wasn’t easy to pick an album this week. My heart was with Kathleen Hanna’s new band the Julie Ruin, whose debut Run Fast marks the long-awaited return of one of our famous punk-rock voices. It’s got some serious anthems, but it’s not exactly consistent throughout. Neko Case, meanwhile, just make an album where she did almost every beautiful thing with her voice that we could possibly ever ask her to do, but some of the songs just weren’t quite there. There were a bunch of other great albums, too (and Nine Inch Nails’ grandly squiggly Hesitation Marks, which I would’ve probably picked if I hadn’t already written about it). Volcano Choir had serious competition. But those utterly dazzling, weirdly moving moments demand recognition. Repave is among the most exquisitely comforting albums I’ve heard in recent memory. I almost feel like I didn’t pick it out of the field of available albums this week. It simply demanded to be chosen.

Repave is out now on Jagjaguwar. Stream it here.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Nine Inch Nails’ beautifully orchestrated comeback Hesitation Marks.
• Pixies’ out-of-nowhere short-form return EP-1.
• Neko Case’s fierce-but-comforting The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.
• The Julie Ruin’s fun, ferocious, hook-happy debut Run Fast.
• Holograms’ intense, electric, generally badass Scandinavian punker Forever.
• Okkervil River’s conceptual small-town exploration The Silver Gymnasium.
• Chelsea Wolfe’s spare, dark Pain Is Beauty.
• King Khan And The Shrines’ psychedelic soul-rocker Idle No More.
• Califone’s rootsy-but-rootless Stitches.
• Foxygen member Jonathan Rado’s solo debut Law And Order.
• Grooms’ expansive post-rocker Infinity Caller.
• Emily Reo’s DIY dream-pop debut Olive Juice.
• Vattnet Viskar’s vast, blackened metal album Sky Swallower.
• Celestial Shore’s hazy, lurching 10x.
• Former Cryptacize member Nedelle Torrisi’s self-titled solo debut.
• The Girls Against Boys reunion EP The Ghost List.
• Lonnie Holley’s outsider-spiritual LP Keeping A Record Of It.

Comments (44)
  1. Lots to check out this week. This sounds like an interesting album. Quibble with the write-up: that Gayngs album was anything but great. Maybe just not for me though.

    • Really? I loved Gayngs. In fact, it initially surprised me that we’re getting another Volcano Choir before more Gayngs, as I would’ve chosen the latter if I had a choice. But I like what they’re doing here. Justin Vernon sure doesn’t hold back.

      • Yeah, it was overwrought to my ears. I’m not a fan of the gaudy smooth R&B throwback. I’m pleased with this Volcano Choir album though. I don’t think it’s completely successful, but there’s some nice stuff happening. I used to listen to stuff by Pele and COCOB a fair amount, and I’m glad those guys found a way to marry their sketchbook-/ improv-sounding style with something more accessible.

  2. For some reason, that thick ocean cover gives me the chills. It just looks so beefy and deep. Maybe Justin is a Pirate of Dark Water.

  3. Also out today is the awesome new Gorguts album, which to a certain subset of your readers (and possibly your staff, if my take on Michael Nelson’s tastes is correct) is the real album of the week.

  4. This album is so good. Dead on with the movie soundtrack bit. I mentioned on the page linking to the stream, but whatever this one lacks in gut-punch emotion, it more than makes up for with cinema-scope grandeur and glossy, beautiful production and arrangements.

  5. YES!!!! Just got my clear blue vinyl of this and I’m blasting “Byegone” to scare my neighbors. SET SAIL!!!

    But for real, this is a fantastic record.

  6. “canyon-spanning music, soaring-eagle music, music for deserts and mountain ranges and skyscraper rooftops”- this. Everybody’s been raving about how great 2013 has been but for me it’s absolutely sucked because there’s been a dearth of this kind of music. It’s all been stripped-down, analog, back-to-basics stuff that really does nothing for me. I love big, sweeping, bombastic tunes and this is one of the very, very few albums that has delivered that this year.

  7. Part of me wants to say this is the best album Justin Vernon has worked on. But it’s almost impossible to say that with projects like Bon Iver (all of which was at least great), Gayngs, his solo work, etc… Volcano Choir hits me in a different way though. That infusion of post-rock, folk, and elements of Bon Iver’s self titled album have all culminated into something that was the music I’ve been looking for for a long time.

    To be honest, it wouldn’t bother me at all if he never went back to Bon Iver, and instead he made this his primary project.

  8. This is such an incredible album. Errrnnggh I love it. Listen to this and be blown away.

  9. Damn, that is a lot of music out today…! And here I was already thinking that we need another day off to listen to all the music and streams that came out today.

  10. pretty sure it’s “Born Like This”

  11. Ian Cohen review is in…the backhanded panning is confirmed.

    I mean while he makes some decent points re: lyrics and thematics per the P4K interview, is it really necessary to spend the whole review ceaselessly harping on this?

    • Yeah the review’s full of shit but it doesn’t really matter. 7.8 doesn’t change what the album sounds like.

    • If your name is Ian Cohen, then yes. Yes, it is. I’m pretty sure his life force consists of nitpicking underhanded passive aggression. It’s hard to single one out, because he “takes down” at least one decent record a week, but his Franz Ferdinand review was a shameful travesty.

    • Ian Cohen is kind of a dick in real life, too, from what I read all over the place constantly. You might think all the criticism you’re doing here is falling on deaf ears, but let me tell you a story: I had a run-in with him on Twitter the other week that confirmed my suspicions that he’s perhaps an insecure fella that gets defensive about his writing work. I wrote a review for the last track that was premiered off Chelsea Wolfe’s new album and gave it praise, and then the next day he did as well by naming it a Best New Track on P4k, making a lot of the same points I did. I jokingly tweeted at him if he’d read my now-defunct old blog, and he actually responded — in a very hostile way albeit — telling me not to flatter myself, and then thinking that other criticisms I had tweeted earlier in the day were about him. Dude came off as the most self-absorbed snob ever. He’s leaching off the whole emo and post-hardcore revival now it seems. Sucks to have him as part of that scene…

      Speaking of Chelsea Wolfe, her new album is my tops of the week alongside NIN. More so Wolfe, though, because I wasn’t expecting her album to be at the creative peak it is.

      • Just came across this tweet from the band Crocodiles:

        Yes, he hates my band but regardless -Is Ian Cohen not the Ann Coulter of music criticism, only uglier?

      • Really like Chelsea Wolfe’s new album, but man her performance sucked horribly this past Tuesday at the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix.

        Had trouble all throughout getting the recorded electronics to work right with the live playing and singing, her vocals (best part of her music, I think) were not just muddled but often almost completely lost, and she reacted to the problems like an immature brat (storming off stage several times, including after the encore). And saying things to the audience (who showered her with love no matter what) like “electricity hates me”.

        Seriously, hire someone before you go on tour who understands how these newfangled things that use electricity work so your performances aren’t ruined. Local bands with day jobs who charge almost nothing for their shows somehow manage it.

        Bummed. One of the worst shows ever and I was really looking forward to it.

        And yes, Repave is also quite good. Getting tix today for Volcano Choir’s show in Phoenix in January.

  12. After listening to Byegone impulsively a few weeks ago, I was sincerely hoping the rest of the album would hold up… alas, it does. Very much so. It’s so layered, and cohesive, and everything I/we have come to expect of Justin and his comrades. Almanac is such a great closing track too.

    Definitely will require many more listens.

    • Also, not that I let Pitchfork guide my thinking or like/dislike for an album, but how did this only get a 7.8? I thought for sure they didn’t post the review on Tuesday along with NIN because they were going to rave about it. I know the whole BNM distinction gets thrown around pretty loosely anymore, but I’d say Repave really is and a 7.8 is just a tease.

      • 7.8 is pretty spot on. It’s not quite an 8 but that’s simply semantics. It’s an outstanding album and screams for repeat listens in order to uncover its true hidden beauty.

        The issue is that Vernon is so incredibly unique in the respect that anything he does will inevitably be paralleled to Bon Iver. It’s unavoidable. I’ve given this beast more than a few listens, and at times I want to say to myself that this is his effort to make arena built anthems which shows up often in and around these tracks. Vocally, he’s also much more coherent as well, which I truly believe was something he needed to refine and improve upon….I mean, let’s be real here, half the time we have no idea what the hell he’s saying. This is also a rock album first, instead of that gorgeous, atmospheric vibe Vernon instinctively injects into everything he creates. You have to think he set out to ‘try’ and separate himself so that all his bands didn’t just bleed into on another.

        I remember him saying that he didn’t think Bon Iver had much more a shelf life merely because he believes he has taken that band as far as he could. If that’s the case, and he eventually removes that piece from his resume, I think this album is a subtle step in the right direction. We are happy because it gives us that Bon Iver quick fix, but in reality, its a much more global album here. It’s bigger, louder and more coherent, yet still hangs onto that panoramic-cinema scope, just slightly, and I mean slightly not as much, which is probably P4K’s snooty rub with it.

        • Yea, I see what you’re saying.

          That ‘atmospheric vibe’ is, at this point, a signature of his song writing/music composing, though. It’s something that’s Vernaonian (Vernian? Vernoaen?) at this point, and I’d be surprised if he abandoned having any shred of that kind of ambiance in the music he makes. Granted it’s the aspect that always draws the Bon Iver comparisons, but it’s what separated For Emma from what it is and just being another sad-bastard neo-folk album. That being said, I’m super curious to hear the new Blind Boys of Alabama to see if that still transfers over to the albums he produces.

  13. I mean no disrespect and I’ve been enjoying this record a lot, but shouldn’t all the world be wearing by now white gloves and dance to Janelle Monae’s Electric Lady? What an amazing album, dude.

  14. Got my first listen of “Hesitation Marks” in last night. I decided to wait for my physical copy since it only leaked a week before the official release. I knew Trent & Co. would have that copy in my mailbox come Tuesday, and I was right. BUT I WAS NOT READY!

    I was heading home last night with my turntables and computer (Labor Day weekend throw down at dad’s house while he was out of town {meant to invite ya’ll}). So I see this big vinyl box protruding from my wall mailbox by the door.

    “FUCK,” I think. How am I going to listen to this album now? I did not feel like plugging in all my gear for the vinyl listen I had been saving myself for, nor did I feel like plugging in my computer to download the digital copy and burn it on a CD-R or put it on my phone. What was I to do?!

    No worries. Vinyl copy came with a CD. ACE! I LOVE IT when bands do this. FUCK a download code! Just toss the damned CD in the vinyl with a basic white slip case. DONE & DONE! (The Field does this too, another reason why he, too, is the best).

    It’s a long album! I took the CD and blasted it back at dad’s house in his theater room with the lights out. Yes I’m a dork, but my friend recently told me you gotta listen to Julia Holter with the lights out (it worked). So I figured NIN probably applies to that rule of thumb as well.

    Favorite part of the album is that final stretch of songs at the end where they flow into one another. Also, “In Two” has Lindsey Buckingham AND Adrian Belew on it and is an immediate highlight. I enjoyed the outro on the album’s longest track, “All Time Low” that sounds little to what I expected a NIN song of that name would sound like.

    Overall, I felt it sort of dragged in the middle (after “Everything”). I could change my mind after multiple listens, but I do enjoy “Came Back Haunted” EVEN MORE now that it’s in the context of the album. (Similarly, I always thought “Closer” sounded best in context of The Downward Spiral instead of a stand alone single). I don’t know why many commenters haven’t enjoyed “Came Back Haunted” because it’s one of the best things on this album. I’m thankful for the David Lynch music video as it pops in my head now when I hear the song.

    As a huge NIN fan, I’m very satisfied with this new album. Can’t wait to see him do these songs in NYC next month.

    On that note, I guess I need to get a hold of “Repave” and turn out the lights.

    tl;dr I get excited about a CD in an LP

    p.s. I chuckled when I started downloading the audiophile WAV file zip. 1GB for an album. Hilarious.

    • Haaa. Once again, we share the same excitement in things that others may dismiss. I pretty much threw a celebration upon seeing my vinyl at my doorstep Tuesday afternoon. The extra CD insert instead of a download code? Icing on the cake. I knew Trent wouldn’t let me down on the pre-order debate!

      Agreed that “Came Back Haunted” sounds better within the context of the entire album, same with “Everything,” although I didn’t have as much as a problem with “Everything” as a stand alone track as some other fans did. The true highlight for me thus far – even though I’ve only had time to listen to the entire thing on vinyl once so far, so this may change in time – is “I Would For You.” Absolutely fantastic. I’ll be seeing them next month in Cleveland, couldn’t be more stoked!

      • Yes! “I Would For You” kicks off the grand finale of the album as it drifts into “In Two” (cwatididthar?) and then “While I’m Still Here” and the “Black Noise” outro.

        First or second time I heard “I Would For You” the drum track struck me as familiar. The way it’d hit then sort of echo for a couple beats? Well, I figured it out, and it’s a bit of a stretch, but it reminded me of “80s Comedown Machine” from The Strokes earlier this year. Tell me I’m not insane…

        That live show is going to be amazing. You get to see Explosions in the Sky beforehand! I love how he chose EitS & gy!be as openers. Talk about setting the stage… and isn’t Trent from Ohio? He may have some tricks up his sleeve for his long lost hometown.

        • Just listened to the intros of “I Would For You” and “80s Comedown Machine” back to back, I totally get where you are coming from in that comparison. The whole echo drum thing is indeed similar, you’re not insane.

          Whoa, and you’re totally right about Ohio! I completely forgot about that! Trent, I think, is originally from PA but I’m pretty darn sure he formed NIN in Cleveland… I hope you’re on to something there! I’m definitely excited to see Explosions in the Sky but I REALLY wish it was GY!BE opening on my date. Alas, Cleveland was the closest show that I could travel to from Chicago over a weekend, so beggars can’t be choosers. We’ll definitely have to compare set-list notes once both our shows are completed.

          • You have a deal on the set-list comparisons!

            I know his sets didn’t vary much on Lights in the Sky because he had little wiggle room with that light show. I feel like it’ll be similar with this Tension tour, but I’d still expect a few variations.

            And while we’re talking about where Trent has lived, when that horn comes in at the end of “While I’m Still Here” took me straight to his old home of New Orleans. (Even though I’ve never been there… I’ve seen movies!) I’m not good with identifying brass instruments, but what instrument is that exactly at the end of that song I wonder? Because it’s a delightful end to the album.

  15. I guess these are reissues, but damn are those early 80s Roky Erickson records that got reissued this week stellar! late 60s Roky Erickson made totally different music than early 80s Roky Erickson made totally different music than late 90s/2000s Roky Erickson and all of it is amazing.

  16. Holograms album is excellent: muscular and cathartic with stronger songs than their last album.

  17. I completely agree! This is a great review (and a great album!). I didn’t like Unmap (aside from “Island, IS”), but I think this album has redeemed Volcano Choir. However, it’s also essentially Bon Iver 2.0. Check out my review, too!


  18. “that DOOM made on his album Born This Way” ???

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