Thursday, May 28, 2009

Review: John Vanderslice - Romanian Names (* * * 1/2)

If the first five months are a good indication of what we can expect from the remaining seven, 2009 is shaping up to be a fantastic year for music, especially from some of indie rock’s heavyweights. Led by stellar records from mainstays Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear, the artists that we have all come to expect so much from have, for the most part, delivered; some creating career-defining albums in the process. Depending on who you talk to, John Vanderslice may or may not end up on that selective list of indie’s most important or influential songwriters, but I would submit that his impressive catalog has earned him a spot, especially with 2007’s superb Emerald City.

Now, with Romanian Names, we find the ever-restless Vanderslice shifting gears from City’s politically-charged edginess into a smoother, subtler sound focused on more personal – specifically relationship – matters. Vanderslice hasn’t exactly abandoned his love of twisted, descriptive phrases, but his new material feels open in a way that his albums never have before. “Fetal Horses,” the record’s pre-release single, sets the tone early on in the proceedings, a broken and ugly plea for a past lover to return despite less than ideal circumstances. Combining lines like “today, at least today, I wanted you,” with mention of fetal horses and seeing corpses is not exactly a shot at romance, it’s just a strange sort of honesty that makes Vanderslice seem remarkably unguarded and relatively accessible.

Musically, the greatest difference here is the production, which rounds off the sharp corners present during much of Vanderslice’s earlier work. Where before, rough electric guitars and pounding drums slammed political rants home with force, now slinky synths and smooth piano lines create a tense, but much less aggressive, atmosphere for Vanderslice to present his more introspective lyrics. “C & O Canal” bounces lightly along with soft keys over nimble percussion, “Too Much Time” has a distant, hazy sound that feels lonely and worn, and closer “Hard Times” uses only touches of synth and strings to compliment the plaintive vocals. One of the most surprising and excellent tracks is the all-too-brief acoustic ballad that is the record’s title track, which forgoes production almost completely for a simple sense of intimacy that’s quite compelling.

Unfortunately, while Vanderslice’s vocal performances are easily among his best and his musicianship is solid as always, something has been lost here among the gentler presentation. The new direction doesn’t so much feel uninspired or misguided as much as it seems uninteresting, at least when compared to his previous albums. The added measure of beauty and sincerity is certainly welcome and even intriguing, but when taken as a whole, the record feels a little insubstantial. The songs are consistently (with few exceptions) engaging enough on their own and there are a few stunners here, but Romanian Names too rarely rises to the level at which John Vanderslice has operated for so long.

However, even with my reservations, I can’t escape the feeling that in some way Romanian Names is a step forward for John Vanderslice. I suppose it remains to be seen whether or not this album will serve as a transitional piece, but it feels like this might be the beginning of an interesting musical phase in his career. He continues to explore new territory and stretch himself and it’s difficult to be too upset when such ambition results in material that isn’t quite as fantastic this time around as it has been in the past.

Last Word: John Vanderslice’s seventh record, Romanian Names, doesn’t live up to his own self-established standard, but there’s enough good material to be worth our attention.

You can download a cut from the record, "Too Much Time," below, and be sure to check out my earlier post for a download of "Fetal Horses."

Too Much Time (MP3)