S. Carey All We Grow

[Jagjaguwar; 2010]

Styles: neoclassical, avant-folk, orchestral pop
Others: Bon Iver, Philip Glass, Death Cab For Cutie

Poor Sean Carey. What must it be like to be a formally-trained, independently talented classical musician forever in the shadow of a widely revered bandmate? The truth is, All We Grow will rarely be listened to without the caveat, “Yeah, that’s the drummer from Bon Iver,” which will then likely be followed by someone’s asserting that they liked For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon’s spectacular, widely lauded near-solo debut, but had trouble buying into very much after that.

After that, though, is when Carey, Mike Noyce, and Matthew McCaughan joined Vernon. The four toured and composed together, releasing the Blood Bank EP and recording a track or two for the Dark Was The Night compilation, as well as splitting off into various side projects. (Vernon’s been involved in Volcano Choir and GAYNGS since then, among other pursuits.) And while Bon Iver’s post-Emma output possesses many of the same elements as the debut — stacked vocals, telescopic layering, burbling repetition — it’s hard-pressed to pack the same punch, to deliver equivalent sweeping emotion and incontrovertible intimacy.

But while it would be easiest to say that Carey’s music pulls a lot from Bon Iver’s more recent releases, what’s more likely the case is that from this recording we can hear something of the current Bon Iver’s musical etymology. The chicken-or-the-egg situation we find ourselves in is that Carey has been vastly influenced by Vernon, but Vernon has doubtless been influenced by him. He was the musician, after all, who learned all of the parts from For Emma so that when he approached Vernon, then in need of a drummer for tour, he couldn’t be refused.

True, Carey will never be the singer Vernon is. Where Vernon’s voice stretches sinewy and strong, Carey’s is breathy and tentative. But Carey’s got the same instinct for layering and rippling repetition (“In The Dirt”) that made much of For Emma &mdahs; not unlike other sappy albums like Death Cab’s Plans — so moving. Tracks like “Rothko Fields” prove explorations of various neoclassical instrumentation rather than pop songs. And “We Fell,” with its pounding, soaring piano, attempts to use lyrics only to flesh out the composition, something Vernon has mastered and a technique I wish more artists would use.

Based on similarity alone, I was inclined not to like All We Grow. At first pass, I was ready to find it derivative, to write off its bubbling piano and brooding tone as melodramatic and overdone. I wanted to think it a sad knock-off of Bon Iver, a band that I adore, but whose popularity I will embarrassingly admit that I resent. When I was able to give All We Grow adequate attention, however, I realized my error. Although the two projects will forever be trapped in a circuit of who-inspired-what-and-when, they’ve each got merit independent of the other. So maybe I shouldn’t say, “Poor Sean Carey.” Even though it’ll be difficult for him to make a name for himself without reference to his other band, that other band has taken him places we mere mortals could only hope for. That it’s given him a platform to have this first effort heard is great for him. And that it’s a solid enough effort to merit hope for better things in the future is pretty good for us, too.

Links: S. Carey - Jagjaguwar

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