Indie Collaboration of the Year



Mike Knerr

The convergence of two of the biggest musical stories of 2011 hit You­Tube on August 24 in the form of a collaboration between James Blake and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon called “Fall Creek Boys’ Choir.” Both artists rocked the indie music scene in different ways this year. Bon Iver’s self-titled sopho­more album was lauded by critics and fans alike. On the other hand, James Blake is a twenty-one year old rising star whose debut album is making the same kinds of waves that Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago made in 2007, which precipitated Justin Vernon’s meteoric rise to indie stardom.

Vernon, the man behind the commonly mispronounced French mon­iker, is a frequently featured voice on albums by artists ranging from the relative obscurity of Anaïs Mitchell to the universally-known Kanye West. While his debut, a chilly concoction of solitude soaked in melancholy, shook the indie world, his second full-length album overshadowed this year’s summer scene. Without abandoning his core sound, Vernon turned sorrow and loss into optimism and grandeur and added permanent band members which had been absent from the cabin-confined solitude of For Emma, Forever Ago. From the confident opening riff of “Perth” to the spacious beauty of “Holocene” to the surprisingly un-ironic conclusion “Beth/Rest,” the album is emotional without being sentimental, obscure without being unrelatable and expansive without being grandiose. Ver­non’s vocals remain the focus, but the instrumentation assumes a larger role, as with the hauntingly beautiful guitar line of “Holocene.” Its repeti­tive simplicity drives the song forward to the climactic moments when Vernon, confronted with his smallness in the face of both nature and humanity, concedes, “And at once I knew/ I was not magnificent.” Where For Emma was confined, Bon Iver is vast and expansive; where the former was solitary and introverted, the latter embraces humanity and nature alike. The track list is a litany of locales to which Vernon has paid tribute by elevating them with broader themes of the human condition; this is evident in “Calgary,” which speaks not of rodeos, but of aging and a real­istically evolving marriage. With concerns of a sophomore slump firmly behind him, we can only wait and see what aspect of humanity Vernon will plumb next.

James Blake’s self-titled album did not generate the anticipa­tion that Bon Iver did this year, but it has since received the kind of critical acclaim that Vernon himself received four years ago. Blake, who cites Vernon as an influence, produces a more electronic brand of indie music influenced by dubstep. His music is less devoted to expansiveness and more so to repetition and development of a simple idea throughout a song. For example, “I Never Learnt to Share” is almost five minutes long but consists of only two lines. However, the magic of the song lies in its increasingly intricate layers of harmonies and constant crescendo of emotion. Blake manipulates vocal lines and makes liberal use of vocal effects, but the texture of the album is para­doxically organic. In “Lindesfarne I,” Blake’s heavily electronicized voice is the only instrument, yet the song’s power lies in its simplicity and sparseness. The centerpiece of the album is Blake’s cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love,” which surpasses the original and highlights his staggering ability to craft, pace and structure songs. Overall, if this album is any indication, James Blake may be at the start of his own meteoric rise.

It is fitting, then, that two artists should pool their considerable skills in collaboration. The track “Fall Creek Boys’ Choir” features Vernon’s vocals and Blake’s production, a balanced melding of the two artists’ best strengths. Predictably, the track relies on both atmosphere and repetition, but it slowly grows as it meanders down its dreamy path. The YouTube video, which dropped on August 24, previews Blake’s new EP, Enough Thunder, an expansion of the collaboration, which can only be good news for fans of either artist