I remember when I heard David Crosby’s solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name for the first time. As much as I liked (no, loved) the thing right from the initial go-round, it wasn’t until after repeated listenings that I realized many of the songs had no words. I mean, there were vocals, but they were beautiful weavings of choral tones without a lyric in sight – and none were needed. Nothing lacked for emotion or clarity; and, in fact, words might have only clouded up the beauty. A flyer of the freak flag from way back, Crosby has always taken great delight in promoting himself as the member of CS&N who came up with, as he put it, “the weird shit.” Maybe so, but If I Could Only Remember My Name was nothing short of lovely.
I could say the same thing about Volcano Choir’s Unmap.
A product of the kind of cross-pollination that just seems to happen naturally in the world of indie (without even a press conference or merchandise!), Volcano Choir is what happens when you tuck Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and the talented lads known as Collections of Colonies of Bees into a recording studio on a November weekend in Wisconsin. The CoCoB boys (Jon Mueller, Chris Rosenau, Jim Schoenecker, Daniel Spack, Thomas Wincek) and their friend Vernon had been bouncing ideas off each other for a number of years between their own projects. Ideas begat fragments and passages of music. Eventually, songs began to take shape, grow legs, and sprout wings. A band was born.
This is the sound that emotions make when allowed to run unhaltered, free of the constraints of the English language. Over foundations that range from airy acoustic guitar and distant (“Husks And Shells”) to swirling loops, samples, and drums (“Island, IS”) to sparse Tom Waits-sounding mbira (oddly enough, “Mbira In The Morass”), Vernon and company let the vocal vibes happen. Don’t fuss with trying to decipher specific words and phrases – just go with the flow and let the music gather you up.
Take “Cool Knowledge” as a minute-and-seven-second crash course in what Volcano Choir is about: the opening seconds could easily be mistaken for a cluster of bowed strings – or warm feedback – but no, those are human voices, right there, then suddenly fading. Someone begins to sing a breathy bass lick that repeats, establishing a funky pattern. Suddenly a drum kit kicks in, stripped-down and up front, joining hands with the voiced bass. The chorus returns, one voice taking a lead role like a throated saxophone while the others alternately coddle it and then swoop and dive in other directions. It all builds into a final few moments of driving beat like the ending to a James Brown song … and then there’s silence.
Unmap even feels like it was recorded on a November weekend – like Volcano Choir let the sounds of the feelings scamper loose around the cabin while the woodstove crackled away. This is cozy stuff – powerful but never scary.
Let that freak flag fly.