Review Summary: If Amateur Love wasn't relevant in 2003, it sure as hell is now.
There seems to be a dividing consensus around Justin Vernon's exploits outside of Bon Iver. Some, and generally the more high-nosed of the indie crowd, view his mainstream collaborations as shameless cash grabs (Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
being the poster-child of this), better shocked out of memory by lobotomy, otherwise have their perceptions of Bon Iver's godlike indie folk mythology be forever tainted. Yet on the other end, the more pragmatic audiences see him as a talented musician branching out into other genres and collaborating with artists who could use the affiliation of a respectable guest (no, we're not looking at you Miley Cyrus). Whichever the case, there's really no debating that Justin Vernon gets around the music industry. His label Jagjaguwar is widely known for getting behind every unknown artist it can scrape off the PBR can and cigarette butt littered club floor, and its new imprint (launched by Vernon in 2010) called Chigliak is so far no exception.
In fact, its first child, Amateur Love, has roots almost as humble as the heartache origin story of its Wisconsin-hibernating backer. See, Amateur Love released It's All Aquatic
as a CD-only to a small local following back in 2003, and soon after disbanded, never to see much success. A close friend at the time, none other than Mr. Vernon himself, reflected in a pitchfork article inquiring about his recent label launch that they were "one of the most enigmatic and electrifying bands" he'd ever heard and knew immediately upon forming Chigliak that It's All Aquatic
was the album to be re-released as a digital and vinyl format--so that its undiscovered greatness could be spread among the people, I assume. It should be no surprise, therefore, that approaching the album comes with pretty high expectations. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how badly you want Justin Vernon's taste to be proven terrible), the album meets the impossibly high expectations with reasonable success.
In much the same capacity as The Weakerthans and The National, Amateur Love are on a different plane than their contemporaries first and foremost by their lyrical prowess. While the rest of the twenty-something year old indie crowd are giving the finger to society and their exes, while denying that they're doing either, vocalist Josh Scott is slipping Ivy-league sentiments and beguiling quips. When he croons, "It's all aquatic. Swim, sip a tonic with your pseudo-pose and mascara nose," on "Con/A Sewer/Cat," you can't help but believe he sees the world as a much more humorous place than the rest of us, and is damn right about it being one. But it wouldn't make a difference whether he's spouting off neoclassical exposition or restricting his vocabulary to "baby" and "oh" if the music didn't uphold the same quality, and that's where Amateur Love falter slightly. Though, maybe not in the way you think.
See, unfortunately, not all of the members of Amateur Love were created equal--Scott is far and away the highlight of the album to the point where most of the other members fall to the wayside. But it isn't that the musicianship is lackluster on It's All Aquatic
--far from it. Tracks like "Sell Me Your Army" and "(Absolut Fiction)" feature rippling synths and looping acoustic guitar work that actually make Amateur Love's genre a fairly difficult one to pin point as both electro-pop and indie-rock influences are balanced throughout. It's just that when the singer and his lyrics are so alluring, you tunnel in on him, following every word and blocking out anything that would be a distraction. There are exceptions to this, however. Like Bryan Devendorf of the National, the drumming is the driving force of Amateur Love's musicianship. It's mechanical in its precision and energy, and often just as melodic and leading as Scott. It's never simply for steam--rather, it acts as the propeller, guiding the songs with its spritely eighth note, down tempo beats. But then...where is the fault in It's All Aquatic
Well, perhaps there really is none. The parts are all in place to make for a record that should be just as praise-worthy as Justin Vernon made it out to be, but yet a part of me finds the record to fall flat--and as much as I'd like to set the blame on myself and not doubt the band, I feel as if it really should
have become the classic record it seemed to have all the makings for; one that stood next to Bon Iver's masterful debut, though not because it is similar in style or sound, but because its story was just as enchanting as the words that Scott so intelligently delivers. Yet I'm somehow complaining that I've been left with a record that is excellent--and only just excellent. If records become classic in time then maybe there is hope after all, but at least I'm sure that if anyone knows this to be true of It's All Aquatic
it's Josh Scott, and not Justin Vernon.