Musical anonymity can be a funny thing. Justin Vernon, the neo-folk mastermind behind Bon Iver, isn’t going completely incognito by stepping out with a few friends to record a loose-limbed garage-blues record, but it’s something of a musical disguise nevertheless; his ethereal, crooning falsetto replaced with a gnarled, expressive wail, one could easily mistake his vocals on The Shouting Matches’ Grownass Man for the work of… of anyone else, really. Take your pick.
But that’s not to say that Grownass Man is unwelcome; just that it’s different. The choogling boogie-rock of opener “Avery Hill” alone is a signifier that this isn’t your typical trip to Vernon-land. It brings to mind a less-stoned Kings of Leon, a relic from that band’s loosey-goosey Southern-fried rock days. Grownass Man — much like Green Day’s tenure as Foxboro Hot Tubs — seems like something of a deliberate distancing from the principal players’ primary leanings, a venue to let the proverbial hair down and scale back some of the artistic ambition. (Note: The internet informs me that the non-Vernon pieces of the Shouting Matches puzzle are Phil Cook of Megafaun and Brian Moen of Peter Wolf Crier. Without familiarity with these other projects, I can’t attest to their similarity to The Shouting Matches or lack thereof, but let’s face it, most of you are here for Vernon anyway.)
One can’t help but think of the most obvious question, though: would this record be worth a listen without current Patron Saint of Independent Music Justin Vernon at the helm? Do we need more southern-rock retreads, bare-bones blues-rock, ’70s AM radio pastiche?
As it turns out… yeah, kind of. Grownass Man is far from essential, mind you; those enticed by Vernon and his thrillingly unique approach to songwriting might want to consider turning tail if they’re expecting innovation. But if you’re willing to accept a more lyrically adept Dan Auerbach slugging beers and trading vintage classic-rock riffs with a few buddies for a half-hour, there are worse bands to do that with. “Heaven Knows” is sung from the inside of a tin can, and lurches with the epic intensity of vintage Zeppelin; “Gallup, NM” is pensive, skittering, harmony-laden, mid-tempo, and basically a Dawes song. (This is not, to clarify, meant as a pejorative. Dawes is delightful and you know it.) Soulful closer “I Need A Change” even finds Vernon sparingly deploying a winking falsetto, perhaps as a tip of the hat to his usual mode of delivery.
Somewhere in the middle it sags, of course. The songs are short, often structured as frenetic 12-bar-blues, and it gets difficult for a spell to distinguish one song from the next. And yet, Justin’s something of a revelation; his raw, full-bore baritone is less attention-grabbing than the crooning highs we’re used to from those Bon Iver records, but it’s interesting to see him deconstruct his vocal prowess and approach it from such a vastly different direction.
So is Grownass Man something you need to have? I don’t know. Probably not. But it’s quick, well-performed, and a perfectly good time. We’ll let the next Bon Iver record break our heart and top our year-end lists, and use The Shouting Matches to kill time between Black Keys records. Fair compromise, right?