There’s a flawless pedigree in John Vanderslice’s musical bio: collaborations with Spoon, The Mountain Goats and Death Cab for Cutie, not to mention a solid individual back catalogue. Each of his previous releases has garned increasingly favourable reviews, most notably 2007’s Emerald City which it should be said is quite simply a glorious gem of a melodic pop achievement. Album no. 7 (proper) is no great departure from the likes of Emerald City or 2005’s Pixel Revolt, and it’s all the better for it. His favoured analogue recording techniques feature wonderfully throughout, even more-so for all John Vanderslice’s melodic and lyrical strengths, his off-kilter songwriting style is alive and well.
“Tremble and Tear” is not the strongest of openings, but its nice groove and production see it through to the more impressive and enjoyable “Fetal Horses” and “C&O Canal.” I won’t pretend I know what these songs are about, I’m too interested in the way they are put together, which with repeated listens open themselves up as great arrangements, complete with hooks, beats and instrument changes which take these alternative pop songs in different directions during the three and half minutes we’re treated to. This carries on for most of the album, other standouts including “Sunken Union Boat” and “Carina Constellation.”
You can tell that Mr. Vanderslice is a bit of a studio nerd, but he’s also a very contemporary and relevant singer-songwriter, and where other acts look back to golden era’s past with raspy crackling sounds, this guy is pushing forward, not in a hugely experimental and imperceptible manner, but by being loyal to his writing and lyrical talent and simply playing with new sounds and ways to write a song. You’ll rarely hear a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/chorus arrangement on a John Vanderslice record.
The filler is minimal here—strangely the opening track, the title track and closing track “Hard Times” are let downs. Yet fans should still really like this, whether they see it as a step up or a step down from Emerald City. For this reviewer it’s not quite the achievement Emerald was but it still can’t be knocked for that, as it’s without a doubt a well made, strong addition to an increasingly impressive canon and well worth a listen.