Epoch begins with a dilemma. To explain why the avant-Americana quartet DeYarmond Edison is worth remembering, the box set would have to start with the recordings they made closer to the end of their mayfly lifespan. But to tell the whole story, it would have to start with Mount Vernon, their precociously professional teen band, whose songs, as the accompanying book gently concedes, may grate on the adult sensibilities at which this handsome shelf-buster is aimed. That they appear at the beginning anyway shows just how hard Epoch comes down on the side of storytelling. It’s a work of music journalism as much as a portfolio of songs, excavating how Justin Vernon, Joe Westerlund, and brothers Brad and Phil Cook grew up together in Wisconsin, rampantly evolved in North Carolina, and split off asymmetrically, with three of them earning modest acclaim as Megafaun and one earning Grammy awards and Taylor Swift guest spots as Bon Iver.
The box is divided into six chronological parts, beginning with All of Us Free, an LP that captures DeYarmond Edison taking shape in the late 1990s and early ’00s. The second LP, Silent Signs, reproduces their second album, which they recorded just before leaving Eau Claire. That Was Then consists of four CDs documenting the performances in which they dynamited their newly refined sound, and these discs form the messy, brilliant heart of the box and the band. The LP Epoch, Etc. is the sound of them breaking apart under the stress, and hazeltons is Vernon breaking out on his own. The set concludes with the LP Where We Belong, with an A-side of recrimination and a B-side of reconciliation.
Epoch was executive produced by Grayson Haver Currin, a Pitchfork contributor who also wrote the 114-page accompaniment, Time to Know. When DeYarmond Edison moved from the Chippewa Valley to the Southern capital of Raleigh in 2005, Haver Currin became a friend and fan, and the project is such a close study of their bond that it becomes a monument for friendship writ large—how it fits people together, changes them until they fit no more, and then, with patience, rejoins them at new seams.
DeYarmond Edison lasted only a year in Raleigh, but this is where they pushed their trusty roots rock to its limits and beyond—in public. Their sound took as its provenance all the Black and Southern and mountain music recorded by Alan Lomax, the electronic webs and tape delays of Steve Reich, the drone-country collage of Richard Buckner, the pastoral graces of Bill Frisell, the free energies of jazz, the cellular structure of procedural music, and the microtones of bowed cymbals, all of it spinning the chrysalis from which Bon Iver would later emerge.
Vernon, a guitarist and singer, and Westerlund, a drummer, started playing together in middle school, but Epoch picks up in 1998, when they fused with bassist Brad Cook and pianist Phil Cook as Mount Vernon. It’s every high schooler’s right to be annoying, and Mount Vernon exercised it fully. Their Saddle Creek-style indie folk was lethally earnest, its high-minded ideals untested, their cultural boundaries unquestioned. They were rule-followers, un-punk, with a “terrifying Protestant work ethic,” as one member put it. In short, they seemed the people least likely to rip it up and start again. Singer Sara Jensen is appealing on “We Can Look Up,” but Vernon is still figuring out whether he wants to be Adam Duritz or Lead Belly. The ska horns don’t help. Mercifully, high school graduation put a stop to this.
Soon enough, the Cooks reunited with a Westerlund, Dan—Joe was studying experimental music and jazz with Milford Graves at Bennington—in another band led by Vernon. But they were all a little wary, and they were all changing. The dreadlocks, dashikis, and Tibetan flags had fallen away, and a gentle, tasteful, moody Americana style was emerging. Vernon’s writing turned inward, his meanings shrouded in melancholy weather reports from real places that already lay half in childhood dreams. By 2004, when they released their debut album as DeYarmond Edison, Vernon was ripening into his husky voice. On the first LP here, you can hear their expanding horizons in a trumpeting electronic bauble from one of Vernon’s solo projects and “The Orient,” a mystic mountain of organ chords that ends disc 1.
The second disc reproduces Silent Signs, the album DeYarmond Edison made before leaving Eau Claire at the peak of their local fame. Now Dan was off to college, and Joe tagged back in. “Lift,” 97 seconds of gorgeously suspended gongs, horns, and soft feedback, tunes the listener’s antenna to the experimentation stirring in the sturdy songs to come. On the title track, the horns hang in graceful swags, the harmonica an almost strident drone. Vernon attenuates simple chord progressions into shards and curls, his songs unrolling in many pensive stages. Other highlights include the surprisingly good Tom Waits impression “Time to Know,” the salty-sweet Stevie Nicks homage “Dead Anchor,” and the whispering banjo-and-vibraphone mirage “Ragstock.”
The book’s appraisal of the music is washed in friendship, but it also has the sharp-eyed insights that only friendship allows. The young Vernon is portrayed as being driven by jealous rivalry with area bands like Amateur Love, which was gaining steam in Eau Claire. Even worse, the Cook brothers were members. Vernon made them choose. The compromise, which probably made sense in their mid-twenties, was that they would go all in on DeYarmond Edison, but it would be a collaborative vessel for their new interests, and they would relocate to Raleigh, a city they knew as an alt-country hotbed in the ’90s, with a Southern halo thanks to “Wagon Wheel.”
After making the move in 2005, they lined up a semi-monthly residency at Bickett Gallery on the strengths of their polite folk albums. They ripped this music to pieces in front of a startled, up-for-it audience, as we hear on That Was Then. The first two CDs are culled from the Bickett shows on March 1 and April 22, 2006, where each member took charge of one set. Vernon tasked his bandmates with singing leads instead of their customary harmonies. Westerlund brought in jazz tunes and experimental practices from Bennington. Brad Cook gave a crash course in 20th-century electronic composition. And Phil Cook led a deep dive into early, unamplified American music: Delta blues, spirituals, string and jug bands.
By then, Cook had immersed himself in UNC-Chapel Hill’s folk archives and met some “real honest-to-goodness folk musicians,” as he announced at the Mabel Tainter Theater, a bejeweled 19th-century concert hall where they played a triumphant home-state show between those two Bickett dates. Filling the second two CDs of That Was Then, the concert mixes songs from their records with restrained versions of their discoveries at Bickett. It delivers an ideal version of “Silent Signs,” stretched and spectral like Sam Amidon, and the beautiful “Red Shoes,” which has the cloudy mixture of doubt and regret that marks Vernon’s best songs, and the darkly spun charmer “Song for a Lover (of Long Ago),” where the enigmatic repetition of the word “ring” is both a matured take on the circular prosody of “Bones” and a holographic step toward Bon Iver.
In contrast to the concert-hall coughs on the Mabel Tainter discs, the chatter at Bickett sounds like an audience who’d come to hear these new guys from up north play Southern music but had walked into something else entirely, something haunting and electrifying. This band raggedly drawled the Piedmont blues of Blind Boy Fuller and belted out Muddy Waters, played a convincing Latin clave in “Afro Blue,” and improvised at the edge of chaos and in pacific depths (the exquisite “Abel + Cain”). They built ambient keyboard aquariums, roughed up a Richard Brautigan poem, bridged Sun Records traveling rhythms and Sun City Girls drones, and indulged in bursts of rustic thrashcore.
They also chanted and clapped their way through “Old Dollar Mamie,” a song that Alan Lomax recorded Benny Will Richardson singing in a Mississippi prison, and then dissolved it into electroacoustic drones. The brilliance of the Bickett shows lies in their stark, well-considered leaps, in their courage to play like riverbank idlers one moment and loft dwellers the next. Yet they could leap too far. They were suburban Northerners laying hands on rural Southern songs in an art gallery, and while the line between specifically Black music and common folk property is often blurry, there are times when they are inarguably emulating Black Southern voices, however reverently and carefully sourced. The book spends several paragraphs facing this head-on, but it’s still uncomfortable to hear.
The Bickett sets also include the spiritual “A Satisfied Mind,” the result of Brad Cook suggesting that Vernon try a falsetto, which the book frames as ground zero for Bon Iver. This new vocal style—and an increasingly spare, sculptural, multi-tracked style of construction—takes shape on hazeltons, a solo album Vernon released in an edition of 100 copies in 2006. Its title track features the “Holocene” chord progression with different vocals and less production; more exciting are “game night,” where guitar harmonics slip through drums like schools of fish, and “Song for a Lover (of Long Ago),” with field recordings and vocal processing, tricks he’d learned from his bandmates. But he was also pulling away, already collaborating with a future Volcano Choir bandmate on “Hannah, My Ophelia.”
The Bickett residency seemed to unsettle the fault lines DeYarmond Edison had been riding, especially when they started trying to figure out what to do next. A telling anecdote in the book finds Westerlund and the Cooks rapt by a noisy, unhinged Akron/Family show while Vernon sits in the back, wishing he could hear the nuances and structures of the songs. He was writing but not sharing much with the band. They were hurt, but when they heard the wholly private world he was creating, they understood. Lost in the studio, DeYarmond Edison dissolved mid-session, leaving 1,000 copies of a reissued Silent Signs to rot in a barn in Durham. Vernon returned to Wisconsin to make For Emma, Forever Ago, and the others went on without him as Megafaun. “We were like three framers and a contractor,” as Phil Cook put it. “Then the contractor left. And then we just built a bunch of fucking houses.”
Still, the final DeYarmond Edison recordings, collected on the Epoch, Etc. disc, were some of their best, with new versions that balanced graceful songwriting and experimental taste. Instead of building on this promise, though, the box set concludes with Where We Belong, which tracks a decade of cautious rapprochement. The first side features some lonely, heartbroken, Lomax-y things that Vernon made alone after the band split and the collaborative work that his former bandmates had taken as a betrayal. “Lazy Suicide,” which became Megafaun’s signature song, is pretty clearly aimed at Vernon. But the second side finds the four old friends taking one another on tour and joining for Sounds of the South, a major Americana collaboration with Sharon Van Etten, Fight the Big Bull, and others in 2010, captured here at the Sydney Opera House—the professionalization of the performance-as-archivism that they first tried at Bickett.
Brad Cook has gone on to become a prodigious producer, Phil Cook an invaluable steward of local gospel music, Westerlund a well-circulated drummer and solo artist. So what does their old band amount to in the end? As one doubter puts it in the book, “Other than DeYarmond Edison being a failure, I don’t know how important any of this is.” But if there is something indulgent about the project, there is also something deeply fascinating about its attempt to face every inch of the past, laying bare how people change and change yet always end up as what they always were.
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