I can remember exactly when I accidentally discovered the music of Phil Cook for the first time. I was in my bedroom at university, idly scouring YouTube videos of “indie” acoustic-rock during a concerted and highly successful period of procrastination. I can’t remember which other video I must’ve been on, but YouTube’s algorithms presented on the side-bar an intriguing black and white photograph of what looked like an old oak tree outside a non-descript white house; ‘DeYarmond Edison Leave Me Wishing More’. The track began with a slow, ethereal, almost melancholic piano piece, before abruptly breaking into a triumphant, Springsteenesque riff replete with resounding electric guitar and impassioned, earthy vocals. This, I thought, is exactly what I’d been looking for.
I immediately set about exploring each of the other YouTube links adorned with the same album cover. Then came the incessant googling of the band; its albums; its members. I learnt that they were a bunch of friends from Wisconsin who’d played together since high school, that they’d since split up, and that their front-man Justin Vernon is now Bon Iver. I’d previously taken a fairly aggressive (and entirely unjustified) dislike toward Bon Iver for petulant reasons: an ex-girlfriend’s latest boyfriend had posted on her Facebook page a link to a Bon Iver track (I think it was ‘skinny love’) along with the line “this is what I was telling you about.. So good!” or something similar. Whatever the hell that song/band was, my infantile younger self sure as shit wasn’t going to listen to it.
Ironic, then, that I’d inadvertently become the biggest fan of Bon Iver’s previous musical incarnation. I approached Bon Iver’s album (only one had been released at the time) with trepidation. I still think ‘skinny love’ is by far the worst track on the album, but maybe I just never got over that Facebook post. The rest of the album is plainly a very accomplished piece of work. However (controversial opinion alert), I still hold Justin Vernon’s pre-Bon Iver solo stuff (Self record, Hazletons) and his DeYarmond Edison albums to be his most musically gratifying output.
Which brings me back to Phil Cook; member, along with his brother Brad and drummer Joe Westerlund, of the now defunct DeYarmond Edison. I’ve heard Justin refer to Phil as his best friend and musical ‘teacher’. I wondered what went wrong with the band and their internal relationships for them to have to split up. Apparently, after graduating college they’d moved to Raleigh, North Carolina in order to experience a change of musical scenery and establish themselves in a different setting, but at some point, relations between Justin and the rest of the band deteriorated, culminating in his retreating back to Wisconsin alone (cue the overly-romanticised-log-cabin-heartbreak story) while the remaining members re-formed as Megafaun. Although Megafaun went on to solid acclaim in their own right, it was Justin who was propelled to international stardom on the release of “For Emma..”, driven in no small part by a ringing endorsement from Pitchfork magazine.
I often wondered whether there’d be bad blood between Justin and his former band mates, and reflected on the quiet tragedy of their story; the fact that for a long time these guys were best friends enjoying making great music together; that at some point this changed and life took them in different directions. Would the guys in Megafaun resent their former frontman’s independent success? Would Justin feel a sense of guilt in abandoning his band and going on to superstardom? Would they have achieved equivalent success if they’d stayed together as a band? As excellent as Megafaun’s records are, I can’t help thinking that on some tracks, Justin’s (non-falsetto) vocals would just fit so nicely. Similarly, a few of Bon Iver’s more eccentric recent electronic tracks from his latest album 22 a million would benefit from some more down-to-earth, Megafaun-style folk-country inflection.
Whatever bad blood there may have been between Justin and Phil is clearly water under the bridge given they’re collaborating again with the brilliantly bluesy Shouting Matches, amongst other projects. The prodigiousness of Vernon’s creative and collaborative output is pretty astounding, if not always good (what the hell was that awful song with James Blake?). Phil Cook’s output is in many ways no less prodigious, but for me his stand-out album is a short acoustic instrumental record released in 2016, titled Old Hwy D.
It’s a collection of quietly gentle tracks, pleasantly melodic and rich in soulful acoustic technique. Judging by ear, I believe the majority of the album simply comprises two or three acoustic guitars recorded over each other, creating harmonies. This simplicity is a strength, allowing for a total immersion into the feel of the melody and the rhythm. A few minor technical guitar-playing errors (an unclean hammer-off; a bit of unwanted string vibration) haven’t been airbrushed out, proffering a raw authenticity. It’s evident that this music – as with all of Phil Cook’s output – has been created for the sheer enjoyment of it. Its sole purpose appears to be to gratify the creator of the music via simple artistic expression, and if other people happen to like it, then great. If ever there was a good example of art for art’s sake, this album is it. Needless to say, the album has zero chance of commercial success. Thankfully, Phil Cook appears to have carved a large enough niche audience and puts out enough other material (his 2015 album Southland Mission is also excellent) to make a comfortable living, and is thus able to indulge in quirkier projects like Old Hwy D.
And if your pretentious hipster bollocks alarm is sounding, worry not: the trigger would be this writer, waxing pretentious lyrical. The music itself is the antithesis of pretence. If anyone ever reads this (doubtful), buy the album. It’s brilliant.