Big Red Machine Sounds Likes The Midpoint Of The National And Bon Iver On Their Debut Album

Cultural Critic
08.28.18

Graham Tolbert

When the definitive account of ’00s indie-rock is written, a special chapter should be reserved for Dark Was The Night, a 2009 charity compilation produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National that featured some of the decade’s most notable indie stars. Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire, Dirty Projectors, Feist, Grizzly Bear, Iron & Wine, The Decemberists, Cat Power, Conor Oberst, Beirut, Yeasayer — with all that talent, Dark Was The Night was “We Are The World” in skinny jeans.

The double-album proved to be both a triumphant capper for a decade in which indie music moved from the underground to the mainstream of music festivals and corporate ad campaigns, as well as a melancholic pivot toward a new decade in which many of those acts slowly retreated from the pop world. Not that this was apparent at the time — in the immediate aftermath of Dark Was The Night, indie rock was awash in bearded guys seeking to fuse the rustic simplicity of Neil Young with the brainy, avant-classical stylings of Steve Reich. But in retrospect, Dark Was The Night was the beginning of an era’s end.

One of the most lasting remnants of that album’s legacy is the partnership forged by Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. In 2008, Dessner approached Vernon — at the time largely unknown outside of a small circle of blogs raving about For Emma, Forever Ago — with a few musical ideas in need of shaping into an actual song. Over time, this collaboration produced the track “Big Red Machine,” later released on Dark Was The Night. Subsequently, Dessner and Vernon remained close, working together on a series of music festivals and the recently launched PEOPLE streaming platform. Now they’ve come together for a new band, also called Big Red Machine.

Big Red Machine’s self-titled debut will no doubt be received as a side project by members of two of the most enduringly popular indie acts of the early 21st century. And the music doesn’t exactly discourage that point of view — to put it somewhat reductively, these songs sound a lot like the smoldering, slow-burn electro-folk of the last National album, 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, bolstered by the wild, backwoods hip-hop psychedelia that distinguished Bon Iver’s 2016 release 22, A Million. Vernon makes Dessner’s music sound weirder and woolier, and Dessner’s warm, inviting sonic textures pushes Vernon to some of his least affected vocal performances since For Emma.

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