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Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver has always been driven by progress. His 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago began in minimalist isolation, rarely straying from the core combination of Vernon’s voice and acoustic guitar. Four years later, the self-titled sophomore album expanded into a more grandiose and atmospheric sound, propelled by a host of brass performers mixed elegantly into the compositions. Then, following several collaborations with hip-hop innovator Kanye West, Vernon released the audaciously experimental 22, A Million. Tearing apart everything we’d come to expect from Bon Iver, Vernon reconstructed something remarkable and abstract, held together with wild electronic glue and earning comparisons to Radiohead’s Kid A. Three years after that and Vernon is back with the bizarrely titled i,i (‘i comma i’), surprise-released 22 days ahead of schedule. Whilst it’s certainly no regression, i,i finds Vernon in a new place, stepping back rather than moving forward. If 22, A Million was Vernon’s Kid A, then i,i is his In Rainbows, an exquisite consolidation of everything Bon Iver has been over the past 12 years.
Speaking about Aja, Steely Dan’s sixth album, guitarist Dean Parks said of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, “perfection is not what they’re after, they’re after something that you wanna listen to.” No other quote encapsulates the music of Steely Dan better. Indeed, on Aja, as evidenced by its sales, they really did find something you wanna listen to and, arguably, found perfection. It is what Parks said next that hits true poignancy in regards to Aja’s follow up: “… we would go past the perfection point until it became natural.” 1980’s Gaucho is evidence of what a Steely Dan album sounds like when it stops just before perfection- the sound of a band desperately striving for flawlessness but ending up with a finished product on the wrong side of their goal.
The wonderful thing about The Flaming Lips is their ability to be profound without sounding pretentious. Unlike, for example, some of the prog-rock bands of the ‘70s, whose big themes often got lost in dense mysticism, The Flaming Lips remain down-to-earth. In recent years their personality has arguably become a little tacky and directionless, sounding more like a random quirky word generator than a band. However, at their peak, The Flaming Lips were able to ground their existentialism in accessible idiosyncrasies. Twenty years ago, they achieved this balance to perfection. Presenting life in all its beauty and heartbreak, with gorgeous melodies and lush instrumentation to match the richness of its themes, The Soft Bulletin remains the band’s crowning achievement.
We thought we wouldn’t be able to top the excitement of all our recent BBC coverage – Michelle was interviewed in April and Club Rockhaq was live on air in May – but we did! Firstly, one of our most prolific Community writers Mark Wong led a surprise Club Rockhaq workshop at Leicester Central Library last week. Mark is now teaching English in Vietnam so made a super special flying visit to a selected group of Club Rockhaq writers.
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