Review : John Vanderslice - White Wilderness
DrownedinsoundIt’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. They played a pivotal role in the compositional process: once the nine songs had been written acoustically by Vanderslice, the reigns were totally (and very trustingly) passed to the orchestra’s artistic director, Minna Choi.
At this point, it might be easy to find fault in the method rather than the architects, but I then I happen to own a copy of Sam Amidon’s All Is Well, featuring the similarly independently conceived input of New York based composer Nico Muhly. And this disc, ladies and gentlemen, is an absolute education in the pairing of simple acoustic recordings with subtle and charming classical orchestration. I can’t help but feel that it’s the record that White Wilderness could (and has the potential to, in some instances) be. Maybe a version with slightly brighter eyes and a greater sense of youth, but the principle still applies.
‘Convict Lake’ and ‘The Piano Lesson’ are the first of the nine tracks that offer promise of this pop record based on a slightly kaleidoscopic take on the secondary school orchestra. On the latter, plucked strings hold discussions with accented saxophone lines, while the occasional flute and trumpet can be heard expressing their thoughts in the background. Unfortunately, it’s not long before it feel like the song has outstayed its welcome, becoming stale long before it finishes. On ‘Convict Lake’ there’s a particular four-note saxophone figure that becomes especially tiresome after the ninetieth-or-so repetition....full text
PopmattersThere’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. Those odds and ends sounded like fruitful odds ‘n sods, the last remnants of 2009’s air-tight, excellent Romanian Names.
Of course, that could just be revisionist history in the wake of his new album, White Wilderness, but either way, there’s something entirely new to Vanderslice on this record. Yes, there are the obvious changes. Vanderslice, rather than bedding down and tinkering with mixes, recorded these songs live in studio in just three days. He also enlisted the help of San Francisco’s Magik*Magik Orchestra, a 19-piece collective led by Minna Choi to record with him. By necessity, the record sounds almost nothing like Vanderslice’s other records, though it certainly has flashes of his sharply observed and deeply melodic pop songs.
The vibe here, hushed even at its most thumping, is new territory for Vanderslice. The first few notes of opener “Sea Salt” sound like a threadbare demo, with that shuffling acoustic and the faint plink of piano keys. But as the song moves, and as Vanderslice establishes a landscape with the tone-changing line, “It’s night here on the ridge,” the strings ripple into the track, and it gets big. No tense synths, no squalls of terse atmosphere, just an organic, gauzy size. It’s a sound that fits Vanderslice’s voice, a bit reedier here than usual, as he sings of a shifting series of locales, many of which often find him isolated and lost in some sort of storm, literal or metaphoric. He gets jangled around in these songs. The end of “Convict Lake” finds him restrained, “bound down like Gulliver tied up in thread,” while the title track has him awash in wavy strings and piano, lost in some huge expanse....full text
PitchforkJohn 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. The live band in question is something called the Magik*Magik Orchestra, led by Minna Choi. They're not strictly a chamber orchestra in the sense you might expect. Yes, Choi has arranged these songs with strings and woodwinds, but the orchestra members also contribute things like piano, drums, and pedal steel.
So he got out of the studio and stretched his legs a little with a small orchestra. What kind of record does that make? Well, take away the tinkering and you get a record that still fits quite comfortably into Vanderslice's discography-- it's not that different, stylistically, from anything else he's done. The meticulous studio layering missing here is largely covered up by the orchestration. If there's any significant difference, it's in Vanderslice himself. His voice sounds much more vulnerable and fragile in this setting. I think back in particular to 2009's Romanian Names, where he seemed to be growing more comfortable with building himself into a small choir and was really putting his vocals out front; here, he recedes into the band a bit more, occasionally bolstered by a harmony from Choi or a few fluttering "ah ahs" from some of the orchestra.
He gets some of those "ahs" on "The Piano Lesson", a song literally about learning to play piano that Choi uses as an orchestral playground. Vanderslice's wandering vocal melody is anchored by an ominous sax figure, the strings play racing pizzicato patterns, brass and flutes swell queasily, and the overall effect is strikingly dark. There's a subtle tension at play on the album, almost a tug of war between Vanderslice and Choi, and one or the other typically winds up dominating each song, but there are a few where they strike a real balance. Up-tempo standout "Overcoat" is one of those songs. Vanderslice isn't so much a verse/chorus songwriter, but he can craft a memorable melody, and this one is great. It keeps the moaning woodwinds and shivering strings at bay until the second half of the song, when the complexity of the arrangement increases, leaving him to carefully pick his way through shards of orchestration....full text
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