I have a short commute to work. With traffic, I am afforded maybe twenty minutes of travel time in which to listen to CDs, most of which I am reviewing for this website. Needless to say, the perfect format for this situation is the EP. Four to five songs float by my ears as I speed by the landscape. A full length album, by this measure would take at least two trips, and some of today’s longer albums require three. When I ventured to review the new John Vanderslice album, I found myself transfixed by the first four to five songs. For the return trip, I didn’t let the album play on as I normally would. I started the whole thing over. Four or five trips to work resulted in my repeated listening of the first third of the album, Pixel Revolt.
First of all, if you’re unfamiliar with John Vanderslice, let me give you a quick rundown. This musician is like the William H. Macy of the indie music world. He’s appeared everywhere, from singing backup on Death Cab’s Transatlanticism to being instrumental parts of albums by Spoon, Travis Morrison, the Court and Spark and the Mountain Goats. Having been a part of three of John Darnielle’s albums, the Mountain Goat returned the favor by helping write some of the songs and becoming an overall mentor for Vanderslice. Pixel Revolt is a Janus-like two headed beast of indie pop, representing songs about Vanderslice’s frustrations with the current administration and songs about his broken love affair. What a combo, huh?
“Letter to the East Coast” kicks things off on a somber note, representing what Vanderslice describes as “an elegy for a failed love affair.” He sings about how “being John Crawford at 21 was easy” whereas his breakup was not. Chess metaphors drive the point home as he says, “but the rook’s not too lame for those who didn’t have an endgame.” “Plymouth Rock,” the second track, is a tragic song about a soldier who is killed on his first day of battle in Tuwaitha, Iraq. The soldier is, as Vanderslice describes, “all dressed up like a Shawnee brave.” “Exodus Damage” quickly became my favorite songs from the album, combining folk and new wave feels, as do most of the album’s tracks, to create a catchy tune about sticking to a cause. His chorus of “Dance Dance Revolution” sticks in the cranium long after the song is over. One could wonder whether the reference to a video game in which you dance for points is a metaphor for how people tend to ignore the world around them. “Peacocks in the Video Rain” and its chorus of “I love you too” depicts a distant love affair with a pop singer. “Trance Manual” is a haunting song about a wartime journalist who visits an Iraqi prostitute. The lyrics and references in “Trance Manual” set a new bar for pop music construction.
I eventually did listen to the rest of the album and it too is well crafted, with more songs of tragedy in both love and war. But there is just something about those first five tracks that left me mesmerized. It’s rare that this happens to me, that I listen to an album and find the entire first third of it so enchanting that I almost ignore the rest of the album. In a way, it could have been a really successful EP. Instead, Vanderslice continues the songwriting magic, recalling at times the musical frivolity of early ’80s new wave soloists like Howard Jones or Nik Kershaw while singing heavy lyrics along the lines of Neil Young or Bob Dylan. After languishing in the shadows of many other famous acts and having his first few releases garner only slight popularity, Vanderslice is ready for the spotlight with Pixel Revolt, and it only took a couple of major tragedies to do it.
Howard Jones- Human’s Lib
The Mountain Goats- The Sunset Tree
The Flaming Lips- The Soft Bulletin