My contributions to Exclaim's Year-in-Review include Bon Iver, Jenn Grant and Sunparlour Players.
Bon Iver Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
Back in 2008, Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, won over hearts by taking the broken pieces of his and turning them into his bedroom-bruised debut For Emma, Forever Ago. His outstanding follow-up reveals that while time (and success) healed certain wounds ― note that his own moniker takes the title (twice!) this time 'round ― our folk-hero is still a fractured soul searching for his place in the world. But this time he's armed with fabulous '80s flourishes. The hopeful "Calgary" starts tranquil and cold, but warms as the layers of drums, guitar and synthesizers crescendo and retreat. "Holocene" aches with a similar winter-y feel, but the drum rolls and spare arrangement focus all the attention on Vernon's vocals and the lonely refrain "I can see for miles, miles, miles." For all this distress and earnestness though, Vernon's bolstered by some balls, as evidenced by "Beth/Rest," the album's last song. It works both as a brilliant summarizing of affairs ― electronic keyboards, vocal distortion, moody saxophone ― and a warning cry of what's to come. It forces the listener to fully consider the scope of Vernon's bizarre and brave artistry. Thankfully any egregious bravado is tempered by his grounded humbleness, which is a refreshing combination compared to other creative geniuses.
Jenn Grant Honeymoon Punch (Six Shooter)
The faltering steps before you somersault down the rabbit hole of love are sometimes the only clear moments one can remember during the hazy, heady first six months of a new relationship. And as good as that feels ― that promise, those elements of surprise and intense attraction, a hint of something special ― it's everything that comes next that's the stuff of real love songs. Jenn Grant's Honeymoon Punch details every moment of that kind of next-level shit: the moment you both realize that you're in it to win it with all the hope and humour and occasional heartache that entails. Album opener "Oh my Heart" remembers those moments with a kicky, pop love letter while "Baby's Been Away" finds our lovers struggling with priorities against a twinkly one-two shuffle. "Paradise Mountain" is that bittersweet moment where you debate whether it's mean to be, longing to get back to the beginning. It's a brave collection that celebrates real, true, transformational love with lots of momentum from helpful sources: a bass clarinet, synthesizers, and playful forays into '50s pop rhythms, soul and even a little riot grrrl defiance. But true to form, despite the album's often upbeat nature, it's impossible to know for sure if Grant will let her lovers have that happy ending. The final track, "Stars to Waves," is a beautiful, crazy, two-parter (soft, sweet lament and triumphant, instrumental frenzy) that, wisely, lets the listener choose his or her own ending.
Sunparlour Players Us Little Devils (Outside)
Sunparlour Players' evolution from Andrew Penner's solo effort to three-part collective with Michael "Rosie" Rosenthal and Dennis Van Dine hasn't been seamless, but the disparate influences and inspirations are what make the band's third album, Us Little Devils, so great. It's the sound of three people moving in harmony ― but that doesn't mean they arrive at the same place every song. In fact, the little devils themselves take huge pleasure in deviating with whiplash speed from any expected alt-country trajectory. There are wild detours into punk and metal-lite, gospel, soul and even the rough waters of a sea shanty. These unexpected journeys might be disorienting at first, but isn't it nice as a listener to be surprised and even a little freaked out? It's disorienting but awesome to stumble from the Kings of Leon-esque environmental plea "Green Thumb" to the aggro-rock attack of "Like an Animal" before going all aflutter on the lilting "Damn All You," which is both sexy and mournful thanks to gentle percussion and creaky piano. This is the right kind of devil's play.