John Vanderslice

Life and Death of an American Four-Tracker

These days, with the rapidly proliferating miracles of modern technology, it’s more or less child’s play to craft whatever exotic sounds, affectations, or odd arrangements with which you want to fill your records. With a little clever programming, practically anyone — from the most socially challenged home recording nerd to the most studious subscriber of Tape Op magazine — can add a lavish string section or country-ish pedal steel into their latest techno-tinged skittery-skee masterpiece, complete with distorted tonalities galore.

Few folks know this better than San Francisco’s John Vanderslice, who as chief knob-twiddler at Tiny Telephone Recording has helped countless artists realize their sonic potential. Being so intimately involved with the lovably scruffy lo-fi scene, Vanderslice has a good sense of the forms that indie rock can take, hence his album’s self-referential title, and the disc’s delectable, seductive variety of styles. Backed by members of Death Cab for Cutie, Beulah, Mates of State, and the Mountain Goats, Vanderslice shares in the glib musical vocabulary of bands like They Might Be Giants and Neutral Milk Hotel, where wholly original melodic hooks jostle for ear space with odd engineering mixes and inscrutable lyrical content. His impressionistic ditties aren’t as scattershot or as frivolous as many contemporary bands; while he seems unwilling to embrace the sugary simplicity of boy-meets-girl romantic pop, Vanderslice also doesn’t fall back on the opaque, Dadaist word jumbles that are too frequently the genre’s undoing. Although his lyrics are difficult to track from start to finish, they actually seem to be about something — vague philosophic melancholies, romantic and societal abandonment, and the joys of holing up in a basement studio to create something personal and rebelliously beautiful. Buoyed by consistently engaging and tastefully grandiose melodies, this album is both life-affirming and kind of a downer; Vanderslice has the courage to tell us what bums him out, while sharing his conviction that art itself can offer us solace. It’s a contradictory, slightly accusatory dual message at the core of a catchy little album that just won’t take no for an answer.

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