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 » Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King's new novella questions mankind's ability to trust others.
[02.21.2011 by Bridget Doyle]

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 » The Top 30 Albums of 2010 - Fashionably, fabulously late, our favorite music (and believe me, there was a LOT) of 2010, the year that some have called the best year for music ever. And only some of those fools work here. Plenty of usual suspects, lots of ties and a few surprises that I won't spoil, including our unexpected #1.
[12.24.2010 by The LAS Staff]

MUSIC

 » Live: Surfer Blood/The Drums at Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL - Remember when Weezer used to put together records that you could sing along to and rock out to? That's what Surfer Blood's show was like!
[11.04.2010 by Cory Tendering]

Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
»Deerhunter
Halcyon Digest
4AD
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
»Robyn
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Konichiwa
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Lisbon
Fat Possum
John Vanderslice
Romanian Names
Dead Oceans

Rating: 8/10 ?


July 3, 2009
Like many with an appetite for quirky, left-of-center pop songs, I've been following John Vanderslice for a while. The San Franciscan's name had been floating in and out of my frame of reference for years, early on associated with MK Ultra and then later as a songwriter under his own banner. But while 'Vanderslice' is hardly a boring Smith or Jones, I've always had a mild disdain for musicians unable to come up with a name for their recording projects. It is one thing when your given name is Johnny Cash or Cornbread Compton, quite another when uninspiring show bills promise sets by Mark Smith or Joe Terry. With so much music to chose from, there have to be filters on where to start listening, even if they're arbitrary. Then again, when you write songs like John Vanderslice, you're eventually going to be heard no matter what the name.

Vanderslice first smacked me to attention with Life and Death of an American Fourtracker, the jubilant smirk of "Me and My 424" prompting a backtrack through his debut, Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, and sophomore album Time Travel Is Lonely. After forging an unexpected but intricate emotional connection to Cellar Door, arguably his most robust album to date, I was hooked. Then Pixel Revolt fell flat enough that I skipped Emerald City entirely. Assuming my love affair with the songwriter had passed, I was understandably worried when NPR's Robin Hilton touted Romanian Names as "his best record yet." Not that NPR doesn't have good taste in music, but the indie fare they address is often of the already gloriously overhyped sort (ahem, Grizzly Bear, Dan Deacon, Hold Steady, et al).

From the outset, Romanian Names flirts with Hilton's assessment. Opener "Tremble and Tear," has all of the cinematics that have lent Vanderslice's previous tunes the air of unfilmed movie soundtracks: warmly droning keyboards, oddball lyrical hooks, druggy reassurances that call up a California summer. Later, the wired buoyancy of "D.I.A.L.O."--relentless but not overbearing with its persistent keyboards--sounds subdued in its own time but lingers afterward, echoing in the short-term memory throughout the murky minimalism of "Forest Knolls." However, two-thirds of the way through that cut, a few sharp horn bursts taunt but never deliver on threats of an escalating cadence. One of the most playfully despondent tracks in Vanderslice's repertoire, a lot seems to be happening (or on the verge of happening) in "Knolls," but not much really does. But, boom or bust, Vanderslice's sonic details keep you interested anyway.

Throughout the course of Romanian Names there is a lot of what you could aptly call balance, with each song mildly shifting the fulcrum upon which rests the equilibria of light and dark, soft and hard, pitch and tone, and all of the other spectral minutia that can add up to either a stellar tome or a forgettable snooze. "Sunken Union Boat" is jovial but not as sunkissed as "Carina Constellation," the former making with the latter a downtempo sandwich with Names' reassuredly-strummed title cut in the middle.

One of the facets of Vanderslice's game is that, to a degree unlike any other record maker save for perhaps Thom Yorke, his consistently adventurous albums stand stylistically and thematically apart from each other while remaining covered in the fingerprints of the composer connecting them. They're all different, yet they're unmistakably the work of a single mind, united by Vanderslice-ness. Be it the choir-like vocals of "Tremble and Tear" or the warbly, distorted singalong of "Fetal Horses" or the flittering serenade of "Hard Times" (all from this album), there is a common sensibility that runs deeper than one man's voice. For Vanderslice, who lets loose like a fusion chef in the sound booth when it comes to taking liberties with structure and melodic perspective, it is a useful trick. At first listen, songs like "C&O Canal" can come off as presumptuous, with a galloping gait that, sort-of-but-not-really matching the la-la-la chorus, might be too smart for its own good. But by the time "Too Much Time" explodes, all is forgiven. The most "epic" highlight on an album otherwise piled high with "smaller" indie-pop, "Too Much Time" is also the most overt social commentary (terrorism, environmental collapse, societal upheaval, vacation spots) on the album, from an otherwise somewhat detached and dense lyricist.

As for the claim that Romanian Names represents the pinnacle of Vanderslice's recorded output to date, the argument certainly holds water. The dozen songs are all inviting, catchy even, in their own way, and aurally consistent with the history of "sloppy hi-fi" production at Vanderslice's Tiny Telephone studio. "Too Much Time" is easily one of his most compactly potent tracks, but occasionally one like "Oblivion" verges on the formulaic. If there is such a thing for a Vanderslice song. Is Romanian Names the best? Maybe not for everyone. Is it solid? Let's just say it is undeniably Vandersliced.

Reviewed by Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.

See other reviews by Eric J Herboth

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