Keep everything. These two words should be an abiding credo of any musician or band with ambition. Forget perfect songs or professional publicity photos. Embrace imperfection or, more precisely, personal imperfection on its way to some form of musical perfection. Half-written demos, live recordings on analog cassettes, party pictures, private letters, and jotted song lyrics on a napkin – such ephemera have accrued value through the emergence of archival compilations as a conventional genre.
In the past, such releases of secondary effects tended to be an afterthought, reflecting a band looking to close out a contract or a record company seeking to recoup some unrealized profits. No longer. Archival releases have gone mainstream with multi-track, multi-format efforts by legacy figures like Bob Dylan and Prince, but also with smaller-scale, fan-serving releases by indie rock acts like Sonic Youth and the Microphones. Despite differences in scale, these instances reveal the processes of artistic creation and performance and, at their best, the humanity of those involved, whether through mistakes, cul-de-sacs, or moments of grace.
These thoughts pertain to Epoch, a massively conceived five-LP plus four-CD box set with 83 tracks by the band DeYarmond Edison. Never heard of DeYarmond Edison? You are not alone, though don’t let that dissuade you from taking a closer look. You have likely heard of the Grammy-winning musical act Bon Iver, which emerged from the ashes of DeYarmond Edison along with Megafaun, a well-regarded folk-rock project currently based in Durham, North Carolina. In short, Epoch is an archaeological endeavor aimed at uncovering and preserving the legacy of a short-lived musical venture that gave birth to something much greater.
Giving shape to this project and story is Grayson Haver Currin, a music journalist who has written for Pitchfork and The New York Times. The beginning of his career fortuitously intersected with the arrival of DeYarmond Edison in Raleigh, North Carolina, where both he and the band were located. They became friends as a result, supporting one another’s mutual careers. Epoch is consequently a testament to friendship through music and to the process of growing up, personally and professionally, in your twenties. Currin provides a 55,000-word, 11-chapter book for Epoch that recounts this shared history.
The origins of DeYarmond Edison began in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Phil Cook (Megafaun) grew up. Rituals of going to school, learning their instruments, and developing an affinity for different musical styles through summer jazz camp defined this period. A letter from Wynton Marsalis to Joe Westerland, another childhood friend and percussionist, testifies to this last rite of passage. Along with Westerland, Cook, and Cook’s brother, Brad, Vernon formed the band Mount Vernon while in high school during the late 1990s. They attained an early peak with the recording of their debut LP, We Can Look Up, followed by a second album, All of Us Free.
Unsurprisingly, graduation, college ambitions, and the looming encroachment of independent adulthood with its litany of expectations disrupted this budding collaboration, albeit not for long. By 2004, DeYarmond Edison – the band’s name drew from Vernon’s middle name – had been established with their self-titled debut released that year followed by Silent Signs in 2005. After a late-night meeting at a Country Kitchen prompted by Phil, who had recently returned from a sojourn to Nashville, they decided over country-fried steak to relocate to North Carolina.
A rivalry with another local band, Amateur Love, which uncomfortably included Phil and Brad as members, combined with the reputation of the music scene in the Raleigh-Durham area with Merge Records, Whiskeytown, and other acts, encouraged this itinerary. However, this plan to make a clean break and fulfill wider ambitions imploded the following year by August 2006. Megafaun (the Cook brothers plus Westerland) quickly established themselves in Raleigh, while Vernon returned to Wisconsin to record For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) under the name Bon Iver, a move that has become the stuff of legend.
Epoch charts this long arc from childhood to quarter-life crisis across seven-plus hours of music. Though there is an abundance of material, not everything is included, especially recordings from the early period of Mount Vernon. These are limited to the first LP, which is somewhat confusingly named All of Us Free. It is not a reissue of the 2000 release with the same name. The second LP is a reissue of DeYarmond Edison’s second album, Silent Signs. The third is a collection of material recorded while in Raleigh, some of which had been released at the time as an EP available on MySpace. The fourth LP consists of solo work by Vernon, which he self-released with the album hazeltons in 2006. The fifth is an eclectic assortment of later recordings by Vernon, Megafaun, and Bon Iver, plus a DeYarmond Edison song, “Set Me Free”, recorded live in 2004, which closes out the LP and box set.
Nearly half of this box set – 39 tracks on four CDs – concerns three live performances. The logic of having the live material on CD and the studio material on vinyl is not entirely clear. Nevertheless, the total listening time for these shows is approximately four hours. Two are from events in March and April 2006 during the band’s artist residency at the Bickett Gallery in Raleigh. The third is from a Menomonie, Wisconsin, concert in April 2006. Recorded only months before the group’s dissolution, these performances are excellent for the most part, providing a sense of the internal chemistry of DeYarmond Edison as well as their rapport with audiences. These live recordings document a group both culminating its ideas and coming apart simultaneously.
Given the magnitude of Epoch, it is difficult to summarize this project musically or to advise listeners where to turn first. Moving chronologically is, of course, one approach, and it is fascinating to listen to the youthful songcraft of Mount Vernon. Tracks like “Morning” have a sunny folk-pop energy that nearly reaches hip-hop in the vein of Mac Miller (“Best Day Ever”). The early DeYarmond Edison song “The Orient” foreshadows the stripped-down, tension-building techniques that Vernon would later apply to For Emma, Forever Ago, and Bon Iver (2011).
Silent Signs is worth skipping to and will be revelatory for some listeners. Here, too, Vernon shines through on the title track along with songs like “Heroin(e)” and “Dead Anchor”, which also merit repeated play. The live material ranges from the 14-minute ambient experiment “Four Keyboard Phase in A”, which is interesting if also interminable, to reworked covers of Americana classics like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “No Depression in Heaven”. There is also a game stab at a countrified version of the Velvet Underground‘s “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, which makes a strong case that this urbane tune retains bucolic roots.
Though limited, the original material DeYarmond Edison recorded in Raleigh may be the most compelling from an archival standpoint, given the glimpses it offers of what might have been and what eventually came to be. The studio version of “Song for a Lover (of Long Ago)” is a pensive, introspective number that foreshadows the same qualities found on Bon Iver’s first album. “Red Shoes” is driven by a type of melodic percussion later found on Bon Iver. Meanwhile, the track “Easy” on hazeltons witnesses Vernon experimenting with a baritone vocal style approaching that of Tom Waits circa Closing Time (1973) – a distinct contrast to the falsetto he adopted with Bon Iver.
There is much more to be said and discussed. A lot of labor and love went into this project. The most surprising element is perhaps how little distance there is between Mount Vernon and Bon Iver. Justin Vernon seems to have arrived almost fully formed. Indeed, DeYarmond Edison should not necessarily be understood as a legendary band underappreciated in its time, akin to the Velvets or, to cite another reference, the Flatlanders with Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Rather, DeYarmond Edison provided a crucible for ideas that manifested more fully later.
It should be emphasized that Currin is judicious in his account toward all the members of DeYarmond Edison – he avoids a Darwinian approach that favors Vernon above all. It is hard, though, not to read Vernon’s budding profile as the primary one of interest in this archival release. His career has since gone supernova with Bon Iver as well as through famed collaborations with Kanye West and Taylor Swift. Against this recent backdrop, Epoch regards forgotten moments and lost futures. This project concerns itself with what might have been, and it casts both shadows and light in equal measure on everyone involved.
Epoch is ultimately about friendship and community, idealism and experimentation, friction and conviviality, the importance of dreams, and the importance of following through on those dreams. From aesthetic and archival standpoints, this isn’t quite The Basement Tapes, and some listeners may perceive the elaborate treatment of a box set undertaken here as overblown for a circle of childhood friends and their passionate commitment to music.
Still, when listened to attentively, something special unfolds across these tracks. “All I need is a window/ All I feel is freedom,” Vernon declares in the Mount Vernon song “Morning”, two lines that amount to a belief system for any aspiring artist. These recordings and their accompanying material, whether photographs or personal recollections, map the territory between thought and expression, as Lou Reed once put it, imparting real-time lessons about the creative process in both spontaneous and long-term ways.
Epoch documents the eventual success that can come through devotion to craft. It also serves as an improbable elegy for all those high school bands – full of talent, ideals, and deserving of fame – that didn’t go anywhere.