Anaïs Mitchell

Earlier this year, alt-folk songstress Anaïs Mitchell played a covetable opening slot at Radio City Music Hall for Bon Iver. She has a close relationship with the lo-fi, folkish band over the years and has collaborated with their frontman Justin Vernon on a few songs in the past. But it’s on her own dusky, moody, confessional songs, especially those on her latest Young Man in America—the songs she’s performing tonight—where she shines brightest.

Mon., Dec. 3, 9 p.m., 2012


Into the Woods

It’s been a little over a year since indie-folk troubadour Justin Vernon released Bon Iver’s self-titled second album of echoey, intricately orchestrated confessionals. Since then, the soft-rock-leaning Bon Iver won a Grammy, Vernon released a dubstep single (with James Blake), and he and his bandmates booked a four-night residency at Radio City Music Hall, which begins September 19. In a way, the cavernous Music Hall is the ideal setting for the members of Bon Iver, who, on record, seem to revel in letting their instruments envelop Vernon’s voice on songs such as “Holocene,” forcing listeners to struggle and strain to make out harmonized, high-pitched lyrics like the song’s “and at once I knew I was not magnificent.” The setting makes you work a little harder. The first two dates feature folk artist Anaïs Mitchell, who’s duetted with Vernon in the past. Doug Paisley opens the show on September 21; Polica on September 22.

Wed., Sept. 19, 8 p.m.; Thu., Sept. 20, 8 p.m.; Fri., Sept. 21, 8 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 22, 8 p.m., 2012


Confuse the Market: Post-Crossover, Indie Retreats

From 2007 through 2009, LCD Soundsystem, TV on the Radio, and Animal Collective topped the Pazz & Jop albums poll, closing a decade in which underground music produced dance-punk and avant-noise, double-fisted bar music and Ivy League high life, albums about entire states and artists’ grandmothers. (And those were just the bands from Brooklyn.) After this creative burst, indie enjoyed its biggest crossover moment since the mid 1990s: Jay-Z co-signed Grizzly Bear, Kanye West enlisted the help of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Shakira covered the xx, and after a shock Album of the Year win at the Grammys, “Who Is Arcade Fire??!!?” became a thing.

In other eras, a type of self-correction followed underground rock being embraced on a larger scale—20 years after grunge went above ground, for example, indie still seems averse to heavy rock. How then to follow an eclectic, anything-goes era? Making music destined for a limited audience: Indie burrowed first into retro fuzz-pop, then found mainstream Kryptonite in limp, demo-quality electro and amniotic dribble. (The once-healthy Brooklyn scene has worked as a microcosm of indie’s rise and subsequent flagging influence: Between 2002 and 2007, the borough produced or housed 21 nominally indie bands that cracked Pazz & Jop’s Top 50. In the past four years, it has spawned three.)

Considering the results of this year’s Pazz & Jop, a new crop of committed individuals following a personal muse seems in short supply. Bursting free of the pack, Oakland-based tUnE-yArDs—easily the albums poll’s least-well-known winner—sits at #1 this year. Merrill Garbus’s band forged strong personal connections with listeners (her points-per-vote average was a whopping 12.185) because of her muscular, theatrical blend of personal and political politics, not to mention live shows sparkling with the magic of a committed individualist who’d finally located a loving audience. Further down the list is former Gowns member Erika M. Anderson, now making boldly honest drone-folk as EMA.

It’s probably no accident that corners of the indie world became more insular when social media exploded. While tastemakers of old were early adopters, recognizing or even kick-starting trends and movements, gatekeepers today primarily accrue social currency online and in real-time, making speed of consumption discerning music fans’ most precious asset. “We have evolved into early adopter listeners who enjoy an MP3 70 percent more when we are among the first several thousand people to hear it,” Hipster Runoff’s Carles deadpanned in 2010. Protecting the “personal brand” is how it’s defined on HRO; via check-ins and tagged photos on services like Foursquare and Instagram, users selectively shape and broadcast their impeccable taste without room for context, thought, or nuance. This year’s Lana Del Rey hubbub mirrored these very problems. Her cool-baiting signifiers—David Lynch, Nancy Sinatra, James Dean—earned her quick praise online, but when the news that she had made an earlier stab at a major-label career broke, listeners furiously argued over her artistic validity and lip shape.

The head-spinning end result is an indie-rock world that feels like a place where fitting in is more valued than standing out. Chillwave and its electro-pop cousins—easily digestible, rooted in collective memory and experiences, lo-fi enough to mask amateurishness—were tailor-made for the job, capturing mood and vibe and, by extension, providing a ready-made soundtrack for listeners. The resulting pattern of looking over one’s shoulder for approval while attempting to embrace an artist as early as possible doesn’t foster a healthy creative environment but one dominated by conservative choices, where the familiar (or easily understood) trump the bold and the brave. Ruptures in expectations, risks, and singular artists who defy categorization are suppressed if the overarching motivation of the audience is a fear of looking foolish.

On the other hand, if the goal is to embrace music unsullied by the potential of crossover success, job well done. For more than a half-decade, the new wave of indie tastemakers have been considered bloggers. Today, the most influential of those is arguably the Dallas-based blog Gorilla vs. Bear, though its sensibilities are hardly troubling the critical world as a while. GVSB’s album of the year, Shabazz Palaces’ exploratory, intelligent Black Up, placed at #10 on Pazz & Jop; Real Estate was the site’s only other Top 25 LP to cross over into the P&J Top 50, landing at #32. Outside of those two excellent albums, the rest of the site’s year-end Top 25 combined didn’t garner as many P&J points as either tUnE-yArDs or poll runner-up PJ Harvey did on their own. (Some 18 months after gaining next-medium-thing status, the heavy hitters of chillwave didn’t fare any better: Only Washed Out landed in the Top 100.)

With such a disconnect between the underground’s more discerning ears and the critical world at large, veterans and entrenched sounds dominated the poll. Wild Flag (#4) and cryptic indie pop artist Destroyer (#7) joined fellow deservedly lauded ’90s holdovers Shabazz (the former Digable Planets leader) and PJ Harvey in the Top 10. Also in the upper reaches of the list: veteran shape-shifters Tom Waits, Paul Simon, the Roots, Wilco, and Radiohead. Most of the relatively new groups are classic rockers in thrift clothing; the highest-placing of those, Bon Iver, is led by Justin Vernon, who literally traded recording alone in a Wisconsin cabin for collaborating with some of the biggest pop stars in the world, while the best of them is Kurt Vile, who displayed a wry sense of humor and a casually confident mastery of heartland rock on Smoke Ring for My Halo. Despite micro-indie and underground music’s almost pathological fixation on the now, the only truly new indie artist in the albums poll’s Top 40 is U.K.-based ’90s revivalists Yuck, while the highest-placing indie single is courtesy of ’80s revivalists M83. With LCD Soundsystem calling it quits and TV on the Radio slipping to a ho-hum #43 spot, that 2002–07 Brooklyn class is starting to shrink from the vanguard of indie rock. Other than embryonic artists ill-prepared for the spotlight, alternatives seem to be in scant supply.


Pazz & Jop Comments: Top 10-Plus

Why doesn’t everyone’s sound laboratories sound as much fun as Merrill Garbus’s?

Serene Dominic
Phoenix, Arizona

I listened to PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake during every critical moment of the year. Ten years since 9/11. The death of Osama. OWS. #OWS. The Resurrection of Godfather’s Pizza into popular conversation. And in a strange way, this album continued to be relevant and adopt itself to whatever political moment was going on at the time, however important or nonsensical it was. Maybe it was just me projecting, but the ability to do this marks the nature of a great work of art.

Mike Ayers
New York

The only reason people have embraced Let England Shake is because it’s brilliant—it’s some sort of masterpiece that makes expectations irrelevant. But if she doesn’t start giving us more electric guitar on her next one, don’t be shocked if the reviews are snarkier.

Mark Deming
Ypsilanti, Michigan

I honestly didn’t know that PJ Harvey was gonna be one of the most exciting artists of, like, the last 30 years! How could I know? Who knew? PJ Harvey, Sade, and Kate Bush. Three of the most creative pop forces of the 21st century. I didn’t see that coming, although I suppose I should have.

Scott Seward
Greenfield, Massachusetts

I deleted Watch the Throne from my iPhone three times. It still refuses to disappear. #OtisIlluminati

Phillip Mlynar
Brooklyn, New York

Mo’ money, mo’ predictable records. Is there an album more out of step with the times than Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne? Beats aside, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard as much “luxury rap” bullshit as I need from Mitt Romney and Donald Trump.

Daniel Durchholz
Wildwood, Missouri

“Riot Grrrl Supergroup” sounds stupid. Luckily Wild Flag’s album doesn’t.

Serene Dominic
Phoenix, Arizona

Tom Waits’s albums never fail to be interesting, but sometimes they can get a bit light on the pure fun—put it this way, it’s been a while since he put out an album with a song the Ramones could cover. Bad as Me has a few: the herky nihilism of “Get Lost” or the foulmouthed chant of “Hell Broke Luce.” And there are a few to play when your bourbon’s for crying into.

Lissa Townsend Rogers
Las Vegas, Nevada

21 is a map of Adele’s reactions to her recent breakup, but those who claim that the album is over-sung and overdramatic miss its more central concept: her age. She has called her now-finished relationship “the biggest deal in my entire life to date,” which is the sort of ridiculous but romantic pronouncement that the young are prone to making.  

Joey Daniewicz
Morris, Minnesota

Video might not have killed the radio star, but overamped hype can kill almost anything. When Adele sings “hard,” many of my critical peers allow themselves to be more impressed than they get when, say, Patti LaBelle or the gospel duo Mary Mary sing “hard.”

Carol Cooper
New York

Thanks to two consecutive Kanye and Drake albums, not to mention the critical success of The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, monstrous self-regard and after-hours sobbing are the new mean. What’s fascinating is how both Drake and Kanye depend on aural chambers whose intricacy is inversely proportional to the boys’ rapping/singing skills. Where their influences didn’t sweat the technique, Drake has none to speak of, and that’s the way he likes it; it makes him, in his own mind, the realest guy in the game.

Alfred Soto
Miami, Florida

Take Care was my favorite slab of music of 2011 in part because I admire Drake’s willingness to appear ridiculous, but I would totally buy him a tuna sandwich if he would shut the fuck up about his sex life for five seconds.

Michael Robbins
Hattiesburg, Mississippi

If Justin Vernon is going to insist on talking nonsense, he should take a lesson from Sigur Rós and invent a new language for his lyrics lest someone make the mistake of dissecting them.

Joey Daniewicz
Morris, Minnesota

Apparently it’s now cool to like fucking Bon Iver but not TV on the Radio.

A.S. Van Dorston
Chicago, Illinois

I don’t have beef with Justin Vernon, artistically. He’s doing exactly what he should be doing: making bold choices and putting his shoulder into them. The glacially-paced, ambient “rock” on Vernon’s second Bon Iver album takes the biggest risk I can imagine from an aspiring mainstream musician: It stakes itself on mind-numbing dullness.

Marty Brown
Brooklyn, New York

If Das Racist are in a constant state of processing the world and spitting it back at us reconfigured, Shabazz Palaces are only concerned with the world inside their heads. I take “Recollections of the wraith” as words to live by—”clear some space out so we can space out.” That deep bass drum sounds like it is programmed to reconfigure a heartbeat and the flanged, wobbling guitar easily disengages me from whatever is in front of my face. Unplug your shit. I like how it feels.

Marc Gilman
New York


Bon Iver: Super, Natural

If bearded sad dudes with acoustic guitars are not typically your thing, it’s understandable why you may have avoided Bon Iver until now. And yet you are wrong to do so. At least if we’re talking about Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar), which is one of the most astounding-sounding albums of 2011, even if “bearded sad dude” is still a big part of the band’s appeal. Bon Iver’s retiring frontman, Justin Vernon, may have been coaxed out of his cabin to join Kanye’s roving party, but that doesn’t mean he’s suddenly in touch with his inner Dr. Funkenstein. This is a slow, sometimes somber record. You have to work hard to make out more than a few words at a stretch, but the very tone of Vernon’s voice is that of someone weighed down by a dump truck’s worth of romantic ennui.

But Vernon has earned the right to his epic-scale moping. For one thing, the guy has one soulful-ass voice. Bon Iver could be mistaken as the work of a Quiet Storm killer who just happened to wander into an alt-country session. (Turns out Kanye didn’t just go cherry-picking indie singers for perverse, known-only-to-Kanye reasons.) More importantly, he has morphed into something like a mixing board genius. Bon Iver’s essentially one-man-band debut, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago, featured the kind of barely there production values that appealed to folks who still think “stark” equals “sincere.” But the way he tried to tart up his strumming after the fact made it obvious that Vernon would one day reach toward a widescreen sound.

On Bon Iver, he has arrived, working up a mix of lonesome ’70s country-rock, unctuous ’80 soft-rock, and faintly psychedelic ’90s art-rock. It’s defiantly nondigital, but it has as much attention paid to musical texture as any deep-listening electronic record I can name, with a music shop’s worth of pedal steel, keyboards, sax, strings, etc. It’s probably the only album around that will have you thinking of Neil Young’s Harvest, Sting’s Fields of Gold, early Kranky albums, and the KLF’s Chill Out all at once.

It’s not quite all things to all people. (Note that I left out punk rock, pop-rock, glam-rock.…) But Vernon’s beefed-up studio chops put most indie acts wrestling with the soft, sophisticated side of ’70s and ’80s rock to shame. He gets not only the vibe of those records, made by sensitive rock stars with back-to-nature longings, but he’s also aware that the vibe was achieved by bringing together super-fluent session guys and boom-time recording budgets, and using atmospheric effects out the yin-yang. The fact that he achieved all of this on (presumably) an indie budget with a group of talented pals is one thing. What’s more striking is that his Laurel Canyon dreams aren’t inhibited by the irony that grips so many indie dudes suspicious of that era’s excess. His evocations of the ’80s have a zillion-dollar sheen and a homemade charm; you get both platinum-plated keyboards and the intimate sound of in-studio chatter.

Vernon is definitely, shamelessly going for a Big Canvas album here. From the first notes of “Perth,” the buzzing insistence of For Emma is replaced by something silkier and more insinuating, which doesn’t stop it from erupting into a blown-out outro of Crazy Horse craziness. And it takes titanium guts to dredge up the supernaturally slick sound of Higher Love–era Steve Winwood without winking, as he does on “Beth/Rest.” Throughout, the arrangements are stuffed with fuzz bass and Satie-ish sprinkles of piano and late-night talk-show-band horn sections. But Bon Iver is so airy, spacious, and seamless, it could be one long song broken into tracks for iTunes-organization purposes. And he has learned how to make each instrument sound maximally luscious. Finger-picking and drum rolls are remarkably right-next-to-your-ear crisp, but other times guitars and keyboards are so smothered in effects they approach shoegazer levels of disembodied swirliness.

Vernon has clearly studied Buckingham-the-producer-of-Tusk, but not so much Buckingham-the-songwriter-of-Rumours. Memorable hooks sometimes get sacrificed to the music’s gently-down-the-stream drift. “Hinnom, TX” is drowsy ambient meets Americana that’s beautiful, but just kinda washes over you. And anyone who’s still wary of “indie” minus the pop will long for a chorus that isn’t swallowed by word-smearing falsetto and mucho reverb. Like so many singers of his generation, Vernon seems torn between selling his lyrics and using his voice as just another emotional cue in the thick mix. But if you’re looking for an album to get lost in, who knew a guy previously feted for stripped-down “realness” would provide the year’s best?



Justin Vernon, of the nom de psychfolk Bon Iver, once explained that he needed a minimum of 80 extra singers to perform his songs live. Care to be one of them? He’ll perform the sweetly unfurling singer-songwriter balladry of last year’s For Emma, Forever Ago alongside Chris Rosenau (of rockers Collections of Colonies of Bees) and Steve Kimock (of jazz/funk outfit Zero) in collaboration with the New York Guitar Festival. This is a brazen pop step for Merkin Concert Hall, long classically oriented and, even longer, a name that evokes New York’s truest Rorschach test of your maturity level.

Thu., Jan. 21, 8 p.m., 2010


Bon Iver: Digital Love, Analog Grief

In terms of lighting up the charts, this year’s most lucrative break-up album—that tried-and-blue standby—was Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, a departure for the iconoclastic rapper-producer not just musically (via the AutoTuned singing and monochromatic production), but tonally: Hip-hop’s first contribution to the lovelorn canon is an angry piece of work. But this year’s poll hails another product of disintegration that accomplishes more, and with less.

More than a year before West began bleating, after the dissolution of both a band and a romance, Justin Vernon, the frontman (and essentially lone man) of Bon Iver, left his home in North Carolina and took a guitar and four-track to his father’s solitary northern Wisconsin hunting lodge. He eventually emerged with For Emma, Forever Ago, a rewarding, confusing bedroom-folk document of aloneness, by turns breathtaking and sloppy, ethereal and exigent. The reclusion, imperfection, and brokenhearted pall recall Heartbreak‘s process, but West is less opaque, and less effective—his deepest query (“How could you be so heartless?”) pales beside the heavily overdubbed Emma opener, “Flume.” There, Vernon toys with literalism—clearly, calmly singing “It’s enough”—before descending into something less understood—alliterative wordplay that might still hint at the deeply felt—at one point moaning the borderline-delirious “Lapping lakes like leery loons.” For every incantation of “what might have been lost,” there is lyrical subversion: On “Lump Sum,” he sings, “My mile could not pump the plumb/In my arbor ’till my ardor.” It’s emotional muck, ramblings turned gospel. And in that batshit way, it succeeds.

West’s album feels urgent and instantaneous, but fallow, the musings of a teenager trying to glue his first love back together. It hurts, we know. But Vernon, with time to kill and art to make, never seems like he’s working too hard. His attitude is punch-drunk—not pissed—as he fumbles for the words to explain himself, even if they don’t exist. Throughout, he leans on a crinkled falsetto, rich but rarely melodramatic, an instrument West can never have. Vernon separates his cry-fest from the mewlings of the next lonely heart by mining that bewildering feeling when someone looks at you and says, “No more” for all it’ll allow, and then maybe more than that. But the time he’s given himself to reflect has squelched some of his bitterness and results in more of an elegy than an excoriation. While Heartbreak aims to be a modern-day Blood on the Tracks—Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” replaced by West’s “spoiled little L.A. girl”—Emma is without a true forebearer, a shaded and stolen moment, only occasionally hinting at Elliott Smith’s XO, another ambling but heartbreaking piece of popcraft.

In an ironic twist, Vernon’s full-band live shows—the nightly, repeated recitation of songs borne of what sounds like the most difficult time in his life—are lively, buoyant even. On record, “Skinny Love” is gut-wrenching; in concert, it becomes a sort of shambling clap-along: power-pop for the unironically flannelled. West’s Heartbreak performances, by contrast, are often serious and awkward affairs—typically a splenetic live performer, he introduced “Love Lockdown” at September’s MTV Video Music Awards by standing stock-still and clutching his microphone, as a red LED heart pinned to his chest flashed, revealing a cracked bolt down the center. There is one more similarity between them, though: In a hilarious bit of snake-eating-its-tail joie de vivre, Vernon, on his now-released Blood Bank EP, sings with AutoTune on the final track, “Woods.” Naturally, he sounds better—and a bit happier—than West.


Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago

Justin Vernon isn’t the first young punk to disappear in the wild and emerge a transcendental folkie. Thoreau comes to mind. As do Retsin (Cabin in the Woods, 2001) and Sleater-Kinney (The Woods, 2005). And if you’re familiar with the indie scene’s freak-folk-out of the past half-decade, this isn’t the first you’ve heard of For Emma, Forever Ago, the meditative mood-fuck Vernon assembled alone in his dad’s Wisconsin hunting cabin under the name Bon Iver. After a limited self-release last year, the disc wound up on some Blogtown best-ofs, and Jagjaguwar picked it up for an “official” release this month.

While none of Bon Iver’s background notes scream “new”—dissolved love affair, check; band breaks up (Vernon’s freak-jug outfit, DeYarmond Edison), check—the chilling, rusty grandeur of For Emma will stop you in your snow tracks, however little it snows around here. And there’s the key: Equal parts awe and nostalgia, hearing Vernon’s muted strums and granular falsetto fade like spun sugar into breath vapor is like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. With idiosyncratic vocals and the simple acoustics of a man alone in this world (plus guitar), the tunes could’ve easily melted into monotony. But each track folds seamlessly yet distinctively into the next, like imperfect logs split and added to the pile; audible is the intensifying beat of a heart burdened by physical/emotional labor, and the layered echoes of a ghost chorus cascading across a chasm or against the walls of a creaky cabin-turned-cloister.

Bon Iver’s French-ish nom de plume, along with intermittent mementos of his process (minor studio tweaks included) and the bold move of throwing out the real name “Emma,” hints at a sort-of sound vérité. But his bon mots are blab-and-retract, the details muddled in heavy metaphor and barely discernible murmur. Whimpers work better than words, though, to express the husky tenderness of “Skinny Love” or “re: stacks.” For Emma is a work uncorrupted by trend or tricks, but now it seems like every band wants to find its own side of the mountain. Vernon says “the goal was to hibernate”—to which Thoreau tsk-tsks: “as if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”