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Schnipper’s Slept On: Bon Iver vs Volcano Choir

April 27, 2010


Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated release he thinks we need to know about. This week it’s Volcano Choir’s Unmap. Listen to "Island, IS" from the record, David Bevan's FADER cover story on Bon Iver and Volcano Choir and read Schnipper’s thoughts after the jump.


Heartbroken Bon Iver made For Emma alone in a cabin in the woods. It’s his story of lost love, he’s an emotional lumberjack, etc. Whatever. Point is, dude’s got a pretty, pretty voice. For Emma could have been about the love between a man and his dog Emma and the voice would still have had the same tender power. That said, I never listened to it much. I’m not sure why, maybe it seemed too fey, this sad man pining away with his worn acoustic guitar as the very real symbol of the change of seasons, change of heart.

Listening now, For Emma is very good. Still, it sounds precious, if heartily genuine. He’s clearly pained on “The Wolves,” and “Skinny Love” is a warm, friendly song. “Skinny Love” itself is a playful title, somewhere between Beyonce and Weight Watchers. But it maybe feels too perfect. Last week, I read Walter Kirn’s review of Ian McEwen’s new book where he skewered it for being “a book so good—so ingeniously designed, irreproachably high-minded and skillfully brought off—that it’s actually quite bad.” This, to me, seemed like an apt criticism. It may not be true of Bon Iver; For Emma was certainly not a meticulously planned acoustic opus. But maybe it’s the opposite that irked me, Bon Iver’s path accidentally yielding such perfect results, his story of hardship refurbished into universally identifiable feelings music leaving me disinterested when everyone else swooned. Or maybe I just was cool listening to that second Elliott Smith record again. Honestly, I just don’t really know. But, okay, that’s not the point. The point is, if everyone loved this dude so much, why did no one care about Volcano Choir?

An addendum to that: clearly some people cared about Volcano Choir (Best New Music!) but its shelf life was essentially nil compared to the endless For Emma YouTube covers and late night TV bookings. Maybe Volcano Choir is loser music. Bon Iver is too goodhearted. In Bon Iver, Justin Vernon wears flannels and beanies, Midwestern thrift store casual cool. In Volcano Choir, he wears sweatshirts and plays the banjo. That’s just not cool, ironically or otherwise.

Volcano Choir, Vernon’s group with the band Collections of Colonies of Bees, released one album and on it was one sublimely perfect song, “Island, IS,” much of that imperturbable beauty springing from the same annoyingly beautiful Bon Iver voice. But not borne exclusively of that baby’s breath gilding. If not only because he sings some stupid shit with that wonderful voice, like old tits on your hard drive. What are you talking about, Bon Iver? Somewhere, a 17-year-old’s broke heart sealed by For Emma broke again. Stir it up, little darling!

Okay, “Volcano, IS” also has a shiny guitar loop, the kind of thing you can imagine takes all five fingers to play and live looks like the creation of a tiny sculpture. It’s main percussion sounds like it could have come from the gift shop at a Moroccan airport, jingly tambourine and taut hand drums. Then Vernon moans like a soft werewolf, this gentle little howl connecting the disparate parts. Then he says old tits on your hard drive and whatever winter cabin rocking chair your mind had slipped into, it quickly falls off. It’s accidentally perfect, or perfectly accidental. Something like that. Whatever it is, it’s not dryly calculated and it’s not accidentally flawless.

Talking about For Emma, Vernon says, “I’m past the record, but I recognize that somewhere in the world, someone is hearing it for the first time. But if you spend all your time thinking about that, you can’t look forward. I’m already working on stuff that’s going to piss some people off because it’s not going to sound anything like that.” I listened to all of Volcano Choir’s album, Unmap, looking for something that sounded like “Island, IS.” It’s not there. So I listen to “Island, IS” on repeat. Then I listen to the other songs. Some of them are good, too. But I always go back. Last night I went back home, not sober, not drunk, but having to pee and with a good thirty minutes on the subway ahead of me. I played air guitar to “Island, IS” through the first five minutes of my wait for the train and it passed like nothing. What’s music good for if not to make everything disappear for a bit? That’s why Justin Vernon made For Emma in the first place.

From The Collection:

Slept On
Schnipper’s Slept On: Bon Iver vs Volcano Choir