- - Monday, June 20, 2011

Bon Iver

Bon Iver


Justin Vernon launched his career from a cabin in the Wisconsin woods, where he spent the winter of 2007 in isolation. Sidelined by a case of mono and still smarting from a recent breakup, he began writing folk songs that were soft and of the heartbreak variety, using a rudimentary recording setup to make demos of the material. Since no else was around, Mr. Vernon played most of the parts himself, mixing acoustic guitars with layers of overdubbed harmonies and percussion.

Mr. Vernon never got around to making “official” recordings of those demos. Instead, he packaged them together and released the whole thing - a la Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” - as Bon Iver’s first album. A record born of necessity - its intimate sound a direct result of the intimate environment in which it was created - thus became one of the most popular folk albums of the decade.

Fast-forward a few years, and Mr. Vernon is no longer a hermit living in the northernmost reaches of Green Bay Packers territory. He’s the leader of a full band, a friend of Kanye West and an eclectic, wide-ranging musician. Nowhere is that more evident than on Bon Iver’s self-titled second album.

An acoustic guitar still roots most of these songs, but so do horns and synthesizers. For traditional folk fans, this may be the equivalent of Bob Dylan going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. For those willing to indulge Bon Iver’s new direction, though, there’s beauty and warmth in these 10 tracks, which mix the organic with tasteful scoops of the electronic.

“Michicant,” with its scaled-down mix of vocal harmonies and guitar arpeggios, proves that Mr. Vernon still works well in an intimate setting. Most of the album stretches his boundaries, though. “Calgary” mixes church organ with 1980s keyboards, and “Holocene” begins life as a guitar ballad before expanding the palette with twinkling saxophone and string swells. The song titles suggest the towns in which they were composed - “Hinnom, TX,” “Lisbon, OH,” “Minnesota, WI” - and they unfold like movie scores, focusing as much on ambiance and atmosphere as on the melodies themselves.

There are some missteps, too. “Beth/Rest” ends the album on a clunky note, with guitars and saxophones dueling for the spotlight as a cheap-sounding Casio keyboard plunks in the background. Mr. Vernon is still gaining his footing as an electro-acoustic songwriter, and the thrill of adventure sometimes gets the best of him.

For the most part, though, “Bon Iver” is like a soundtrack for wallflowers who crave a little excitement: quiet around the edges, but filled to the brim with orchestral flourishes and unexpected twists.

RIP: Clarence Clemons, E Street Band original

It takes a big man to perform alongside Bruce Springsteen for 40 years, and Clarence Clemons - the E Street Band’s larger-than-life saxophonist - was literally that man. Standing tall at 6-foot-4, the “Big Man” helped revitalize the Jersey Shore sound, lending his saxophone to songs that were born on the boardwalks of Asbury Park but targeted a much wider audience.

Mr. Clemons spent his childhood in Norfolk, Va. After a car accident forced him to abandon an athletic career, he relocated to New Jersey, where he began playing with several bands as an in-demand saxophonist. He met Mr. Springsteen in late 1971; several months later, he gave up the other gigs and joined the E Street Band full-time.

Mr. Clemons was a pillar of the E Street Band’s sound. It’s no coincidence that the cover of Mr. Springsteen’s breakthrough album “Born To Run” features the Boss leaning against his saxophonist. Mr. Clemons literally propped the band up, giving their songs a sense of cool, brassy soul and beefing up their harmonies with his deep bass vocals. He played the saxophone like a rock ‘n’ roll instrument, and his solos - particularly those on “Born to Run” and “Jungleland” - are some of the genre’s most timeless riffs.

At 69 years old, he was the band’s oldest member, and Mr. Springsteen honored that seniority by introducing him last at every show. His popularity reached beyond the E Street Band, too. Less than a month before he died, Mr. Clemons was sharing the stage with Lady Gaga on “American Idol,” reprising the song they’d recorded for her chart-topping album “Born This Way.”

Every Big Man has his weaknesses, however. Mr. Clemons suffered a stroke on June 12 and died of complications six days later. He leaves behind a unique legacy, an irrevocable hole in the E Street Band’s roster and a wealth of music that will outlive the band itself.

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