Bon Iver's Justin Vernon: From Bluegrass to Kanye
1. DeYarmond Edison
This traditional four-man folk band runs on finger-picked acoustic guitar rhythms and heavy brushwork on the drum kit. Stripped of all stylistic and electronic filters, a younger Vernon sings far less subtly and with much more physical intensity. What's more, DeYarmond Edison captures the era in which falsetto was not a vital part of Vernon's expression; the band's self-titled album contains lots of throaty yells and shouts in chest voice.
Taking its name from Vernon's two middle names, DeYarmond Edison was the premature crystallization of Vernon's musical endeavors. He and three other members met as high school students at a local music festival. Given two albums, success in the music scene of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, liver-destroying mono (Vernon) and girlfriend problems (Vernon, once again), Vernon and the other members parted ways relatively peacefully. Respectively, they formed Bon Iver and freak folk group Megafaun.
Every romantic knows the story that follows: For three months, Vernon labored alone in his father's Wisconsin cabin to birth the beloved album, For Emma, Forever Ago.
Listen: "Silent Signs"
2. Bon Iver - From Forever Ago to Bon Iver
One thing is true about Vernon's newest album Bon Iver: His second album builds sonic signatures where the first had left exposure. "Holocene" fills with tight 32nd note rhythms what had been a lonely fluidity in For Emma, Forever Ago. Vernon even brings back his chest voice, a nod to his original vocal style with DeYarmond Edison.
Each of the songs are sprinkled with a motley of instruments - a sax jab here, '80s era bell synth there - refitted to construct the Bon Iver sound. But this is not to say that Bon Iver has evolved beyond recognition. Embedded into the tracks are still the same wolf pack yowls, distant and shrill. The lyrics are just as enigmatic and open to interpretation as those from Vernon's previous album. Metaphors referring to physical labor, painstakingly sprung with meanings as rich as the polyphonic soundscapes in each of the album's tracks, resurfaced Robert Frosts' Birches from my memory. And how conveniently awesome this connection to Frost, especially when Vernon originally derived his project name from the French phrase "Bon Hiver," or good winter.
Released in 2010, Gayngs' only record Relayted encapsulates bluesy guitar and organ riffs, dirty beatboxing and a variety of echoed vocals and sampled noise, all recorded at 69 beats per minute. Based in Minneapolis, the project consists of over 25 musicians, including Justin Vernon and Mike Noyce of Bon Iver, and Megafaun. Gayngs performed at Coachella 2011.
The first track on the album, "On the Gaudy Side of Town," summons an R&B vocal style from Vernon, hooded and reminiscent of his usual yowl. Download the track free on Jagjaguwar's website.
4. Volcano Choir
The sounds of Volcano Choir are the result of Vernon's vocals frosting the post-rock melodies of Collections of Colonies of Bees. From this project, you'll often hear sustained pitches, sung in the place of complex wordplay, so that Vernon's voice is used predominantly as a harmonic element. Expect lots of electronic-based sampling, an assortment of percussive sounds, and the clashing of synthesizers' harmonies against Vernon's vocals in the album that took half a decade to complete, Unmap (2009).
Listen: "Island, IS"
5. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Vernon's collaboration with Kanye West ended up with Vernon singing vocals on nearly half the songs on West's latest. His voice is the first thing you hear on the album's first track, "Dark Fantasy" and the album finale, "Lost in the World," is based on Bon Iver's "Woods." Reportedly, Kanye gave Vernon a phone call asking if he could sample "Woods." He said in a New York Magazine interview, "We were talking on the phone for 30 to 45 minutes about music and life in general, where the record was at ... He was interested in my aesthetic in a recording and production standpoint...[West] said he was a fan of For Emma and really wanted to talk to me about the vocal techniques I'd been using in the studio." In the same interview, Vernon talked about his side projects: "Every one of my side projects I've done -- Volcano Choir, Gayngs, this Kanye thing -- they've all fed in different ways in the exploratory sense."