Five Songs for Fall

I’m fortunate to live in a part of the world where we experience four distinct seasons.  Summers are comfortable – the sixteen hours of daylight is usually warm without being stifling, so you can still get to sleep at night.  Winters are fine – aside from a few nasty arctic outbreaks, the sub-zero temperatures and occasional snows are completely manageable.  Spring is awful – the pot-holed streets look like downtown Beirut, there’s garbage and dog turds poking out of snowbanks everywhere you look, and the few outdoor surfaces that happen to rise above the slimy meltwater are probably covered with snow mould.  That said, my favourite season has always been fall.

Part of the appeal of fall is that it’s like summer with less potential nuisances.  After the Labour Day long weekend, humidity is unheard of.  All it takes is a few cool nights to freeze off all the mosquitos.  Sure, it can be ten or fifteen degrees cooler than mid-July, but that’s what jackets are for.  The parks are less crowded, while the highways aren’t so jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.

Another thing that makes fall intriguing is that you’re never quite sure how long it’s going to last.  At my 53-degree latitude, fall typically lasts from the first light frost (usually in early September) until the first big snowfall (usually around Hallowe’en).  But lovely double-digit days aren’t unheard of in November… and neither is waking up to 10 cm of snow in the first week of September.  Fall is usually about eight weeks long, but any nice days after mid-October feel like gambling with house money.

Fall is probably the best season for strolling around the neighbourhood.  There’s essentially no need for sunscreen or bug spray.  Dehydration is rarely a problem, so you don’t have to lug a water bottle around with you.  On top of that, the scenery is wonderful.  Every time you set out on a walk, you’ll find that some of the foliage has changed from just a few days before.  There’s something soul-restoring about walking the trails with the muted crunch of fallen leaves underfoot and the unmistakable smell of decomposing leaves in your nostrils.

I set out for a quick spin around the neighbourhood today to test some new trail shoes I picked up in Denver.  I meant to hike briskly for an hour, but ended up clicking off 13.3 km in a little over two hours instead.  I think it was the autumnal songs that kept popping up on my iPod playlist – I was so immersed in the music that time ceased to be all that important.

To celebrate the season, here are five songs that are tailor-made for walkabouts in fall.

The Autumn Defense – “Once Around”

Frankly, pretty much anything by the Autumn Defense would make a great soundtrack for a walk in September or October.  This is the side band that was put together by John Stirratt and Pat Sansone to explore a different 1970s singer-songwriter vibe than their regular gig in the alternative rock band Wilco.  Layers of acoustic guitars and pensive vocals build up to cathartic releases of energy, before dissolving back into a laid-back groove.  You can pretty much feel the late-day sunshine filtering through the amber-hued trees as this song unfurls in your headphones.

Larch Valley, Banff National Park

Fleet Foxes – “Mykonos”

Another mid-tempo number propelled by acoustic guitars and choral vocals.  Perhaps this is the type of song that the adjective “autumnal” was coined for.  “Mykonos” is the high point of the Seattle band’s Sun Giant EP, and sounds like a lost transmission from the early 1970s.  The galloping beat and intertwining layers of voices make you feel like you could zip your fleece jacket up to your chin and keep strolling all the way to Greece.

Wood Bison Trail, Elk Island National Park

The Grapes of Wrath – “All The Things I Wasn’t”

This short little number always transports me back in time to high school.  The Grapes of Wrath were better known as Canadian purveyors of upbeat psychedelic jangle rock, something of a cross between R.E.M. and Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd.  The wistful and acoustic “All The Things I Wasn’t” plays against type, painting a tapestry of golds and reds in an all-too-brief two minutes and eighteen seconds of yearning and regret.

Spruce Grouse Hen – Strathcona Wilderness Centre

Bon Iver – “Holocene”

While the name that Justin Vernon chose for his band cheekily references winter, I always think of fall when I hear “Holocene”.  Maybe it’s partly because the abstract lyric mentions “laying waste to Hallowe’en”.  Like the other songs on this playlist, “Holocene” unfolds in waves of acoustic guitars and wistful vocals.  I think I’m drawn to the melancholy tones of Bon Iver’s music for the same reason that I like the fall; the fear and uncertainty in the music tidily parallels the tenebrific approach of another harsh winter.

City of Edmonton Skyline and the North Saskatchewan River Valley

R.E.M. – “Drive”

I gave up trying to understand Michael Stipe’s lyrics years ago.  From what I’ve read, he often relies on his subconscious to pull words out of the ether.  I suspect that even Stipe can’t pin down what “Drive” is all about.  There’s certainly a sense of middle-aged malaise, of dissatisfaction with the status quo, of not knowing where to go next.  But exactly how all this existential angst is supposed to congeal into coherent thoughts is anyone’s guess.  From a musical perspective, “Drive” is about as stately and autumnal as R.E.M. ever got.  Peter Buck’s looping acoustic guitar motif is overdubbed by searing electric lead lines.   Bill Berry’s sparse drums and Mike Mills’ accordion drop in and out of the arrangement at precisely the right times.  It all creates a melancholy atmosphere as thick as Brunswick stew, and is the perfect soundtrack for wistfully kicking aspen leaves along the trail.

Fern Lake Trailhead, Rocky Mountain National Park


Bon Iver’s Seismic Shift

Last year, the northeast coast of Japan was stricken by a huge subduction zone earthquake and tsunami.  It caused an unfathomable amount of death and destruction, killing thousands and affecting the lives of millions of people.  The Japanese are a resilient bunch, and life in the land of the rising sun will eventually return to something resembling normal.  That said, the disasters Japan faced last year would test the will of anyone.

Amid the tragedy, some fascinating physical events occurred.  By some estimates, the main island of Japan moved over two metres closer to North America in a matter of seconds.  A large piece of the Pacific tectonic plate dove under the Japanese sub-plate, which set off the tsunami.  With that much mass moving closer to the centre of the earth, it affected the rate at which our planet rotates.  Thanks to the conservation law of angular momentum, the Earth’s rotation sped up a measurable amount (by something like 1.8 microseconds per day) to compensate.  It was testament to how a single event can trigger an effect on a planetary scale.

The laws of cause & effect also seem to hold in our personal lives.  Everybody has days that stand out, days that subtly nudge the trajectory of their lives in one direction or another.  In my decidedly simple life, those days tend to be music concerts.  It may sound churlish that some of my life-altering events are nothing more than rock ‘n’ roll gigs, but it’s true.  I can still remember how awestruck I felt during Pink Floyd’s show in Winnipeg on 1-Jul-1994, and how emotional I got at Radiohead’s Gorge Amphitheatre gig on 23-Jun-2001, and I remember Wilco’s mind-blowingly intense concert in Edmonton on 18-Aug-2007 like it was yesterday.  Each of those shows, in some small way, deflected the course of my life.

Over time, I think Monday night’s Bon Iver gig in Edmonton might just take its place among my pantheon of great gigs.  Walking out of the show, I somehow felt like a different person, as though life was moving at a slightly different speed.

Based on the sonics of last year’s impressive self-titled release and their restrained performances on Saturday Night Live a few months ago, I expected the Bon Iver live experience to be a low-key affair.  What they delivered live in the flesh was instead at times a visceral rock and roll show, accompanied by an impressionistic audio-visual assault on the senses.  The nine musicians on stage explored every nuance of the songs from Bon Iver and injected new life into cuts from the debut album For Emma, Forever Ago and the Blood Bank EP.

The stage of the Jubilee Auditorium was framed across the top by web-like burlap curtains, with post-modern, multi-coloured LED stalagmites below.  The curtains served as ragged makeshift drive-in movie screens for projected images.  Most of the night the stage was relatively dark, bathed in slowly swirling washes of red or blue light.  But during the punchiest numbers, strobe lights and other effects pierced through the haze to add an extra element to the music.  The result was a workout for the senses – eardrums strained to adapt to varying loudness levels while irises constantly adjusted to the ever-changing lights.  It gave the relatively stoic performers on stage a sense of kinetic energy.

The back line consisted of a bass player and horn player, bookended by dueling drummers.  Up front, leader Justin Vernon was flanked by guitarists, another horn player, and various other instruments.  At times, the guitarists kneeled over their pedal boards in reverence to their musical cousins in Radiohead.  Props to the back line horn player who spent most of the gig playing the biggest goddamn saxophone I’ve ever seen.  It looked like someone ripped the exhaust pipe off a top-fuel dragster, put three bends in it, and jammed in a mouthpiece.  Simply epic.

The set kicked off with the formidable 1-2 punch of “Perth” and “Minnesota, WI”.  The same two songs lead off the Bon Iver album, but in a live setting the dynamics of the tunes were much more pronounced.  The drums were thunderous, the guitars squalled, and the horns blared in service to the groove.  And this night was very much about mood and groove and emotion, since so many of the songs lacked a conventional verse-chorus structure.

A personal highlight was the mid-set back-to-back placement of “Holocene” and “Blood Bank”.  “Holocene” was ethereal and gracious as you might expect, while “Blood Bank” was a gut-punch of noise and stomping rhythms.  The sax solo that formed the bridge between the two songs came perilously close to “Jazz Odyssey” territory, but never quite slipped over the edge.

Later on, the unmistakable opening notes of “Skinny Love” and “Calgary” elicited cheers of recognition from the 2500 fans in attendance.  The crowd ranged mostly from university-aged kids to people in their mid thirties.  Bon Iver has virtually no terrestrial radio presence in this town, so the popularity of this quickly sold-out gig spoke volumes about how non-traditional media has changed the music world.  Whether by word of mouth, Facebook, satellite radio, internet radio, iTunes or tastemaker blogs, the kids are discovering groundbreaking music by alternative means.  Make something great and unique, and people will always seek it out.

It was also inspiring to watch a hotly-tipped band come out and juxtapose seemingly incompatible genres like modern rock, soul, 80’s AOR, and chamber folk instead of playing it safe.  Bon Iver fearlessly chose to follow their musical instincts instead of cashing in on their recent Grammy buzz.  Nowhere was this more evident than on the main set closer “Beth/Rest”, where Vernon’s passionate lead vocal revealed a complete, un-ironic conviction in the stirring ideas at the heart of the song.

Perhaps that conviction was the root of the seismic shift I felt in my soul on Monday night.  Bon Iver’s performance, taken as a whole, made it clear that convention doesn’t matter and anything is possible in modern music.  The difference may only be a matter of microseconds, but sometimes that’s enough to rock your world.

The (Approximate) Set List:

Minnesota, WI
Hinnom, TX
Blood Bank
Creature Fear
re: Stacks   (JV solo)
Skinny Love
Lisbon, OH

For Emma
The Wolves (Act I and II)

Post-Script: I’m working from memory because the gig was way too dark to take notes.  I’m not sure I got the set list 100% right, but it should be pretty close.  Please submit a comment if you can help me clean it up, especially the bit from “Michicant” to “Creature Fear”.

#2 – Bon Iver by Bon Iver

Label:  Jagjaguwar

Released:  20-Jun-2011

Artist’s Website:

Wisconsin musician rewrites the contemporary folk template.  Again.

Justin Vernon likely prefers that you just forget any stories you may have heard about the genesis of the first Bon Iver album, because they are about 90% bullshit.

The media created a mythology around For Emma, Forever Ago that goes something like this.  A man is dumped by his girlfriend, he retreats to a cabin in the wilds of Wisconsin to lick his wounds, shoots a deer, butchers his own venison, and over the course of a good winter (a bon hiver, if you will), all alone in the woods, he records a therapeutic folk album of stark, ethereal beauty on a simple tape recorder.  It’s too bad that the creation myth is rife with errors, despite looking good in print.  Truth be known, For Emma connected with listeners not because it’s a triumph of joy over sadness or any other synthetic sentiment, it connected because it’s a good record.

Vernon has spent most of the past three years touring to promote For Emma and toying with ideas for a new musical direction.  2009’s Blood Bank EP wasn’t a huge step-out from his cabin songs, aside from some production twists.  His side-project Gayngs is more of a soft-rock busman’s holiday than a serious endeavor, a chance to blow off some steam in the vein of Neil Young with his Shocking Pinks.  Last year’s two-song collaboration with Kanye West could be filed under “bizarro-world ideas that didn’t work”.  But hey, when Kanye calls you up and asks you to fly out to Hawaii to jam, you get on a plane, right?

Finally, Vernon has returned to his muse with a new self-titled album.  Bon Iver includes some of the underpinnings of his previous work, primarily the falsetto vocals and introspective subject matter.  That said, the overall sound has grown to become a chamber-pop riff on folk music.  A group of additional musicians have been enlisted to create a fuller, more lush sound.  The ‘woodsman with a tape recorder’ approach has been put away for now, yet the results are equally breathtaking.  If the first record was a series of charcoal sketches, the follow-up is an explosion of acrylic brushstrokes.

The album starts off in brilliant fashion with “Perth”, a song that unfolds in layers from an initial hush of guitar and vocals.  The next four minutes see the introduction of martial drums, melodic bursts of distorted guitars and horns to Bon Iver’s arsenal.  The quiet/loud dynamics are stunningly emotional.

Most of the songs on the album are named after place names, either real or imagined.  The names likely aren’t meant to be literal – Minnesota, WI isn’t a real place but the name and the music probably reminds Vernon of northern lake country.  The song “Minnesota, WI” is notable for featuring a blend of falsetto and soulful tenor vocals.  Falsetto is reportedly a style that Vernon fell into when he searched for his own voice, but discovering he can sing just fine in his lower registers is a minor revelation.

The song that has received the most satellite radio airplay of late is “Holocene”.  A wistful lyric about autumn bleeding into winter unfolds over a repeating, chiming guitar melody and brushed drums.  The words can be interpreted a million different ways, but you get the feeling that the protagonist has been confronted by something so profound that he’s been humbled to his core.

“Towers” is a bit of a departure.  The twang of the guitars and the upbeat pace relocate it closer to country music territory.  “Michicant” brings the album back to the insular chamber-pop zone with a waltz time signature.  “Hinnom, TX” relies on very heavy reverb to convey a sense of disorientation.  Likewise, “Wash.” is something of a one-trick pony.  It’s constructed around a very simple piano melody and seems like an underdeveloped idea.  Perhaps it’s simply meant to be a rest stop on the road less travelled.

First single “Calgary” finally appears in the last quarter of the record.  It’s likely the most commercial song on Bon Iver, but doesn’t sound anything like a typical radio hit except for the vaguely Death Cab For Cutie beat.  Walls of guitars and waves of vocals wrap in and out of each other like the strands of a wire rope.

The most polarizing track on the album is the last one.  You will either love or hate “Beth / Rest”, depending on how you feel about 1980s AOR synth piano tones (think Steve Winwood’s “The Finer Things” or Bruce Hornsby’s “Fields of Gray”).  Vernon has hinted that the song is about how part of someone’s individualism dies when they take a leap of faith to fall in love, and it’s his favourite thing on Bon Iver.  Perhaps his intent was for the listener to revel in the familiar production and heart-felt sentiment instead of being distracted by it.  On that level, it’s a fine album closer.

There’s no way to say where Bon Iver goes from here.  But with two very different and highly rewarding albums to their credit, the sky’s the limit for Justin Vernon and his expanding troupe of bandmates.

Music Challenge Day 24 – A Song That You Want To Play At Your Funeral

This is like the scene from the film This Is Spinal Tap, where the Tap are gathered around Elvis’ grave at Graceland.  After trying to harmonize on “Heartbreak Hotel” and failing miserably, Nigel Tufnel reflects that this whole debacle “really puts perspective on things”.  To which David St. Hubbins replies “too much f*cking perspective”.

Thinking about what music to play at one’s funeral puts things into WAY too much perspective.  I sincerely hope that I have another 40 to 50 years of record collecting and new music to choose from before the gig goes down.  But if I don’t, it would be a (quiet) riot for someone to just hit Shuffle All Songs on my iPod and see what comes up.  It could lead to something beautiful, but it could also lead to something completely inappropriate.  Maybe they should save Shuffle All for an informal memorial party and stick to a few carefully selected songs during the service.

“Such Great Heights” is a song from a 2003 album called Give Up, by a group called The Postal Service.  It’s a cool song, but around the same time it was completely reinterpreted by Sam Beam (of the band Iron & Wine), which you might remember from the Garden State movie soundtrack.  The Iron & Wine version is very stripped down, acoustic, and gorgeously austere.  The words probably aren’t a perfect match for a bachelor’s funeral, but they are evocative of someone sailing high above the clouds, looking down at those left behind.  I’m reluctant to believe in the simplified sunday school characterizations of heaven & hell, but it is a beautiful idea to dream that the afterlife gives one a chance to float effortlessly above the earth, lazily gazing down at the people and places below.  At any rate, songs are always open to interpretation and their meanings can change depending on the context of the listener, thus “Such Great Heights” would work fine.

The last song on Radiohead’s OK Computer album is called “The Tourist”.  I absolutely adore the languid pace of this song.  It’s as though the band, and the listener, are completely unhurried and have all the time in the world to watch life drift by like so much flotsam on a lazy river.  Thom Yorke is imploring the idiot to “slow down”, which probably draws on his neuroses about air travel and car crashes.  But for me, it could easily be a song about suddenly having an infinite amount of time to see the world, like a disembodied soul that is forever destined to be a tourist.

But on closer reflection, the first song from Bon Iver’s new self-titled album is the way to go.  The overall tone of “Perth” is melancholy but defiant, like someone leaning into a cold north wind in a time of adversity.  The drums are reminiscent of a funeral march, the ascending melody reminds me of the best Brian Wilson songs, and the guitars and horns build to a perfect, spellbinding crescendo.  And the simple chorus – “Still alive for you, love” – seems poignant and understated.  “Perth” seems like a fitting epitaph for someone who’s tried to live a quiet, uncluttered life.