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Blood Bank [Vinyl] Single
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This four-song collection continues down the path forged by 2008's critically acclaimed "For Emma, Forever Ago". Bon Iver's snow-blanketed harmonies live across the seasons. As much as "Emma" is about the cold, "Blood Bank" is about the warmth that gets you through it. Both expansive and intimate, these songs explore the darker and lighter natures of the seasons and what they signify, and offer a glimpse into the natural energy and refined craftsmanship that characterize Justin Vernon's music.
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But as word spread about "Emma" and Bon Iver played more and more live shows (even turning up on late night TV on rare ocassions) his fan base grew, and an increasing number of online reviews labeled "Emma" an emotional masterpiece.
If you're new to this artist, you should probably begin with "Emma" to get a sense of his unique style. Fans of that record, however, will find much to love on "Blood Bank," which contains several tunes written and/or recorded around the same time period. The title cut is especially strong, with sharp lyrics and strong guitar work.
The first three songs could easily be outtakes from "Emma," and all are easily the equal of anything found on that record. It's the final cut, "Woods" that is the wild card, and the one that is likely to sharply divide dedicated Bon Iver fans. Making use of the Auto-tune technology currently in vogue among hip-hop artists like L'il Wayne and Kanye West, Vernon electronically distorts his vocals to the point where he sounds almost machine-like. Repeating four simple phrases over and over ("I'm up in the woods/I'm down on my mind/I'm building a still/To slow down the time") and gradually adding high-pitched howls, the song builds to a kind of haunting grandeur, and the howls begin to sound like wolves far off in the distance on a frozen north woods evening. Some will hate it, but personally I think it's a stunner, and it hints to me that Bon Iver is an artist who is brave enough and talented enough to challenge himself and his fans. That's an encouraging sign for the future.
Often a fear for both artists and labels is the sophomore effort. Will the fans be as receptive? Does the artist have another glittering prize in their pocket? It's called the sophmore slump for a reason. Fortunately, Bon Iver's Blood Bath EP picks up where For Emma, Forever Ago left off and takes small paddles into a bigger sea.
Track by Track:
"Blood Bank" (4:45)
It sounds like a track that could have easily been on For Emma but with a bit more polish. Don't fear, is still simple and beautiful. It's just slightly cleaner in sound. Vernon also drags out his "Iiiiiiiiiiiiii...know it well" to the point of striking a Coldplay pose. Don't let it deter you, Vernon has a lovely voice and the softness of these lines underscore a great song.
"Beach Baby" (2:40)
This is a short song starting with just Vernon and his acoustic guitar. He quickly paints the picture of lost love's despair and even borders on sarcasm. The first line says it all with "When you're out, tell your lucky one...to know that you'll leave." After his brief acoustic reflection, the song closes with a haunting slide guitar.
"Babys" is broken into thirds. The first 1:25 of this song is repetitive piano chords that evoke mental imagery of a snowfall and sounds like a cross between a George Winston track and Animal Collective's "My Girls". At the 1:25 mark, Vernon chips in his vocals and the song fully develops for about two minutes before closing the last 1:30 with the same piano chords and Vernon chanting repetitively about making babies - "Summer comes, to multiply. To multiply!"
An absolutely gorgeous song that is just layered vocals and vocoder. The lyrics are simple but one gets the impression that the meaning is deep. He's "up in the woods...slowing down the time". Maybe he's savoring his successes. Maybe he's just trying to live as fully as possible in the fleeting moments of life. Either way, this is a stunner that borders on soul music in both emotion and sound.
I read comments by another critic that Bon Iver is "one-dimensional". I took that to mean that he has one sound and in time he'll become repetitive. While I could see that as a possibility if Vernon rested on his laurels and recorded 5 consecutive For Emma's, I found the last two tracks on Blood Bank to be experimental and a sign of what's to come. And I must say, I couldn't be happier about it. Blood Bank is an EP that avoids the sophomore slump by reaching *just a bit* out into the darkness of what Bon Iver may be on future albums while using the first two tracks to appreciate the path taken to get here.
There is also experimentation. "Blood Bank," is recognizably written for a full band. "Beach Baby," uses a slide guitar solo. "Babys" uses piano, one note repeated for tension. He uses a similar technique with his voice and guitar, but the piano adds a new tone. But these are small experiments.
The big surprise comes with "Woods," when he uses vocoder. This song needed to go last, because I don't know what you could put after it. In the beginning the vocals are high in the mix, but as the song progresses the same repeated lines are sung in different ways and recorded differently, some with harmony, some distantly reverbed; it all creates a huge emotional space. My favorite part is when he strains the heights of his register. Amazing.