I’m a big fan of Justin Vernon in his day job as Bon Iver. His is one of the freshest and most creative voices to emerge from the north woods in recent years. On the new album Unmap (Jagjaguwar Records) from Volcano Choir, Vernon has teamed up with several fellow Wisconsinites who are members of Collections of Colonies of Bees. Unmap very much has the whiff of side project about it, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t have its interesting moments in a Temple of the Dog-ish kind of way. These albums can be prone to arty pretensions, and this one is no exception, but there are enough sublime moments, mostly courtesy of Vernon, to balance those out.
The songwriting for Unmap goes back to 2005, before Vernon began his meteoric ascension as Bon Iver. The actual recording didn’t take place until November 2008 at Vernon’s studio in Fall Creek, WI. Of all the songs here, “Still” comes closest to finding that Bon Iver magic. It’s a remake of the song “Woods,” which appeared on the brilliant Bon Iver EP Blood Bank, which appeared earlier this year. If you didn’t think that a vocoder could be used tastefully, listen to Vernon’s stirring, emotional performance on this song.
Remember that pretension I spoke about? It’s painfully obvious on “Mbira In The Morass”. A series of bleeps and bloops, random kalimba stylings, and plucked piano strings, it sounds like Scott Walker’s worst nightmare, and that’s saying something. Not sure what the Choir was going for here, but I wish they hadn’t. “Mbira” is surely a candidate for my most un-favorite track of the year. I thought you’d enjoy hearing what I think sucks.
Among the remains, there are some hits, notably the Steve Reich-influenced “Seeplymouth,” and misses like the closing “Youology,” which sounds like film music from grade D ’50’s horror flick. I can’t quite write this album off, because there are a handful of wonderful moments that emerge after listening a few times. Haunting images remain long after the music has stopped. For now, I remain a fan of Justin Vernon, and I’m anxious to hear what he does next.