Is nothing sacred anymore? This week’s records all answer this question differently. We’re spinning new releases from Bon Iver, The Pixies and Devendra Banhart on Radio 1190 KVCU. How do these new records stack up against past releases? Read on to find out.
Devendra Banhart is surprisingly polarizing. Some love his gentle freak-folk ballads, while others (see Dev Hynes) call his music “insufferable.” Banhart’s new record “Ape in Pink Marble” continues along the same path forged with 2013’s “Mala.” Both records are quiet, soothing and understated. “Ape in Pink Marble” is a touch darker, but both are quite different than Banhart’s early-career acoustic guitar masterpieces. A Venezuelan-American, Banhart had previously dug into Latin-heavy rhythms and Spanish lyrics before turning his attention elsewhere. On “Ape in Pink Marble,” there isn’t much Latin influence left — a bossa nova beat doesn’t appear until Track 7, “Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green.” Still, I wouldn’t say the music is worse than his previous releases, just definitely different.
Devendra Banhart shoots for a soundtrack vibe with “Ape in Pink Marble.” These songs would fit well in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or other indie emo-core films. There is some variety in the release. “Fancy Man” comes close to Real Estate, “Good Time Charlie” has an Arthur Russell feel, and the final track “Celebration” is the real gem of the record. It’s spacey, warm and unhurried. I particularly like this track because it doesn’t really feel like a celebration. It’s not bombastic or energetic; rather, “Celebration” feels like a warm afterthought, an underlying score to a cigarette at sunset, the great contentment that catches us off guard. “Ape in Pink Marble” isn’t a masterpiece and definitely isn’t Banhart’s best record, but it’s comfortable and pleasing nonetheless.
Justin Vernon is known for comfortable music. Bon Iver‘s self-titled album, as well as “For Emma, Forever Ago” and “Blood Bank,” were all gorgeously crafted experiments in harmony. With “22, A Million,” Bon Iver turns quite jarring. Vernon slips in electronic bits where he would once use strings, cuts his harmonies to pieces, and exchanges a wholesome feeling for something foreign, unforgiving and inaccessible. I’ve heard comparisons between “22, A Million” and Sufjan Stevens’ “The Age of Adz.” In some ways, the records are similar (they both mark a huge electronic turn from a folk artist), but “The Age of Adz” maintains Stevens’ warm demeanor while “22, A Million” feels quite cold. The album art is full of symbols and imagery, all exciting but difficult to understand. It reminds me of Radiohead’s art style in some ways, but with Radiohead I feel as though there’s actually something buried beneath. With “22, A Million,” it feels like Vernon is using obscurity to hide a lack of meaning. It’s a cool concept, but I’m not sure it’s fully explored on the release.
There are obvious throwbacks to Bon Iver’s earlier work. “715 CRΣΣKS” pairs with “Woods” off “Blood Bank” with auto-tune vocals and similar subject matter. The record works best when Vernon employs his signature harmonies with electronic elements (“21 M♢♢N WATER” ) but fails when he sacrifices one for another. Final track “00000 Million” strikes closest to classic Bon Iver, but it’s unclear whether it’s a sign that Vernon will return to his folk roots or whether “00000 Million” serves as a headstone to past Bon Iver. Regardless of your history with Bon Iver, “22, A Million” is definitely worth a listen.
Finally, we have a new record from The Pixies. “Head Carrier” is The Pixies trying to fit back into the world they created. The release feels close to “Surfer Rosa” and “Doolittle,” almost like The Pixies attempted to study and formalize the records which defied formalization and study. It’s definitely a late-era release. Most of the natural grit is gone, and it doesn’t carry any of the youthful energy of classic Pixies records. As a Pixies fan, “Head Carrier” is kind of hard for me to hear. It’s along the lines of a Bob Dylan lounge band. I love Bob Dylan, but now he lacks everything I love about Bob Dylan. “Classic Masher” is a pop song — think “Wave of Mutilation” or “Here Comes Your Man” — but is far too normal to be a great Pixies song. “Oona” is close to “No. 13 Baby” but far less interesting. The record isn’t bad, just disappointing in context.
All three records mark interesting changes for well-known artists. If you want to hear new sounds from old favorites, tune into Radio 1190 KVCU this week: 98.9 FM in Boulder and 1190 AM in Boulder and Denver.
Jarocki is Radio 1190’s music director. Read more reviews: coloradodaily.com/columnists