Day 162: On Repave, White Lighter, and Ensemble Records

by Tom Noonan

Volcano Choir’s Repave is a very good record.  It’s both serene and challenging, gorgeous and destructive, the sound of a storm settling over an empty lake.  On it, we’re treated to all incarnations of Justin Vernon, from Wisconsin cabin dweller to sobering Kanye conscience, sometimes all in the same song, like in “Alaskans”, a song that makes schizophrenia sound like a cure rather than a disorder.  But even when it rumbles, Repave finds a way to flatten out and steady itself.  It’s a roller coaster that never drops, that builds tension it never releases.  It sounds like Vernon wants us to heal with him, to move on, but he probably has to burn down his own cabin mythology completely before we can trust that he’ll never go back.

Repave is also, according to its liner notes, an ensemble record, which means it belongs to more people than just Vernon himself.  Jon Mueller and two members of All Tiny Creatures are in there somewhere, but you’d probably hurt your neck trying to find them.  “Almanac” might be the album’s least Vernon-y song musically in that its instrumental wouldn’t feel all that out of place on All Tiny Creatures’ Dark Clock.  The only problem is that it’s also the only song Vernon seems completely detached from, as if he recorded most of his vocals in a different time zone.  Even when things come together in the end, it feels accidental, like a drunk driver getting a ride home from someone he met at the bar.  It wasn’t so much planned as it was handsome luck.

Across the bar, drinking a cranberry juice, is Typhoon, a twelve piece band from Oregon that very recently bested Justin Vernon at his own game.  Their album White Lighter is the kind of confident ensemble record you imagine Vernon hears when he listens to Repave.  It pours down then drizzles, floods and recedes, builds cabins for the sole purpose of burning them down.  And it’s also fucking huge, thematically ambitious, and a little bit of a mess.  “Young Fathers” spans generations, channels Arcade Fire, and ends in a dramatic, bar-sung piece of advice, “Learn all your mistakes/Passed down through generations”.  These aren’t perfect songs.  They won’t find their way to any air time.  But they’re exactly what an ensemble band should sound like, legitimately overwhelming without sounding excessive.

This is exactly what Repave got wrong; it never spilled over.  If Vernon wanted something as massive as the tidal wave on the album’s cover, then he needed to let the project swallow him completely.  He needed to be a cog rather than the machine’s operator.  White Lighter is so successful because the collaborators in Typhoon allow it to get pulled in so many directions.  Songs like “Artificial Light” and “Common Sentiments” don’t have a single, clear identity; they have about nine or ten.  This makes White Lighter an album that’s inherently about the struggle for artists to fully connect and successfully communicate their visions.  It’s about compromise and the layers of professional relationships.  The explicit intentions of the record don’t matter, just the energy between creative minds.  I wonder if Justin Vernon’s heard it.