Release Date: May 19, 2009
Record label: Dead Oceans
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
For those who never quite got John Vanderslice, he's finally made a love-on-first-listen recording. Yes, you have to pay attention to the lyrics, but the reward is clever, well-developed storytelling. While he also retains the trademark chorale-like texture and appropriate electronic accents, the album is completely accessible, except perhaps for the forgettable D.I.A.L.O.
John Vanderslice's music doesn't change much from album to album. Within the world of indie rock, he's carved him a niche all his own with clean but inventive production and lyrics that spend much of their time in the heads of unique characters. Vanderslice makes thoroughly modern pop, cut through with concerns about terrorism, disease, our ever-growing distance from nature, and our addiction to mass media.
Working under a barely there pseudonym, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James recorded this six-track EP of George Harrison covers shortly after the Beatle’s death in 2001. Tribute To actually sounds even older than that: In stripped-down readings of ”Long, Long, Long” and ”Love You To,” James floats his ?high-pitched vocals in a ghostly wash of reverb, while his folky acoustic strumming summons a mellow faded-photo vibe. James mostly resists tinkering with Harrison’s melodies, which keeps surprise at bay.
For better or worse, John Vanderslice – talented songwriter that he is – lives or dies depending on his albums’ production, and that adds a whole other level of risk to any stylistic changes. Now seven albums deep into his career and largely unknown outside of a relatively small hipster circle, Vanderslice is making major changes in his music – some good, some off-putting – and on Romanian Names he seems to grasp for a new style and perhaps a new audience. Albums like Emerald City and Pixel Revolt were full of ambitious writing on millennial anxiety.
John Vanderslice turns 42 this month. Yes, the big four-zero, plus two: that’s more years than this album has minutes, and twice the age, I suspect, of much of his fanbase. You wouldn’t guess it listening to Romanian Names—firstly, I suppose, because it’s such a strikingly compelling batch of songs, devoid of staleness or complacency; and secondly, because there is such sincere concern throughout with memory, with youth, with uncertainty and rejection.
John Vanderslice is nothing if not consistent. He's never made a bad record, and although his idiosyncratic songwriting and production have only grown more confident and compelling with his last several releases, neither has he made one that is truly, unabashedly great. Romanian Names does little to change any of that, news that should be at once heartening, slightly disappointing, and ultimately entirely unsurprising to his followers.
Besides the fact that he likes to produce and record his music in his own studio, John Vanderslice has made a name for himself by creating smart, catchy, pop melodies. The acclaim that followed his 2007 album, Emerald City, was a well-deserved hurrah and one that brought Vanderslice to the front of the indie scene. His talents lie in his artistic impression-diverse and varied-but Romanian Names feels a bit underwhelming even for his own standards.
It’s practically de rigueur when writing about John Vanderslice to mention what a nice guy he is – and, indeed, in the very limited contact I’ve had with the man (one phone interview, two albums ago), he seems thoughtful, self-deprecating, empathetic … all the qualities that make up “nice.” But honestly, I’ve been thinking about “nice-ness” and wondering if it isn’t a weak version of kindness, one that doesn’t require messy self-sacrifice, embarrassment or real understanding of other people. It seems like a social skill, rather than a real virtue, and in no way as demanding as integrity, honesty, courage or altruism. Nice is nice, but you shouldn’t get a medal for it.