Text: Paul van der Zalm
The end of the pandemic isn’t yet in sight, the festival season is over before it even begun, the summer didn’t go well either and let’s not even start about the terrible situation in Afghanistan… So to say there is a need for some comfort is an understatement. In that respect, Big Red Machine’s second album comes just at the right time. Big Red Machine is the project of Aaron Dressner who we know from The National and Justin Vernon from Bon Iver. The band name comes from a song they recorded together in 2008 for the project ‘Dark Was The Night’. However, the connection at the time did not lead to a debut album until 2018.
Thematically, this seems like a solo album by Dressner, in which he reflects on his youth, his origins, his family relationships and his depression, but appearances can be deceiving. Because in addition to Justin Vernon, Dressner has gathered a whole community of artists over the years under the name ‘PEOPLE’, who were not only more than willing to collaborate on the album, but who with their interpretation took almost all songs to a higher level. Especially in ‘Birch’ this is reminiscent of Peter Gabriel’s collaboration with other artists after his departure from Genesis. That image is reinforced by the African atmosphere of the song in which Vernon sounds like Youssou N’Dour. Taylor Swift plays a modest role here. Parallel to the recording of this album, Dressner collaborated with her on her surprise albums ‘Folklore’ and ‘Evermore’, both of which also earned them a Grammy. This cross-pollination also resulted in the track ‘Renegade’ for this album, a poppy song that would make Ilse de Lange green with jealousy. Another surprise was Ben Howard’s comeback thanks to Dressner. Together with Kate Stables of This Is The Kit he can be heard here in the Coffee House track ‘June’s A River’. Stables could also be heard on the last album of ‘The National’. You really only hear that band sound in this song and in ‘8:22 AM’, with vocals by Ariel Engle of the Broken Social Scene.
In two other songs you hear a shuffle resembling Fleetwood Mac. Those are also directly family-related numbers. The first is “Mimi” for Dressner’s daughter, the other is “Brycie,” a song of thanksgiving to his twin brother and fellow band member on The National, who got him through tough times. So it is understandable and brave that Dressner takes care of the vocals here himself. That life can also turn out differently is shown in ‘Hutch’, which is dedicated to friend and colleague Scott Hutchison, who unfortunately saw no way out. Despite the strong line-up with Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan and Shara Nova, this unfortunately did not become one of the strengths of the album. The songs that are the highlights on the album are those with singer Anaïs Mitchell. This immediately applies to the opening and key track ‘Latter Days’, from which the album title is derived and on which Mitchell resembles Norah Jones. Warning: This song is a real earwig! We can also hear her on the closing track ‘New Auburn’ and on the fine ‘Phoenix’ she is assisted by Justin Vernon and Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes. It doesn’t get much nicer than that. The answer to the question posed in the title can therefore best be answered with: hopefully for a very long time.
37d03d (= PEOPLE) / Jagjaguwar