Bon Iver defends last year's acclaim with 'Blood Bank'

BY MIKE KUNTZ
Daily Arts Writer
Published January 20, 2009

Bon Iver
Blood Bank EP
Jagjaguwar

Courtesy of Jagjaguwar

3.5 out of 5 Stars

If you were planning on becoming a bearded indie-folk artist at any point in your life, the time to grow out some mutton chops is most definitely now. Given the recent rise of hirsute acts like Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, being a freak-folker is apparently all the rage.

Justin Vernon (the man behind the Bon Iver moniker) emerged last year with the national Jagjaguwar release of his debut album For Emma Forever Ago, a deeply affecting set of songs whose organic, whispery qualities could only have been created in his secluded Northern Wisconsin cabin. Now, with a full year of touring and critical acclaim behind him, Vernon delivers a four-song EP to start 2009 off with a bang — albeit a hushed and pensive one, as only Bon Iver can give us.

Blood Bank EP is short and sweet, comprised of what appears to be an assemblage of remnants from the For Emma sessions. In this case, the “outtakes” are a welcomed companion to the masterful album, serving to enhance listeners’ understandings of the somewhat enigmatic Vernon’s emotional inner-workings. On both Blood Bank and For Emma, there’s an almost claustrophobic sense of being enveloped in pine needles and endless forest — but for some reason, it still feels warm and fuzzy. Paired with the suppressed urgency of Vernon’s multi-tracked voice, there is a unique honesty to Bon Iver's sound that's as freeing as it is gripping.

Beginning with the title track, the familiar aesthetic of For Emma returns, with a heartbeat-strum of guitar and sparse drumming surrounding Vernon’s ghastly voice. “Beach Baby” comes next, with the soft percussion of acoustic strings and dreary slide guitar echoing more patient lyrics like, “Only hold ’til your coffee warms / But don’t hurry and speed.” Percussive piano strikes jolt the EP back to life in “Babys,” and are warmly enveloped by the chorus: “Summer comes / to multiply.”

The first three tracks are where Bon Iver shines brightest. But then there’s “Words.” Like the bastard child of a T-Pain single, Auto-Tune reigns over this last track. While the exaggerated experimentation with the synthetic may have worked on, most famously, Kanye's 808s & Heartbreak, it doesn’t fit here.

Though “Words” will most likely leave the Bon Iver faithful scratching their heads (or beards, as the case may be), its difficult beauty shows potential for promising future experimentation. Nevertheless, it’s doubtful that the last moments of Blood Bank suggest a direction Vernon will pursue in the future. The trademark coziness of Bon Iver’s sleeping bag of sound is best kept out in the woods where it belongs – and after two solid releases with the rustic aesthetic under his belt, Vernon probably realizes that.