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A friend of mine recently wrote a passage that has been echoing in my head. He was waxing poetic on his recent experience at a Bon Iver concert and concluded: "It's an ingenious device, the voice. We can use it to call out, to draw in, to make beautiful, uncomfortable motions." Which is an eloquent way of saying that singers like Bon Iver's Justin Vernon are capable of transcendence—of taking listeners to faraway places and making them forget that they ever wanted to exist in this reality place, anyway.
When Justin Vernon opens his mouth to sing, everyone listens. My absolutely favorite thing about seeing Bon Iver live, even more so than Vernon's high, wooden falsetto or the band's ability to take a song from barely anything to a crashing everything, is the silence. The silence that falls between the notes of their most delicate songs, when you realize that the entire audience has shut up and that you can hear the air conditioning unit at First Avenue shutting on and off, because nothing—not gossiping to your neighbor, not ordering another drink, not even cheering—is more important at that moment than hearing what Vernon is going to do next.
It's a trait that Vernon has in common with another Wisconsin native, Jeff Hanson, whose gorgeous falsetto will fill the Triple Rock Social Club on Saturday evening. Much like Vernon's debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, Hanson's latest album, Madam Owl, demands stillness and silence. Songs proceed at a subtle, pastoral pace, his voice wafting through the high registers with a delicate grace, and the silence that falls between the notes is almost as beautiful as the notes themselves.
Kill Rock Stars
One of the first observations people make when listening to Hanson is that he sounds undeniably feminine, causing some to require a moment of adjustment before fully enjoying his sound. But Hanson says he's used to people having a strong reaction to his voice.
"The only thing I don't like is when people say that my voice is an acquired taste," Hanson says, speaking from his home in St. Paul, where he relocated in the late '90s. "If it was a woman singing, they would just say it sounds pretty."
"I really don't feel it's important to associate a person's gender with their voice or their music," he says. "Does it really matter if it's a man or woman who has written your favorite book? Or painted a favorite picture? To me it most certainly doesn't. And I don't think it should be any different with music. Not everything in music needs an explanation or a reason—that's why I like art. There's mystery to it."
On Madam Owl, there are plenty of mysterious moments to explore. The album has a classical feel to it, almost baroque at times, which Hanson attributes to his string and horn arranger, Lars Campbell. Opener "Night" marches along to the soft beat of a low drum and a swell of violins, while the soft ballad "Maryann" employs a melody that could have been plucked from a Renaissance-era songbook. Hanson says he had little training in musical theory or performance, though he has been playing guitar since the age of four. His knack for composition, it seems, is completely organic.
Another mystery in the realm of Jeff Hanson is that, despite national attention and a place on the Kill Rock Stars label (home of Elliot Smith, the Decembrists, Deerhoof, etc.), Hanson keeps a fairly low profile in the Twin Cities. He keeps local appearances to a minimum, playing about twice a year, and performs for larger audiences in other cities than he does at home.
It's an interesting divide among local musicians, and one that Hanson is aware of: Either a band chooses to play as many local shows as possible and build a foundation from the ground up, or they focus on signing to a label and touring nationally. "It just depends on what your priorities are," says Hanson.
With another fantastic album under his belt, here's hoping that the Twin Cities wise up to one of our finest hidden gems.