In the early 1970s, the Cincinnati Reds put together one of the greatest runs in baseball history. They went to the World Series four times in seven years, winning twice. Another year, they came one game short of the pennant. The individual players racked up awards too: six National League MVP awards split between four players, a pile of Gold Gloves, a smattering of home run and batting titles, dozens of All-Star selections. The list goes on. Eventually they built a starting lineup of all superstars — Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Pérez, Dave Concepción, George Foster, César Gerónimo, and Ken Griffey, Sr. — collectively known as the “Great Eight.” But that only lasted a couple seasons. A different nickname stuck with the Reds all throughout the franchise’s era of dominance: the Big Red Machine.
The National’s Aaron Dessner grew up in Cincinnati, and if his childhood was anything like mine in Columbus, he was often regaled by stories of Cincinnati baseball’s glory days. Maybe, like me, he was enraptured by the 1990 Reds team that rekindled that old spark and went on to sweep the Oakland Athletics in the World Series. Maybe he didn’t much care for baseball and just patiently waited for his elders to finish their anecdotes about Rose, Bench, and the rest. But I like to think that when he named his collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon after those old Reds teams, it was at least a partially genuine tribute.
Big Red Machine, the band, is an exercise in superstar teamwork as well. The project unites two of the most ambitious and prolific musicians in indie rock, guys who played a huge role in the genre’s evolution and who have always been eager to explore well beyond whatever stylistic confines remain. Like those elite Cincinnati baseball teams, there is potential for excellence when Vernon and Dessner get together. The band name could be them acknowledging that. However, it may well be tongue-in-cheek given that Big Red Machine is intended to be the duo’s latest casual side project, a chance to get away from their main gigs and just enjoy creating together.
From the sounds of it, they had a blast. Big Red Machine may be a low-stakes album, but it does not feel tossed-off. Vernon sounds energized on the microphone, and the soundscapes rising up around him are rich with detail in keeping with Vernon and Dessner’s usual ethos. Anything with Vernon’s voice on it will automatically sound like Bon Iver, but the vibe is closer to a National album with Vernon on lead vocals, his scruffy, casual narration and Auto-Tuned falsetto subbed in for Matt Berninger’s baritone poetry. Against atmospheric guitar jams with an electronic fringe, he lets loose with exclamations like “I better not fuck this up!” and “Over my dead body!” Sometimes, as on “I Won’t Run From It,” they lean toward the folk and alt-country sounds that typified Vernon’s early career. Other times, as on closing track “Melt,” they rev up their amplifiers and blast off.
In one sense you know exactly what you’re getting with Big Red Machine. If you’re into Bon Iver and the National, you won’t be disappointed — and if you’ve listened to the butt-load of early tracks they’ve shared, you probably already realize that. But in another sense, there are surprises and delights in store here. It’s not two legends on autopilot; they’re in the zone. Enjoy the fruits of their labor below.
Big Red Machine is out now on Jagjaguwar.