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11 February 2012

Authenticity, alter egos and Bon Iver: a short attention span essay

I find Bon Iver’s records eminently listenable. But I also find they lack some unnameable quantity of soul. Or maybe the better way to put it is that they intentionally emulate (or aspire to capture) the most soulful bits of a soulless era for popular music, the 1980s. At the time, increasingly digital-sounding music was considered a good thing — progress rather than an abomination. Perfect sound forever!

Need proof?
Viz the massive success then enjoyed by Bruce Hornsby and his Range, probably Bon Iver’s most oft-cited influence.

Well, eventually “perfect sound forever” (that sales slogan was used to convince people of the necessity of the compact disc) met “Perfect Sound Forever” — and the (supposedly ascendent) indie rock aesthetic was born…

But that’s an entirely different blog rant.

What I’m here to talk about right now is how/why Bon Iver as a live proposition is such a different sounding thing than he is on record. I mean fuuuuuuuuck, look at this:


What do we think of this band?
Uh, here’s a hint: We think a whole lot of this band!
Actually let’s break the narrative for a second and realize that the above didn’t even feature Justin Vernon’s band — rather it was a collaboration with The Roots — and let’s furthermore call a spade a spade. None of these people playing behind him are a band; in each case, what they are, is his band.

(Oh, geez, no pun intended with that phrase — this kind of thing will get you in trouble these days:

End parenthetical.)

Point being the records by the “band” Bon Iver are masterminded by Justin Vernon & then re-created by a very capable (emphasis on the VERY) live band. The major falsehood of these albums is the band concept. Even the game show Jeopardy is on to this ruse:

But perhaps the falsity is what he’s going for?

Let’s consider the vehicle of a band as one more way that Vernon is able to plot out creative space for himself. It’s allowed him to dabble freely in groups such as Gayngs without the high stakes expectation for his Bon Iver records; and, eventually, it will allow for the inevitable solo albums which will follow when/if a backlash against Bon Iver sets in, or when boredom (his own, his fanbase’s) sets in. (That process may begin this very weekend if he happens to win a Grammy on Sunday night…)

(There is plenty of precedent for this. If Tom Petty & Bruce Springsteen & Palace Music (aka Will Oldham) can go solo even though everyone already thought they were solo artists, so can Vernon. Hell, to extend the rock-historical lineage into speculative history, maybe it would have made more aesthetic sense if some of Neil‘s albums were credited to just plain Crazy Horse.

Songs like that are more than Neil Young, alone. End parenthetical.)

Anyway, I’m rambling again! It’s my blog and I can do that if I want to, but I know it gets kinda snoozy & hard to follow, so let’s take another awesome music break:


Basically, what I want everyone to consider while reading this post is the notion of authenticity. Does such a thing even exist in the performing arts? I’d argue it does not. There are just different depths of falsehood.

Some related admissions: I kind of liked Madonna on last weekend’s Super Bowl halftime show. (She seems to be simultaneously stealing MNDR‘s thunder, quoting Toni Basil & engaging in the deeply self-referential self-promotional hijinx of hip-hop.) And I don’t get why people are so pissed about Lana Del Rey. (It’s kind of like being angry about blue Gatorade. Everyone can agree that in the right mood it can taste pretty delicious. But did anyone really ever think it was natural?)

To summarize: real vs. fake = whatever!
Good vs. bad = priceless.

Good music always wins out in the end. And, right now, think what you will about the records he makes as Bon Iver, Justin Vernon in the live sphere is operating at a place of goodness so far beyond his indie rocking contemporaries, ya’ gotta just let your tongue hang out & your drool pool where it may.


Note: That song wasn’t as good as the other two of his that I posted. Sorry not to end on the highest note.

Happy now?

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25 November 2010

Thxgiving, 3 portraits, pointless anecdote

Five years ago was a crazy time. Lots of artists I knew on the cusp of this and that. Above is one of the boys, below is ma’ boy, and after the jump is the boy — all of them in photos from half a decade ago, long before anyone cared.

The reason they do it is not for thanks. It’s for something else…

And what I’m here to do now is say thanks, for the opportunity to follow a creative path in life. Please use this opportunity to do the same, k?

I think of today, Thanksgiving, as the only real American holiday. When I was a kid of 5 and 10 years old, the crew I rolled with — if you’d call it that — was heterodox to the point of Little Rascals-like absurdity, well, a sort of dark absurdity. There was an Italian kid who got beat by his father; a Sikh Indian kid, turban and all; another white ethnic kid of uncertain derivation whose dad worked on an assembly line and blew his money gambling in Atlantic City; and an African-American Jahovah’s Witness kid named Clifton.

As I recall, even Clifton got to celebrate Thanksgiving. (Halloween & birthdays he sat out.) And there’s something very wonderful about that.
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2 November 2009

What happened to Robert Hilburn’s rock’n’roll heroes?


I have a soft spot in my heart for Los Angeles Times emeritus pop critic Robert Hilburn. Back when I spent more time writing about music than enabling its makers to make a career at it, Bob was kind enough to invite me to the newspaper’s dining hallĀ for a pep talk. He eventually commissioned me to write a handful of articles for the paper and provided some general life encouragement, but I was less thankful for his professional assistance than for his being. His sunny, angst-free demeanor and real enthusiasm for the soundtrack of his life was clear and real. He provided a ray of light at the end of the long tunnel that is freelancer life.

But what is Hilburn’s legacy as a critic? I have mixed feelings. His Wikipedia entry gives a good summary of his critical philosophy. (Unlike many pop critics he definitely had one.):

    If you took away as few as four dozen artists from that endless row of dominoes, rock would have collapsed as an art form. Imagine your record collection without Bob Dylan, the Beatles or U2. Because of that, he felt one of the main challenges of a critic was to focus on those musicians who contributed to expanding that art form.

This approach has its problems, however, which this summary also articulates.

    In search of those artists, [Hilburn] says he frequently ended up writing about false promises; artists who ran out of ideas, self-destructed or compromised their music in hopes of wider sales. But he was also fortunate enough to connect with the most important artists of the rock era.

Basically there was something about Bob’s warm, humanistic approach to music appreciation that caused him to vacillate between getting hoodwinked by hype and falling in love with his subjects.

Well, Bob — having accepted a buyout from the LA Times in 2005 — has spent the last few years writing a book, the just published Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life, and that’s led to some deeper analysis of how useful his critical approach is circa 2009.
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18 September 2009

Bon Iver covering Sarah Siskind’s “Lovin’s for Fools”

Tickets go on sale today for The New Yorker festival, the annual roundelay of uber-cultured readings, panels, concerts & events which — much like The New Yorker itself — are perhaps a bit too self-consciously about Culture with a capital C rather than about the culture (lower case c) that they are presenting.

Apologies for editorializing. I mean they did manage to managed to get Liturgy and my management client, Dirty Projectors, on the same bill, which is a pretty special thing. And they were also able to book this guy:

Beyond the weird & wonderful convergence that will be Dirty Projectors’ concert, the performance by Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon) is the festival entrant I am most looking forward to catching. Wish me luck snagging tickets!

(And yes, I’ll be honest this post is mostly a lame excuse to show you the heart-arresting wonder that is that video clip. Note that it’s not an original but a cover of a song by Nashville songwriter Sarah Siskind which he used to close out most of his 2008 tour dates.)

After the jump comes another performance of the same song — this one with Siskind herself on guest vocals.

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