CD REVIEWS: Bon Iver, Coldplay, Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket, and Shearwater
A debut album written from heartbreak, a Brian-Eno assisted attempt at reinvention, strikingly catchy Southern rock, and more.
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If Henry David Thoreau had been a modern-day folk musician, he might have sounded like Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver). During a self-imposed winter exile spent subsisting on deer meat in a woodland cabin in Wisconsin, Vernon wrote "For Emma, Forever Ago" to exorcise the titular girl from his heart. It sounds like a recipe for mopey miserabilism; the triumph of this debut is that it's anything but. The lyrics bear the rips of heartbreak – "Skinny Love" has lines like "I tell my love to wreck it all/ cut out all the ropes and let me fall" – but the music has a buoyant, almost jubilant quality. Apart from the trumpet and trombone on "For Emma" and the light drums on "Team," the album's main instrument is an acoustic guitar. But what makes it sound so impressively widescreen is the way that Vernon multitracks his vocals to create a choral effect – most notably on "Flume" and "Blindsided." Vernon's gorgeous melodies make this one of the year's most beguiling debuts.
Coldplay's previous album, "X&Y", was a bloated affair that didn't match the enormous prerelease hype from a band that was comparing itself to U2. Musically, "X&Y" found Coldplay in a creative cul de sac, circling back on familiar sounding constructions and motifs. At the end of the album's cycle, singer Chris Martin admitted, "We need to go away. We've got a lot of work to do." Martin's statement was reminiscent of Bono's 1989 declaration that U2 had to "go away and dream it up all over again," following its water-treading "Rattle and Hum" record. Like U2 before them, Coldplay hired producer Brian Eno to break the artistic logjam. The result, "Viva La Vida," isn't the revolutionary reinvention U2's "Achtung Baby" was. But there are some signs of Enovation. "Strawberry Swing" is built around a delightful African guitar motif, and Chris Martin abandons his famous falsetto for a low treble to accompany a violin that seesaws between bluegrass and Middle-Eastern modes on "Yes/Chinese Sleep Chant." The arrangements, too, are less linear, with several songs segueing into each other. But this is more consolidation of Coldplay's melodic strengths than risky reboot. Coldplay's piano-based balladry and anthemic rock is as precision-tailored for arenas as ever. As such, it's enjoyable but never quite transcendent. Still, with top-notch tunes such as "42" and "Cemeteries of London," this is the album "X&Y" should have been.