Musical Notes: John Vanderslice, Okkervil River, Springsteen

faked by Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

  • 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 . . .

7 Responses to “Musical Notes: John Vanderslice, Okkervil River, Springsteen

  1. gorjus says:

    See, that’s the stuff that gets us “Ramrod” and “Cadillac Ranch,” when they want something “fun.” Back in the day I totally buy that “we need some fuel for our live show,” back when they toured the majority of months in any given year.

    Yet that’s simply no longer the case, and (I’m about to pronounce something not-good without having given it a listen! I’m so Gen-X!!) empty tracks like “Gypsy Biker” (or a half-dozen almost-novelty tunes from The Rising, like your favorite, “Skin to Skin”) just serve to frustrate the listener and the hardcore fan. Just like the one-disc The River so many Springsteen fans have compiled, and the 3/4 record I have of The Rising to cut out the fluff, I worry I’m going to really dig half of this record and bang my head about the rest.

    On the other hand—I love that they got out around the early leak by pretending they’re “releasing” it themselves! “” totally smacks of some Columbia exec who is always talking about “the kids” with their “ripping and their Windows.”

  2. bulb says:

    I take it you knew about the Brooce track b4 my Guardian-inspired post. Curses, foiled again!

    Some other new music to check out:

    M.I.A., KALA
    world beats and hip hop in a mighty goulash on this second effort from everyone’s favorite Tamil Tiger teenbeater, which begins with a Jonathan Richman reference for good measure.

    Mark Ronson, Version
    The world’s greatest DJ (maybe?) lays down some classic (re)mixes; worth it for the mash-up/cover of the Smiths meeting the Supremes alone; that’s the track “Stop Me” featuring Daniel Merriwether.

    Von Südenfed, Tromatic Reflexxions
    Mark E. Smith speak/sings over stuff performed by Swiss DJ duo Mouse on Mars; corruscating and brilliant as one would suspect.

    Floratone, Floratone
    Blue Note hasn’t been this hip in years; a good firned from KZSU, Stanford wrote the following review:

    Floratone / Floratone
    Label: Blue Note

    Reviewed 2007-08-25

    FLORATONE: Floratone
    Blue Note, 2007

    An ever-changing instrumental landscape that mixes modern jazz with
    electronica, blues, folk and even a dash of reggae, this intriguing new
    project from guitarist Bill Frisell and friends sounds to me like a
    cinematic tour through seamy/steamy parts of the American south. A
    loop-laden, heady brew of slides, blips, echoes and thumps sounds
    perfectly natural despite thick layers of studio production. Great

  3. gorjus says:

    Also, in my head you were always a big Okkervillian. It’s been growing on me—the songs I think of as “the singles” (like Black, or For Real) just completely blow me out of the water. I’ve only heard Out Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe but I really dig it so far.

  4. brd says:

    I found your comments about the 9/11 musical concepts interesting. Of course the subject by its nature has to be addressed artistically, yet it is so hard to touch it without tainting it with banality. I was looking at Brand New the other day and was offput by the presence of the logo for The World Trade Center Memorial. Somehow the branding of heartbreak or terror seems over the top. The chatter, as you say, can be disorienting.

  5. conversely says:

    Hey, I’ve had recent similar revelations about Okkervil River and Vanderslice—you’re totally right about Pixel Revolt—in fact, it was playing when I rolled on over the check out what you guys were writing about. Weird, I say.

  6. Roland says:

    I have to say I really like the new Springsteen song now on iTunes.

  7. KD says:

    Bruce’s Gypsy Biker is actually the best song on the album and, to these ears, the best thing he’s done in more than twenty years. It starts with a slow harmonica and builds to a couple incendiary guitar solos—it will kick ass live. It’s hardly slight—the lyrics make it sound like it’s about someone mourning the loss of a buddy who died in Iraq, without overtly mentioning Iraq.