John Vanderslice – [Album]

Friday, 10 August 2007

It is possible to compare the recording studio to a painter’s canvas—both are tools used to record and preserve the artist’s ideas, tendencies, and, well, art. The main difference, though, is that musicians rarely own a studio whereas a painter without a canvas is simply a person with ideas. Booking studio time is costly and can be seen as a hindrance; the time spent on recording is limited to the amount of money one is willing to spend, or even have. In the instance that a musician, or band, has their own studio, a new creative outlet is available and a significant amount of power over their work is placed in their hands. A few things can happen with this:

-Obsessing over minute details that don’t really change the entire piece.

-Putting out EVERYTHING, including demos, sub-par ideas, and things that, in general, people just don’t give a shit about.

-Realizing the creative potential and having control over it, therefore producing detailed, relaxed masterpieces.

John Vanderslice has fallen into each of these scenarios in the past, it’s just a matter of where he lands this time.

Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone in San Francisco, one of the few remaining all-analog studios, has welcomed the likes of Mates of State, Spoon, Nada Surf, Okkervil River, among many others. Obviously, Vanderslice can’t sit on the sidelines and let everyone else have all the fun. He has utilized his space to record his discography, now totaling six albums, and make a significant mark on the modern music landscape. From 2000’s Time Travel is Lonely, with its haunting tale of being stranded in the tundra inside of a broken down van, to 2005’s Pixel Revolt, where excellent songs are sandwiched between fair to strangely awkward ones, we have watched him both mature as a serious songwriter and separate himself further from his guy-with-a-guitar-and-a-story-to-tell peers. With 2007’s Emerald City John could really go anywhere. Would the catchy hooks carry through or will he stray further towards anonymity in the who’s-who of modern songwriters? The answer is yes, and yes.

The song “Numbered Lithograph” exemplifies this perfectly; the memorable chorus, a melodic, repeated, “I’ve never been/Lonelier,” is unfortunately overshadowed by the ridiculous verses, “You left me/At the table/To go to the ATM.” What other situations make him feel the same? Well, when your boyfriend calls or watching a bird pummel itself against a window will surely dampen his usual, happy/sunny personae.

Another recurring theme rearing its head is the September 11th terrorist attacks, last heard on the Pixel record. In “The Parade," Vanderslice informs us that he’s “Got steel dust in a vial…in my pocket/from Tower Two” and that he, like everyone else, isn’t sure “…what really happened/On that day.” Songs like these have become token clichés and are often overlooked, for good reason. The song’s subject doesn’t even revolve around 9/11, rather it seems to be just “thrown in”, possibly for lack of ideas or, for some reason, “that day” continues to permeate his everyday feelings. Whatever the case, his pedestrian views and opinions don’t raise concerns or questions, they merely tangle up the already hit-and-miss lyrical mish mash.

When Vandeslice hits his stride on the numbers “Tablespoon of Codeine,” “Minaret,” and opener “Kookaburra,” his penchant for pop melody returns the listener to the quiet place of his earlier releases (namely 2002’s Life and Death of an American Fourtracker). Underneath the piano/guitar/rhythm textures, little studio tricks and secrets keep the interest piqued and make repeated listenings a must. In the aforementioned “Tablespoon…,” a layered background vocal fills out and nearly replicates the actual feeling of Codeine racing through your veins, eyes droopy with a wearying bliss. The stomper “Time to Go” employs simplicity and a warm, natural distortion to restore the listener’s faith in his ability to pen a quality tune.

While the goods don’t necessarily outweigh the bad, they hold enough clout to give Emerald City a chance. It is, after all, a well-constructed pop album with both the eccentricities and melodies to prevent it from being overlooked as just another chapter in the Vanderslice story.

Download "White Dove" – [mp3]

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