Review Summary: Justin Vernon shows us that he knows how to have a little fun, too.
It's been a hell of a last few years for Justin Vernon. After releasing Bon Iver
's For Emma, Forever Ago
in 2008, Vernon rapidly gained a fan base that seemed to be just as much in awe of the album's Walden
-esque mythos (for more background on this, see just about every For Emma, Forever Ago
review ever written) as they were about its gorgeous, emotional songs. It seems that ever since For Emma
's release, however, Vernon has been actively trying to distance himself from being pigeonholed as "that guy who ran off an recorded a melancholy album in the woods." Not only did Vernon expand his once solo project to feature a staggering ten musicians, but he's also been actively engaged in a number of different musical projects, ranging from fronting the ambient band Volcano Choir
to collaborations with artists such as Kanye West and Flaming Lips.
Vernon's new project, The Shouting Matches (also featuring fellow ex-DeYarmond Edison member Phil Cook and Brian Moen), continues this trend by trading the haunting soundscapes of Bon Iver for a rowdy blues rock-influenced sound. While Grownass Man
certainly does not add anything new or unique to the blues genre, it still is an enjoyable collection of tight, well-crafted tracks that prove that Vernon can let down his hair (or at least his bandana) and have a little fun.
Part of what makes the album such a worthwhile listen is the level of musical craftsmanship and variety that's evident in the album's ten songs. Instead of sticking to a particular style of blues rock, it seems as if the band collaged together their favorite elements of blues, from the grungy riffs in "Heaven Knows" to the deep, organ-based groove of "Gallup, NM." "Seven Sisters," one of the best tracks on the album, even has guitar leads that feature a noticeable light jazz influence. What helps to keep the album bound together as a cohesive whole is Cook and Moen's ability to play in the pocket and provide an unwavering rhythmic backdrop to Vernon's vocals. Moen's drum parts are always tasteful and well-suited to each particular track, while Cook's keyboard adds another much needed sonic layer to certain parts of the album.
Vernon himself is also no slouch on this album, and proves to be a more than competent blues guitar player. Vernon and Cook's beautiful intertwining guitar lead in "I'll be True" is one of the best moments on the album, as is the fuzz-heavy riff that carries the rollicking "New Theme." Vernon's vocals also work surprisingly well for a blues album, as he mostly eschews his falsetto to sing in a lower range. You won't be likely to confuse Vernon for Howlin' Wolf or even Stevie Ray Vaughan, but Vernon is nonetheless able to find a nice balance between smooth and gritty with his voice. The loose nature of the closing track "I Need a Change," which is somewhat reminiscent of The Black Keys's Brothers
closer "These Days," allows Vernon to experiment with a looser vocal style that is common to blues improvisation. Vernon's lyrics on this album aren't really worthy of any sort of in-depth analysis, but their playful simplicity fits in nicely with the overall vibe of the album.
If you're a big fan of blues music, you probably won't hear anything on this album that some other artist in the genre has done better. However, it has an effortless, easygoing feeling to it that makes it perfect to blare from your car speakers on a warm day or to relax to along with a few beers and friends. I'm curious to see where the musically restless Vernon goes from here, but if his future side projects sound anything like The Shouting Matches, I'm sure that they will be just as enjoyable and interesting.