Justin Vernon's trio of old compadres play Southern blues-rock under jazz conditions...
Justin Vernon’s trio of old compadres play Southern blues-rock under jazz conditions…
Justin Vernon has not said much publicly about The Shouting Matches, his collaboration with Megafaun’s Phil Cook and Brian Moen of Peter Wolf Crier/Laarks. But the little he has said, via Twitter, is eloquent enough. As the album was released, he Tweeted a note of thanks from “Brian and Phil and I’s band” adding the hashtags #trio, #notasideproject, #beenaroundlongerthanbon. Later, as early reviews appeared, he added, sarcastically, “I love being in a band with three people in it, but really I’m the only one.”
So, to be clear. Grownass Man is not a Bon Iver record (the title is a clue). It is not Justin Vernon’s Tin Machine. It is a collaboration in a career full of collaborations (see Volcano Choir, Gayngs, Anais Mitchell). And, it’s a reunion of sorts. The Shouting Matches do predate Bon Iver. They flickered for an evening in 2006. Moen was the second person to hear Bon Iver’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago when he visited Vernon’s Wisconsin cabin for a Shouting Matches rehearsal. Cook also laboured in Vernon’s pre-Bon Iver outfit, DeYarmond Edison.
But it is hard to resist the suggestion that Vernon’s decision to reunite with his old compadres is a reaction to the success of Bon Iver, and the expectations aroused by it. Bon Iver‘s second, self-titled album was every bit as personal as that cabin-recorded debut, though Vernon employed a private language to mask his intentions (or, more charitably, to make then universal). It won him two Grammies, and made him a mainstream star, an unlikely outcome for a musician whose approach is almost anthropological, even when he’s goofing around. (And, contrary to the public perception, he likes to goof).
But this is a trio, a band with three people in it. And if Grownass Man doesn’t sound like Bon Iver, it doesn’t sound like Megafaun either. Or Peter Wolf Crier. On first impressions, which are misleading, it sounds like a bar band in Clarksdale, Mississippi playing for beer. Generically, it is blues-rock, though over the full span of the album, that definition is stretched to include bursts of Afro-pop (‘’I’ll Be True”) and fairground Northern Soul (“New Theme”). Vernon chooses not to employ his falsetto, falling back into a soulful growl or, when he does go high (on “Three Dollar Bill”) delivering the vocal through a hail of distortion. “Heaven Knows” is ZZ Top at 16 rpm. The closing ballad, “I Need A Change” could, just about, fit on a Bon Iver record, though the lyrics are more generic, and there’s a playful Prince impersonation halfway through.
Generally, the playing is under-rehearsed and agreeably rough. It’s a jam. Moen’ s drums don’t drive the beat so much as shuffle sideways, and Cook’s organ adds a playful note, pitched somewhere between the church and the carnival. The biggest surprise, at least for listeners who only know Vernon through his work with Bon Iver, is the guitar. True, there’s a hint of Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross circling around the standout track, “Gallup NM”, but the guitar break is exhilarating and beautiful. The song itself explores the poetry of place names – maybe it’s a road song – but Vernon’s solo drives it. You can hear a bit of Neil Young in there, and that’s a name worth remembering in any consideration of the shape of Vernon’s career. Respecting the muse is clearly more important to him than sticking to the grid.
What’s it’s all about? Well, on the surface, it seems as if The Shouting Matches is primarily about the underrated joy of making music with friends. But it’s also similar to the experiments Vernon and Cook used to employ in DeYarmond Edison, where they would select a genre, and perform in that vein: today’s dish being Southern blues. It’s rock’n’roll, played under jazz conditions: spontaneous, under-thought, fast. At most, it’s a sketch for a concept which is unlikely to be fleshed-out. It’s nostalgic, and frivolous, and surprisingly endearing.
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