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Volcano Choir: Angels And Experiments

More choral than volcanic, Volcano Choir finds the Milwaukee-based experimental band Collections of Colonies of Bees collaborating with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. The resulting group's odd, spliced-and-diced instrumental pastiches aren't exactly linear, but the presence of Vernon's voice — often layered to create the aforementioned choral effect — lends warmth and heft to Volcano Choir's debut album, Unmap.

Of all the lovely strangeness on Unmap, its songs are never sweeter than the album-closing "Youlogy." Even if Volcano Choir isn't consciously channeling Jeff Buckley's "You & I," the track feels like a worthy sequel to that atmospheric gem, not to mention a rich reminder of just how sweetly angelic Vernon's voice can be. With Collections of Colonies of Bees providing minimal accompaniment — a bit of shimmering guitar here, a few plucked banjo strings there — Vernon is left to paint a mysterious but compelling picture, making vague references to devotion when he's not just cooing alluringly.

Vernon's breakthrough album with Bon Iver, last year's For Emma, Forever Ago, is viscerally emotional; it's a blood-and-guts record. Here, Vernon shows off a side that qualifies as the opposite of that: ethereal, mysterious, hard to pin down. Of everything he and his co-conspirators accomplish on Unmap — and especially in "Youlogy" — what stands out most is an unmistakable ability to surprise.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)