Monday, February 20, 2012

If you like Bon Iver, thank Steve Winwood

Okay, I know you're thinking I'm crazy with this one, but bear with me. I'm not suggesting that the parallels between this year's Best New Artist Grammy winner and the classic blues-rock wunderkind are the overt kind. Part of Bon Iver's appeal is that the music doesn't quite sound like anything else you've heard.

Justin Vernon, the creator/songwriter who essentially is Bon Iver, layers multi-tracked falsetto vocals over lilting-yet-catchy melodies, and then he adds in just enough sonic interest to be appealing to the modern ear. This sonic interest usually takes the form of synthesizers, strings and beats. And it's through the application of those elements that a reverence for the 80s-era blues-pop of Steve Winwood manifests itself.

Listen first to the song "Calgary" from Bon Iver's 2011 self-titled album:

The song opens with a synthesizer playing an unresolved minor chord and the tracked vocals creating the shape of the melody over that sound; it isn't until more than a minute in that drum beats and distorted guitars enter the mix. The overall sound is one of stripped-down maximalism, as if there were once a hundred other elements that made up this song, all of which are now only hinted at through the few that remain.

Now listen to Winwood's "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do?" from 1988's Roll With It:

There are a lot of similarities here - unresolved minor chords on the synthesizer, multiple-tracked vocals, a relatively restrained arrangement (for the '80s) that relies heavily on synthesizer and beats. The melody itself is more traditional R&B than anything Bon Iver writes, but when Winwood sings, "And we turn into music," it is with the same raw emotion that Bon Iver sings, "Oh the demons come, they can't subside."

(This relationship between Bon Iver and '80s blues-pop is less crazy than it at first seems - Vernon readily confesses to a love of Bonnie Raitt, once an undisputed star of 80s-era blues-pop herself. He even works a gorgeous cover of Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" into his set.)

So consider the fact that if you like Bon Iver, you can thank Steve Winwood.


Anonymous said...

Spot on! I've been thinking, why does this song sound so familiar? vaguely like some 80's harmony pop or something, but I couldn't really pintpoint what it is! thank you!

Anne said...

Glad you hear it too!