Review: Two Indie Heavyweights Team Up as Big Red Machine

PEOPLE is the name of an artist collective and web platform, co-founded by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner, that grew out of the 2016 Michelberger Music series in Berlin. The idea, as explained on the site, is “to establish an independent and nurturing space in which to make work (generally around music) that is collaborative, spontaneous and expressive in nature and where all unnecessary distractions or obstacles that get in the way are removed.” It is as much “about the process of making work,” we’re told, as “the final outcome.” Big Red Machine is both a side project by Vernon and Dessner – which in fact dates back 10 years — and, effectively, a showcase for the PEOPLE collective, many of whose members contribute.

Got that? In any case, shorn of backstory, Big Red Machine sounds like Bon Iver and The National freestyling with friends, drinks and vape pens. “We met up at the High Line/Great park/Rose bark birch/And the two stitch hurt/You had this torn ‘Pac tee/And some horrible knees” sputters Vernon over stuttering machine-beats and electric guitar scribbles on the opener “Deep Green,” adding “We came up out the G league/in a teepee gloss/Where your tea leaves, Boss?” The track is engagingly unraveled, and just as you might be teetering on the brink of what-the-fuck?, it all coalesces into numinous chorus buoyed by Lisa Hannigan’s vocals and electronics from Mouse on Mars’ Jan Werner.

So goes the rest of this experiment-minded set, players bushwacking towards moments of uplift that feel all the more earned for the indirect journeys that precede them. “Forest Green” emerges from an ambient haze, Vernon’s melancholic bassline and digitally-burnished vocals weaving through beats from Bryan Devondorf and Dessner, whose electric guitar chops out counterpoint. There’s the gospel soul of “Lyla,” punctuated with Vernon’s Kanye-esque flows. “OMBD” (the acronym for “over my dead body”) moves through a murky dub mix that eventually recedes like mist at sunrise. “Melt” is a minimalist construct of slashed guitar chords, chants, and hollers that builds to a magnificent crescendo. At one point in “Gratitude,” Vernon repeats “I better not fuck this up!” over and over, like a fretful kid on the spectrum. The charm of this chill LP, however, is a collective sense that noone has that worry.

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