Justin Vernon has been pushing the boundaries of alternative music for close to two decades now. He reinvented the style of home recording with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, brought hip-hop instincts into an indie rock setting with Volcano Choir, and has even helped Kayne West recreate his sound since their work on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Vernon’s newest project is the brainchild of his work with The National’s guitarist and composer Aaron Dessner. The project, called Big Red Machine, is named after the Cincinnati Reds baseball dynasty in the 1970’s. However, the music does not focus on the past, but pushes towards the future. With over 40 collaborators on the release, this is Vernon’s most lucrative project by far.
The constant of the album is Vernon’s signature falsetto. Justin’s falsetto has become his go-to vocal feature and that’s what makes his works so unique. Falsetto is typically seen as an aspect of a singer’s range that should be avoided. Vernon, much like Sam Smith, embraces the struggle of creating a falsetto that is enjoyable and truly comforting. His voice is reminiscent of a mother singing lullabies to her child, but instead of being accompanied by silence, she is accompanied by synths and 808’s. Although the use of falsetto gets repetitive at times, it is still a high point of any Vernon release.
Dessner and Vernon instrumentals are based on an initial groove that is repetitive in nature and is played by either electronic drums or overly distorted stringed instruments. My main complaint about the instrumentals for this release would be the lack of dynamics within each song. Every song on this album opens with an instrumental that immediately grabs the interest of the listener. Tracks, like “Forest Green” and “Gratitude” are based on lush complicated soundscapes that yearn for a crescendo into an epic conclusion. However, it never comes. Vernon has been known to have certain tracks that merely glide through a single loop or chord progressions with ease. These tracks typically succeed, because of layering and masterful vocal performances. The only difference on this album is that the layering is not as exciting or is merely predictable. That being said, the instrumentals on tracks like “I Won’t Run From It” and “Hymnostic”, beautifully blend the nature of the groove with a more complicated form of layering and sonic structure. Tracks like these break up the almost repetitive nature of the album.
The majority of Big Red Machine was recorded in Dessner’s Hudson Valley home. The album does not suffer from the setting of a home studio, but in fact, excels because of it. The relaxed nature of home recording is felt in each song. Songs, like “I Won’t Run From It”, paint a sonic picture of enjoying a cup of coffee in a quiet home while looking out on a sunrise over the Hudson River. The production is incredibly professional but allows for moments of true peace and comfort in moments like that. The album is created with a more holistic approach to the idea of grinding at home in a garage. Dessner takes time to enjoy the little things and that is what this release’s focus is; the little things.
“I Won’t Run From It”, “Hymnostic”, and “Deep Green”
This is one of the few releases by Vernon that I will not add to my library immediately. The high points of this album are definitely worth multiple plays on repeat, but the majority of the album is either overcomplicated or underdone. This might be due to the numerous collaborators on the project or the necessity of exploration for a distinct sound during a band’s adolescence. Big Red Machine offers a glimpse into what is a bright future for two of the heaviest hitters in indie music. They might stumble during their journey, but they will find a sound that is futuristic, innovative, and new. If nothing else, Big Red Machine is unique and not just a carbon copy of other artistic efforts.
– Peter McDermott