Not counting remix albums, John Vanderslice is now on his seventh full-length (his first, by the way, since leaving the Barsuk label for Dead Oceans) as a solo artist. Those seven albums have shown a traceable evolution from relatively conventional drum/bass/guitar-type instrumentation to a heavy reliance on the sonic augmentation — distortion, delays, loops — made possible by the modern studio, much of which stems from his continued collaboration with longtime producer Scott Solter, who, MacGyver-like, can construct a mind-blowing soundscape out of household miscellany like a paperclip, a spoon, and a piece of string.
Vanderslice’s music has since reached a point where each verse is a veritable symphony of clacks and beeps and echoes and warpings and choirs. But restraint, too, has been another common trait of Vanderslice’s music, and it’s hard to recall a time, whether on Romanian Names or an earlier album such as Pixel Revolt (2005), when he’s failed to keep the studio symphonics in check. Take “Tremble and Tear,” the opener to the new album, which is interwoven with a frantically ticking drum loop. During the chorus, as Vanderslice assures us, “Here comes the one / Yeah, she’s the one,” a voice overdub (or, more accurately, underdub) rises and falls in imitation of a cello, and siren-like guitars drone, drone, drone, ultimately dropping us at the feet of the following verse. It’s a meticulous execution, one of those effortlessly complex performances that you can only begin to appreciate once you’ve taken it for granted half a dozen times.
“Fetal Horses” follows, its acoustic rhythm guitar warbling like a cassette left on the dashboard in the full heat of the summer sun. The odd, unsettling title notwithstanding, this is strange and dark territory even for Vanderslice, who, in the guise of one of his many fictitious narrators, fantasizes about seeing the “pixelated, bloody face” of his lost love Elise, repeatedly confessing to her that, “I live with another / I stole her from her lover.” And yet, despite the pleasure he seems to take in such acts of pure malice, this narrative alter ego seems to find some self-pitiful justification for his actions, as if Elise herself were somehow the guilty party: Look, Elise, at what you made me do. But this isn’t a one-off; the complacent dickishness continues with the more upbeat “C&O Canal.” Here Vanderslice sings to a lover who’s off “helping the troops”: “I tracked down your friend / and won her heart over slowly, then / I walked away / Hope it gets back to you someday.” Then comes the bright string of “La la la la la la la la,” which could be either feigned nonchalance or genuine delight, an ambiguity that’s typical of what makes Vanderslice’s output consistently worthwhile.
After the dense, contemplative ballad “Too Much Time,” perhaps at the fore of what Romanian Names has to offer and consequently one of the top tracks in the Vanderslice catalogue, the album starts to lose its way thematically, musically, sequentially. On “D.I.A.L.O” — which presumably stands for the Defense Intelligence Agency Liaison Office, the entity responsible for keeping both Congress and the American public abreast of military intelligence according to their respective needs — there’s a return to the political anxiety that characterized his two preceding albums, Emerald City (2007) and the aforementioned Pixel Revolt. And there the disc’s politics end. “Forest Knolls,” driven by an electronic heartbeat that is unsubtle in its symbolism, is a reflection on violence and manhood; its catharsis, when it comes, is anticlimactic, even pointless. “Oblivion” is more like an interlude than a song proper. “Sunken Union Boat” and “Carina Constellation” are both shiny pop, “Romanian Names” a tender, sub-two-minute love song, “Summer Stock” a sinister coming-of-age recollection. Each song, however weak or strong, seems like a non sequitur to the one that came before it. The fairly lucid tales of dejection and revenge of the first half dissolve into the jumble of cryptic curiosities and musings of the second.
In spite of this imbalance and inconsistency, Romanian Names is still a fine collection of songs, some of them among Vanderslice’s best. It certainly presents some of the musician’s most listener-friendly work so far, but the lack of cohesion keeps it at one remove from previous discs, which tended to be fully self-contained and thematically airtight.
John Vanderslice: johnvanderslice.com