New York bands can operate in a bubble, but smaller musical enclaves like our own must connect within and without to thrive.
The Triangle has a history of forming intimate musical connections with other regions: Consider the ties to Florida since a constellation of Gainesville and Jacksonville musicians centered around Fin Fang Foom moved here in the late '90s, or the Nebraska natives of Sorry About Dresden who linked Triangle musicians with their Omaha counterparts and, on occasion, that city's influential Saddle Creek record label.
Now add Eau Claire, Wis., to the list. It's where the members of DeYarmond Edison grew up before spending the final year of their four-year career in Raleigh. When the band broke up last fall, it's where DeYarmond Edison frontman Justin Vernon returned to record his new album under his new name, Bon Iver. The remaining members—Joe Westerlund and brothers Brad and Phil Cook—stayed in the Triangle to reconvene as Megafaun, carrying on the DeYarmond Edison tradition of blending traditional folk idioms with modern experimental ones in a wilder, rawer way.
DeYarmond Edison leavened aching Midwestern rock, folk and country tunes with subtle sections of drone. Their sharply imagistic lyrics and restrained experimentation recalled Richard Buckner, although singer-songwriter Vernon's honeyed croon—more overt than Buckner's—supplied a haywire Son Volt surface. While recording its excellent second album, Silent Signs, the band conjoined resonator blurs and Tibetan singing bowls with pedal steel and banjo. Vernon's warm lead melodies and rich guitars lit dark, flickering strains.
The band's music was always enriched by the tension between Vernon's classically inclined songwriting and the avant-garde mindset of the band members who would become Megafaun. After all, drummer Westerlund studied with Albert Ayler collaborator Milford Graves, while Vernon studied the records of John Prine and Jackson Browne. With jazz training in their backgrounds, the members were flexible, equally capable of wreathing songs in extemporaneous noise or playing them close to the hip. Early in 2006, DeYarmond Edison began a five-month, five-show residency at Bickett Gallery, where it separated those traits into 20 minute phase-pieces for four keyboards and a cappella spirituals with the goal of making both sides stronger and bringing them back together. They weren't flexible enough to make such tension last forever, and they broke up while recording a five-song EP.
Lucky for us: We get two new bands in the bargain. Lucky for them: Almost a year after DeYarmond Edison broke up, large independent labels recently offered Megafaun and Bon Iver record deals on the same day.
Since Vernon was DeYarmond Edison's frontman (the band's name is actually his middle names), you'd think Bon Iver would more closely resemble DeYarmond Edison than Megafaun. That the opposite is true speaks volumes about Megafaun's divisive dynamic. Megafaun goes further than DeYarmond Edison in imbuing loose, gritty folk music with the mutating energy of free jazz.
On Bury the Square (to be released nationwide by Table of Elements' Radium imprint), the ideas that underpinned DeYarmond Edison's music are explored in less fettered, more pungent forms. Tomcat yowls and delirious barbershop harmonies replace Vernon's mannered vocal style. Instead of dressing up polished alt-country songs with veils of hum, Megafaun pickles rickety back-porch folk reconstructions in a brine of chaotic field recordings and organic, free-form atmospheres. It's an album so ingeniously balanced that it stands a chance of satisfying both folk and experimental music fans. For the former, there's the clattering bluegrass/rock of "Lazy Suicide" and twinkling weeper "Drains." For the latter, there's the cacophonous crescendo and melting decrescendo of "Where We Belong" and the musique concrète of "Tired and Troubled." For non-partisans, there's simply a seamless marriage of two memes, one traditional and one relatively modern, reminding us that folk and experimental music both revolve around the same spirit of exploratory expression.
Meanwhile, Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago, now in contract negotiations with a large independent label, seems like a deliberate effort on Vernon's part to break away from the style he established in DeYarmond Edison: The only thing the two projects really share is a songwriter and an Eau Claire zip code.
That should be a lot, but it isn't, furthering the suspicion that Bon Iver was a starting-over point for Vernon—not just in music, but in life. To contrast the two bands is a study in opposites: DeYarmond Edison's songs were sturdy and emphatic; Bon Iver's are wispy and vanishing, comprised mostly of vaporous acoustic guitars and rudimentary percussion. DeYarmond Edison's vocals were naturalistic and lubricated; Bon Iver's are falsetto and creaky. DeYarmond Edison sounded like Richard Buckner and the Band; Bon Iver doesn't even sound like the indie-pop of The Rosebuds, which one might expect considering that Vernon has been their touring guitarist and produced parts of Night of the Furies. Instead, it recalls something between Devendra Banhart and TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone.
Vernon recorded the elegiac album, which revolves around a long-lost relationship, in a cabin. This tends to be music-journo shorthand for authenticity, but it's not necessary here. That For Emma, Forever Ago is a product of authentic personal inspiration is manifest in its sudden stylistic left-turn and its gorgeous, haunting songs. Especially at moments like the celestial choral harmony that opens the galloping ballad "Lump Sum," it reveals another facet to Vernon the songwriter: He plays the role of pensive wilderness mystic in Bon Iver just as convincingly as he did that of rust-belt journeyman in DeYarmond Edison.
Megafaun plays The Pour House with tourmates Akron/Family and Greg Davis Monday, Sept. 17, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8-$10. Bon Iver, currently recording the new LP from Land of Talk in Canada, has two scheduled shows at CMJ in New York: Oct. 16 at Bowery Ballrom and Oct. 17 at Piano's. Full disclosure: Music Editor Grayson Currin owns a record label with Megafaun's Brad Cook.