By now you know how much acclaim these ostensible one-person bands—Tune-Yards masterminded by former puppeteer/superhuman performer Merill Garbus, Bon Iver by sensitive soul/insufferable drip Justin Vernon—have enjoyed for their sophomore albums. Sometimes it’s clear what all the fuss is about. Sometimes it isn’t.
Tune-Yards: Who Kill
“There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand/and like I’ve never felt before.” So shouts Merrill Garbus midway through an album that begins with the intimation of an underclass revolution and ends with a song called “Killa.” There isn’t a lot of peace in between; “violence” is a word Garbus uses as casually as most songwriters use “love,” and her bat-shit arrangements—horn blasts slam up against big beats while guitars blare and sirens wail and yes that is a ukulele you hear—are meant to agitate. Even the love song is jumpy. Garbus shares M.I.A.’s pan-musical ambition and Tom Waits’ knack for repurposing junk. Like those great artists, she is also, on occasion, easier to admire than she is to love; all that kinetic energy can be overwhelming. Then again, how else do you want your revolution? It also helps that Garbus chooses her targets well: manipulative record label execs, unjust cops, the penny-pinching one percent, and oppressors of all sizes and stripes. In short, she’s one of the good guys, and she sums herself up in the end: ”All my violence is here in my sound/Ready or not/I’m a new kind of killa.” A-
Bon Iver: Bon Iver
For my money, the best musical decision Justin Vernon has made since the release of his massively overrated debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, in 2007 was when he allowed Kanye West to use his (heavily autotuned) voice to both soothing and menacing effect on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Lord knows he’s too dull to have achieved either on his own. Said debut’s oft-repeated back story—Vernon got dumped and retreated to a cabin in the Wisconsin woods to write songs about it—was stereotypic emo-by-numbers, and the songs Emma Whoever She Is inspired were, to my ears, exactly that. To everyone else, Emma was some kind of touchstone, a breakup album so “pure” and “real” that even its boring back story turned to myth. So now we see what a little love can do for the lovelorn. That is, convince them it’s okay to indulge every single idea that comes to mind: gentile arpeggios that build to money-shot walls of sound? At least one per song. Synths and strings? All over the place. Flutes and other various woodwinds? Those’ll age great! Unlike new BFF Mr. West (or Merill Garbus, for that matter), Vernon doesn’t have the taste or the talent to bring all his disparate musical ideas together in one song; he simply pours his paints on the pallet and stirs until they turn gray. The most memorable moment here is the electric keyboard intro to closer “Beth/Rest,” mainly because it sounds like a Christopher Guest joke about singer-songwriters whose emotionality is as direct as it is false. So is Vernon just too sincere to know when he’s being mawkish, or cynical enough to know he can get away with it? You probably shouldn’t trust him either way. C