Put Up Your Dukes: Bon Iver

boniverb540c1Two of MAGNET’s Matts—editor Matthew Fritch and writer Matt Ryan—go to the mat to see whose opinion is more correct. Today’s topic: Bon Iver. Put up your dukes!

From: Matthew Fritch
To: Matt Ryan

Hey, remember when you were a teenager and you’d be in the car with one of your parents and you’d have to find something on the radio that was tolerable for the both of you? You’d end up listening to the bland middle ground of John Mellencamp or the Steve Miller Band or, at best, Out Of Time-era R.E.M. Depending on our reader’s (yes, I do mean singular—I think one person reads this column) age, that safe-sounding music might have been the Wallflowers or Iron & Wine or Bon Iver. I’ve gotten more excited watching Sunrise Earth than I have listening to For Emma, Forever Ago.

“Skinny Love” from For Emma, Forever Ago (download here):

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From: Matt Ryan
To: Matthew Fritch

Sorry, I can’t relate to the analogy. If the music doesn’t praise Jeebus, my parents probably don’t listen to it, a fact that definitely precludes a musical meeting of the minds (unless I could somehow get them to listen to John DavisArigato!). But I see where you’re going here; in essence, anything other than John Zorn and Wolf Parade is “bland” and “safe,” right? C’mon, this isn’t Jack Johnson we’re talking about here; with its murky production and raw emotion, For Emma isn’t exactly sunny beach fare. Perhaps your parents are cooler than mine, but I can’t imagine they could get behind sentiments like “So many foreign worlds, so relatively fucked” (“Creature Fear”). So what exactly makes Bon Iver so bland?

From: Matthew Fritch
To: Matt Ryan

Hold on, my Zoot Horn Rollo vinyl is skipping. Oh … no, it’s not. Your request for specific criticism of Bon Iver’s music feels an awful lot like work to me, but here are a few things I find bothersome given the immense amount of praise that For Emma has garnered among music critics who really should know better. For an album that’s been touted as some log-cabin version of raw American folk, For Emma is surpassed in that respect by almost everything Will Oldham’s done (with humor, I might add) in the last decade or so. Justin Vernon (a.k.a. Bon Iver) is not a good singer; talk about an affected falsetto—it’s like Flight Of The Conchords without somebody doing the robot. He’s not a particularly proficient guitarist, either. Is he too sad to find something inventive to do with his instrument? Nick Drake managed just fine on his records. And yeah, we should hold Bon Iver to that high of a standard if it was anointed one of the top five (or whatever) albums of last year. I’m not arguing that Vernon has to be Yngwie Malmsteen or a genuine sharecropper, but he should be doing at least one thing really well. It’s emo-folk pablum and mediocrity across the board.

From: Matt Ryan
To: Matthew Fritch
My apologies for making you work; heaven forbid you back up your statements with some substance. But man, what a hard-ass. In the wake of losing his girlfriend and his band, Vernon rips out his heart and puts it on a plate only to have you shit all over it. Since when is virtuosity a prerequisite for quality? For Emma is honest stuff, not some contrived “emo-folk” as you call it. If you have any doubt, you need to watch this performance. I know you’d prefer cranking Ornette Coleman while screening Un Chien Andalou, but if you’d step down from your ivory tower for a moment, you’ll see that simplicity doesn’t always equal mediocrity. OK, so “Skinny Love” isn’t “Hiphopopotamus Vs. Rhymenoceros” or “Business Time,” but it’s still damn good.

From: Matthew Fritch
To: Matt Ryan
He “lost” his girlfriend and band? Is his band physically lost, like looking for the turnpike entrance? Did the girlfriend die? They broke up! He’s like Lili Taylor in Say Anything: For Joe, Forever Ago. And while I’m at it, Vernon got the band name from a catchphrase on the TV show Northern Exposure? Had he been watching Mork & Mindy, would he be going under the name Shazbot? Because that would be funny, like the lyrics to “Hiphopopotamus Vs. Rhymenoceros”:

“They call me the Hiphopopotamus
Flows that glow like phosphorous
Poppin’ off the top of this esophagus
Rockin’ this metropolis
I’m not a large water-dwelling mammal
Where did you get that preposterous hypothesis?
Did Steve tell you that, perchance?

That was fun to cut and paste from 360lyricsdepot.com or wherever. Why are there so many song-lyrics sites? Do they make any money? A discussion for another day, but my point is that Bon Iver is one note, and that note is sad.

From: Matt Ryan
To: Matthew Fritch
Speaking of Northern Exposure, did you know Janine Turner was now crazier than a shithouse rat? If her endorsement of Sarah Palin wasn’t enough, go here for definitive evidence. Anyway, I see what you just did there. When your first argument didn’t hold water (Bon Iver is bland and safe), you switched arguments (Bon Iver is too sad). Didn’t you just say “Nick Drake managed just fine on his records?” Nick Drake? The same Nick Drake that overdosed on antidepressants? Let’s face it, the guy wasn’t exactly Katrina And The Waves. He and Vernon work the same downcast territory, with equal effectiveness. But enough of this rancor. It’s time for business. It’s business time.

From: Matthew Fritch
To: Matt Ryan
Wow, so Janine Turner is a raging Jesus freak, huh? I like that her Christian yoga video (“60 minutes of Yoga with bible scriptures recited by Janine”) is called Christoga. I’m going to start selling Christian yogurt called Christogurt. Anyway, we’ve brought it full circle back to your distaste for evangelical Christianity, from Janine Turner to your parents’ music and the damaged childhood that’s resulted in your enthusiasm for Bon Iver. Now it all makes sense.

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  1. Posted February 17, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I will trump both of your arguments by saying, to each his own. Arguing about music with a few select friends turns out to be ultimately fruitless, ending with me not listening to “their” music out of spite, and listening to my superb picks even more. I am a huge fan of Bon Iver, and yes, I can see Fritch’s POV. His guitar work is simple power chords, and no, he would not make a living as an operatic tenor. BUT, there IS emotion, there IS affliction. This is not “emo-folk”, that term is just preposterous. At the end of the day, I will keep going back to the likes of Bon Iver, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens, Iron & Wine and the like. Why? Because I like it. And I will continue to loath pitchfork’s, I mean, Fritch’s flavor of the week bands (though, they get it right sometimes).

  2. Posted February 17, 2009 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    To me, the problem isn’t with the dude-with-the-cabin-album, it’s the people showering praise on him. He’s just a dude who made an album. It baffles me that anyone cares that he made it in a cabin in the woods. So what? Guitar Center will sell you $400 worth of gear and you could do it too. Beyond that, the idea that his music is “honest” is pointless. I can be honest and say: “I just picked my nose”. Honesty is perhaps beside the point. Or, I could ask if he’s so honest, why is he singing in someone else’s voice? I’ve heard him speak. Anyway, if his songs move people, resonate with them, then GREAT. What I’ve heard, though, just isn’t my cup of joe.

  3. bootyluva
    Posted February 18, 2009 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    The two guys above are assholes. Fritch is exactly right. “For Emma” is generic, lightweight, and painfully boring. It sounds like it was recorded on a macbook, not on some old tape machine out in the woods. I’m sick of reading reviews that describe the production value as being so rustic and “raw” when this album could have been recorded in a dorm room somewhere. And probably has been. By business majors. The whole “I recorded this alone in the woods” thing is just a gimmick. It is one of the most ordinary things I’ve ever heard.

    Northern Exposure? Seriously??

  4. bootyluva
    Posted February 18, 2009 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    I forgot to mention how annoying it is that every vocal part on the record is made up of several layers of overdubs. So lame. ok im done.

  5. george
    Posted February 23, 2009 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    wow, you are all a bunch of tools, especially that bootyluva guy.

  6. yourmom
    Posted June 23, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    This is the kind of music people will be looking back on in ten years and laughing about.