Release Date: Jan 25, 2011
Record label: Dead Oceans Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter, Chamber Pop
John Vanderslice's 2011 album finds him starting off a new year with engaging focus -- not least because the release is barely over a half an hour long. White Wilderness feels like something from an earlier time not just in brevity, but also thanks to the cover design, the orchestral accompaniment, and more -- it's not that he's become Sinatra, but over the nine songs of the release he brings his ruminative, elegant creative ear to some excellent partners in the Magik Magik Orchestra. The fantastic instrumental break on the opening "Sea Salt," strings and horns swirling to a quick punctuation before the vocals return, makes an immediate mark, with the arrangement on "Overcoat" coming not far behind in terms of enjoyable drama.
John Vanderslice is a known and avowed tinkerer. He operates Tiny Telephone Studio, so if he wants to take his time making a record, he certainly can. All of his albums to date have been meticulously assembled things, full of carefully layered sounds, tweaked and prodded into shape over months. I guess everybody needs a change of pace now and then, because White Wilderness was recorded in three days with a live band, outside of Tiny Telephone.
There’s no way around it, John Vanderslice is a studio noodler. Over the course of his extensive discography, you can feel the precision, the revision, the deep layers and deeper control Vanderslice holds over all his work. But this year’s self-released, free EP, Green Grows the Grasses, now seems like a coda, if a temporary one, to his life as his own production guru.
At his best, John Vanderslice takes a cerebral, innovative approach to songwriting that results in impossibly complex musical arrangements and lyrics that challenge conventions of narrative voice. His latest album, White Wilderness, is perhaps his most meticulously composed and accomplished in its musicianship, but it lacks the lyrical depth and focus that made records like Cellar Door and Pixel Revolt some of the most compelling music in recent memory. A solid enough album on its own merits, White Wilderness is nonetheless something of a disappointment from an artist of Vanderslice’s caliber and consistency.
John Vanderslice is one heck of a producer. In the context of a review, that could read like a backhanded compliment; many records written by studio wizards reveal a disappointing lack of creative depth. (Chris Walla’s solo record sounds great, but, you know.) But Vanderslice’s musical history is peppered with inspired moments. His strongest album to date, 2004’s Cellar Door, exuded luminosity on both the engineering and songwriting fronts; JV’s meticulous knob-twiddling lent itself perfectly to the record’s surrealist, film-inspired songs.
It’s a well-known fact that Florida-born John Vanderslice has long-established his reputation as the Nicest Guy in Indie Rock(TM). So it’s not surprising that to sit here and tell you that his latest effort White Wilderness is a bit of a chore leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth. At the same time, let’s not overlook the fact that San Francisco’s Magik*Magik Orchestra should be equal parts a recipient of the sharp end of any criticism, for the record is as much a product of their creativity as it is Vanderslice’s.
Despite never really getting the commercial recognition he perhaps deserves, John Vanderslice has built up quite a back catalogue - White Wilderness is his eighth full-length since his 2000 debut. Vanderslice plies his trade in writing great indie pop songs: sometimes catchy, sometimes heartfelt, it’s simple but effective, with clever production and instrumental flourishes more than making up for what it occasionally lacks in originality. Many songwriters entertain the idea of recruiting an orchestra to play behind them, and it’s a direction that works for some: it’s hard to imagine Joanna Newsom’s Ys would have been so deeply affecting without Van Dyke Parks’ excellent string arrangements, for example, while Sufjan Stevens can often be seen with a musical battallion behind him.
John Vanderslice has put out seven solo albums, each a slight variation on a pretty successful theme: clean, deeply considered pop songs buoyed by Vanderslice’s intimate, slightly gritty singing voice. For a guy whose songs always sound like the sonic equivalents of polished-to-perfection New Yorker stories, and is in fact notorious for his perfectionism and level-tweaking, White Wilderness, recorded live over just three days in Northern California, is indeed a foray into some kind of wilderness. For this singular effort, Vanderslice was joined by 19 members of the 100-strong classical collective the Magik*Magik Orchestra, led by artistic director Minna Choi, who arranged and conducted, and also sings some backup for Vanderslice.