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Album Review (EP): Blood Bank – Bon Iver

In the indie world of today, it is all too easy to rapidly win the hearts and minds of the NPR faithful and then lose them just as quickly. Considering that For Emma, Forever Ago was actually recorded during a cabin sabbatical in 2007, doubts that Vernon —now with Mike Noyce and Sean Carey — might prove unable to expand upon his heartfelt, folk masterpiece were entirely justified. His latest EP under the band name Bon Iver, Blood Bank — though unfairly burdened with far more pressure than the four rewarding tracks contained are meant to bear – is a gorgeous, lush effort which mines Vernon’s rich past while still developing the sound and the meaning of Emma even further.

Judging by his music, Vernon cares little about appeasing critics or fans hungrily awaiting miracles from the Wisconsin man with the body of a lumberjack and the soul of a transcendentalist poet. The songs arise naturally and openly from Vernon. “Blood Bank” begins with a gentle, building phrase on strings which quickly gives way to Vernon’s falsetto cooing and distorted, quickly strummed chords. Most notable about the song are the changes in tempo as Vernon goes from triumphant to philosophical in his story of fresh love. Stanzas about that initial rush of flirtation, “Well I met you at the blood ban/We were looking at the bags/Wondering if any of the colors/Matched any of the names we knew on the tags” play like the opening scenes of an indie movie, quirky but charming. To deliver the chorus, Vernon halts his arrangements and delivers the chorus: “And I said I know it well.” The line is simple but doused in enough emotion and yearning that it works exactly as well as the refrains in Emma.

The most experimental songs on the album are closing tracks “Babys” and “Woods.” The former is notable for being driven by a constantly repeating melodic phrase on piano rather than Vernon’s trusted steel string guitar. The lyrics, however, are vintage — spare and filled with ambiguity: “Summer comes to multiply/But I, I’m the carnival of peace.” It is a deliberate allusion to and rejection of the season largely responsible for shaping Vernon, winter. This peace is short lived, ended by the dark statement “But my woman and I, my woman and I know what we’re for.”

Though Vernon had flirted with autotune in Emma during “The Wolves (Act I and II),” he takes the device to heretofore unseen lengths. “Woods” consists layer upon layer of Vernon’s vocals, each at a different pitch and distorted to a different degree until there is a ascendant, harmonizing chorus with digitally inflected tenor and bass. Kanye West used the program to distance himself from his emotions — trusting only a robotic imitation of himself to deliver what he felt, knowing his limited, expressive rapping voice could not carry the emotions. Vernon’s motivations are far more mysterious. It is apparent he can sing and sing well, endowed with an angelic falsetto, just short of a castrati. Whatever the reasons may be, one must marvel at how Vernon casts off expectations and brings to light the beauty and the darkness he discovered in those woods.

RATING:

-Vman

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Review: ‘Liver! Lung! FR!’ by Frightened Rabbit

Live albums can be a tired product, devoid of any real valid excuse for existence. But when you get a hold of a good one, a really good one, you cannot help but to be excited.

That’s how you should feel listening to Frightened Rabbit’s first live disc, Liver! Lung! FR! Not only is it a wonderful collection of wonderful songs but the Scottish band’s live sound is worthy enough to capture and promote as a separate entity from their studio albums.

That last statement is especially notable when you register the fact that this live album is being released in the same year as Frightened Rabbit’s critically acclaimed second album, The Midnight Organ Fight (April), and the two releases share the exact same tracklist (save for two short songs ones from Organ Fight: “Bright Pink Bookmark” and “Extrasupervery”).

Recorded in July in a Glasgow (home to a great number of exciting acts) venue, Liver! Lung! FR! expands upon Organ Fights’ already adored songs by giving extra room to lead singer Scott

Hutchinson’s voice and the band’s concentrated playing. The tracks include heart-warming and swelling choruses followed by an innumerable number of “Cheers” said by the band, in addition to the applause from the enthusiastic crowd.

The songs, of course, are the greatest part of Liver! Lung! FR! (okay, maybe the album title is the greatest part). The album is filled with FR’s (as the band is affectionately known by fans and lazy music critics) earnest songs about relationships (love, sex, heartbreak, the whole shebang).

In Organ Fight single “Fast Blood,” Scott humbly sings, “And now I tremble/because this fumble/has become biblical.” Heavy stuff.

This live album is also justified by the fact that the record keeps intact some of the between song banter. Probably not all of the banter from the show is included (nor the songs, considering they probably played material from their first album, the also great Sing the Greys), but just enough is included to give us a taste of the band’s personality, in addition to a few laughs.

When frontman Scott invites fairly well-known (in those parts) Glasgow singer-songwriter Ross Clark onstage to help them perform “Old Old Fashioned,” it seems as though Clark stumbles in picking up his instrument. A verbal exchange results in the search’s conclusion: “A mandolin from Ross’ arse!”

The harmonies are more immediate and touching live, stripped of the studio’s hug (and this is not a claim against the record. The record is great and the harmonies on it are great, too.).

Songs like “Old Old Fashioned” take on an exciting and revitalized feeling when played live. The track goes from a “let-me-tell-you” type song to an anthem begging for the revival of the good things we seem to have left behind with our ever-consuming electronics biting at our feet: “I turn off the TV/It’s killing us/We never speak.”

And seeing them live is a whole other experience. Drummer Grant Hutchinson (brother of Scott) pounds on his kit with the intensity of a crazed industrial percussionist. You might even stop and wonder if that grimace on his face is healthy.

His drumming shines in the live sound too. Much like his performance and facial expressions in-person, his agile pounding propels the strong and, well, intense beats that come your way through the stereo.

Another valid excuse to have a live album: capturing something unique to the show. Along with the Ross Clark contribution, we’re treated to the beautiful voice of James Graham on the straightforward “Keep Yourself Warm” (sample lyric: “It takes more than f**king someone you don’t know to keep yourself warm”).

Graham is the lead singer of another Scottish band: the great Twilight Sad, who happen to be some FR’s best friends.

Graham’s emotive howl is a staple of the Twilight Sad’s songs, but taking on “Keep Yourself Warm,” he takes his voice to a falsetto fans have never heard before (perhaps we will hear more? The band goes into the studio to record their second album this January).

To repeat a common and well-informed sentiment: FR!

– R.H.

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