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.
For its pastoral songs about coming down from the mountains for spring, running through forests, walking along streams, and listening to the serenade of meadowlarks, Fleet Foxes chose a suitably bucolic Bruegel painting for their album cover. Just don't expect the music to evoke medieval Belgium. This blissful record of chamber pop is pure California, fusing Brian Wilson-like arrangements with harmonies that eerily recall Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. Tom-tom drums, flutters of flute, and harplike acoustic guitar complete the effect. But it's the voices that dominate. The rainbows of harmonies sound as if they were recorded inside an empty cathedral even though the Seattle quintet admits they were mostly taped in "our homes, our friends' homes, our parents' homes." A record this radiant could dispel even the heaviest of clouds in the band's hometown.
MY MORNING JACKET: Evil Urges (Ato Records/Red)
Even Madonna would have to marvel at My Morning Jacket's capacity for reinvention. The Kentucky band's 2003 breakthrough, "It Still Moves," took flight on the wings of twin-engine lead guitars for 12 tracks of country-flecked Southern rock. But they updated the genre by adding a dreamlike quality: The reverb on bandleader Jim James's voice. On "Evil Urges," My Morning Jacket has once again flummoxed radio programmers. The title track and "Highly Suspicious" find James trying on a falsetto that sounds like Prince on helium. Against all odds, it's ridiculously catchy. Elsewhere, the band channels Electric Light Orchestra with lush harmonies and trembles of violin on "Sec Walkin." My Morning Jacket even veers into disco-tinged prog rock in "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream, Pt. 2." For the most part, the audacious stylistic verve works. Even though a glance at the lyric sheet makes it clear that James won't be the nation's next poet laureate, it's hard not to swoon for songs such as "Thank You Too!" and "Librarian." That said, the album is overlong at 14 tracks and one wishes they'd take the bubble wrap off the drum kit and amplifiers to introduce a few more spikes into the music.
SHEARWATER: Rook (Matador Records)
This Texan art-rock group, fronted by Jonathan Meiburg, has caught the ear of music critics but has yet to colonize the charts. Perhaps that's because there's little evidence that the four-piece has ever thumbed through the Lennon/McCartney songbook. There are few discernible choruses and the tracks eschew conventional pop-song structures. Opening track "On the Death of the Waters," for example, is structured like a bell curve: It starts out hushed as a prayer, swells into an outburst of guitar and trumpet, and then subsides into the ether once again. That's not to say that Shearwater can't pen a good hook. "Rooks" is propelled by a sure-footed backbeat, a glissando guitar progression, and horns straight out of Morricone Western as Meiburg, a part-time ornithologist, sings of birds ensnared in washing lines to evoke the natural order in disarray. Just as compelling: "Leviathan, Bound" is built on a duet between a hammered dulcimer and a piano. Elsewhere, the band employs violins, harp, banjo, tuba, French horn, trombone, and vibraphone, but the organic music feels minimalist and spacious rather than baroque and cluttered. Shearwater's main instrument, however, is Meiburg's one-in-a-million voice, a sonorous vessel of unfiltered emotion. The headphone album of the year.