The Belle Jar- Union Station
Mar 5, 2014
Anyone can be a singer-songwriter. Take a dime-store guitar, some lyrics scribbled on a bar napkin, an affected whine, and presto!
John Vanderslice is a singer-songwriter, but he’s certainly not that guy. Vanderslice was a founding member of MK Ultra during the mid-90s, and collaborated with The Mountain Goats, as well as releasing his own solo records throughout the last 11 years.
Vanderslice takes the Sufjan Stevens/Neil Young’s Harvest approach to his music: full-bodied folk, backed up by immense instrumentation that gives each tune a unique feel.
For his latest venture, White Wilderness, Vanderslice teamed with Minna Choi and her Magick*Magick Orchestra to get that rich, almost cinematic sound.
Opener “Sea Salt” begins earnestly, with Vanderslice singing, “Sun shines on the Gaza Strip,” over a few strums accompanied by a backbeat and a few piano tickles. After a few minutes, the song shakes off its blandness and jumps into a horn-and-string interlude, like children being let outside for recess. After that, it’s back to the same old mid-tempo mumbles before another beautiful orchestral-crescendo.
“Convict Lake” follows “Sea Salt”; it’s propelled by a frisky horn melody, plenty of cymbal taps, and a powerful strum. Vanderslice sounds more Stevens here than anywhere else, and the resemblance gives the atmosphere a pretty quality.
As the album progresses, Vanderslice shows his greatest skill: attention to detail. Tiny nuances like background howls, or a quick French horn cameo make the songs rich and layered; like a wonderful symphony. Now 43, Vanderslice reached middle age, but his talent and sound don’t reflect that. White Wilderness is tinted by all the right colors—autumn grey, sky blue, forest green and a splash of ruby red.
Listen to "Convict Lake":