- John Vanderslice is playing the Spanish Moon next month, and so I figured the timing was right to revisit my ambivalent relationship with his music. I picked up Cellar Door when it came out a few years ago on the strength of good reviews and his Mountain Goats connections; I wanted to love it but couldn’t, quite. With a few exceptions—notably “White Plains,” a song which inspires me to periodic ravening repeat-listenings—I couldn’t really find a way in to the album’s world. The songs sounded great, to be sure—produced with great attention to detail but without seeming fussy or mannered. Lyrically, though, they seemed distant, cold—like formal exercises. I’ve got no patience with the authenticity-is-everything school of singer-songwriter idolatry, but I do want the songs to feel lived in, the performances to be convincing. (Unless detached and unconvincing is what you’re going for, which I don’t think is the case with Cellar Door).
When follow-up Pixel Revolt came out a few years ago, I didn’t pay much attention to it except for the mp3s of the militiaman’s lament “Exodus Damage” floating around the internet. It’s a great song, but I feared it would be an island in a sea of interesting but uninspiring tunes. Now that I’ve spent some time with the album, I wish I’d been listening to it for years. Vanderslice’s lyrics seem to have taken a moon-leap forward, thanks no doubt in part to the writerly contributions of John Darnielle but also to JVS’ having found his subject: 9/11 and its discordances. The just-released Emerald City doesn’t feature Darnielle contributions but does continue his exploration of the literal and psychic fallout of 9/11—to the annoyance of this Pitchfork reviewer, who lumps Vanderslice in (in effect if not intention) with “political hopefuls and pundits” whose repeated invocations of “9/11” have reduced it to the lightest and loftiest of floating signifiers.
In fact, though, I think Vanderslice is as sick of that as anyone else; this isn’t an album of songs about 9/11 so much as it is an album of songs about people talking about 9/11—about the ways in which chatter about conspiracies and terrorism and spectacular violence and mourning and war have become part of the background noise of everyday conversation, and about the feeling of disorientation when a fragment of that chatter lurches into the foreground and disrupts even the most placid and pastoral scene. And if I were in the mood to be provocative, I’d say that “Time to Go” is a far better treatment of the relationship between the violence of America’s nineteenth-century westward expansion and its imperial complacency than Blood Meridian, but I’ll just limit myself to saying that it’s shorter and more musical.
- Some of you may recall that a while back I wrote a whole long post about how I didn’t like Okkervil River and why. I would like to note that Black Sheep Boy and new album The Stage Names are exempt from my disapprobation on account of their being kind of awesome. I haven’t changed my mind about the early stuff, which I had occasion to revisit recently—there’s some good songwriting but a lot of tuneless maundering, and “Westfall” still gets on my nerves. I don’t think Will Sheff has changed the way he writes songs on the recent albums; they’re still rambling, seldom be-chorused narratives. But at some point along the way Okkervil River became a pretty good rock band—limber but never limp, capable of shifting genres and styles without losing their own sound. Instead of the lackadaisical strumming and loose arrangements of the early records, the country/rock/pop tunes on The Stage Names propel and embellish Sheff’s lyrics, lending a sense of urgency and depth to the songs.
Nothing on The Stage Names has squeezed my brain in quite the way that BSB’s “Black” did the first time I heard it, but it’s a more consistent album all around—even the quiet, atmospheric tracks avoid lapsing into the tedious formlessness that afflicted the early records. “Plus Ones” is mere millimeters away from being a novelty song and yet I haven’t quite managed to stop listening to it. Chocking a song full of references to other songs is a risky move, but Sheff pulls it off by playing it very, very straight, and any lingering doubts I might have are put to bed with cookie and whiskey-milk by the other instances of pop culture detritus reclaimed that speckle the album.
- “Radio Nowhere,” the awesomely titled first single from the forthcoming Springsteen record, is now available as a free download here or from iTunes. It’s worth a listen. I’ve spun it a few times now, and I like it better every time. But I can’t quite get past the feeling that it’s a bit generic; it puts me in mind of the last disc of Tracks, the one that includes outtakes from his 90s work. Now, that disc is a whole lot better than Human Touch, for instance, but it’s not exactly awe-inspiring. Anyway, “Nowhere Radio” is a fun, diverting listen that neither aggravates nor alleviates my apprehensions about Magic—apprehensions which are routine whenever there’s a new Bruce release on the way. Especially one with a song called “Gypsy Biker.” (Probable line fragment in “Gypsy Biker”: “chasing that caravan through the night.”) In any case, it’ll be fun to hear live—and indeed, his recent interview with Backstreets suggests that the purpose of the album is largely to give the band something fun to perform on tour. Now, if we could just gets some dates south of the Mason-Dixon line . . .