San Francisco indie rocker John Vanderslice's Time Travel Is
Lonely is a personal album based loosely on the life of "Jesse,"
John's fictional "brother," a U.S. geologist and computer programmer
living alone on an ice shelf in Antarctica, whose story is told in a
series of letters in the album's liner notes. After an email "from
John" with the I Love You virus takes out Jesse's hard drive, he's
isolated from the outside world, except for his pen and a six-hour
short-wave loop from the BBC. Polar madness sets in.
It's these letters, and the mariner themes in Sam Trout's cover art,
that unify this concept album. Trout's primitive yet dramatic
black-work line drawing of a turn-of-the-century mariner navigating
dangerous ice floes implies loneliness and vulnerability from the
listener's first look at the art on the box. (In fact, Time
Travel's art is an argument for purchasing CDs rather than
downloading, which fails to provide the full multimedia experience.)
When Vanderslice sings, he sounds something like Hunky
Dory-era Bowie crossed with Robyn Hitchcock, if those two British
rockers were Americans. He makes a kind of studio-intensive art-rock
that pulls from a pastiche of influences from the '60s to the
present, from The Beatles, Eno and King Crimson to Neutral Milk
Hotel, The Microphones and Beulah. The music on this 2001 release is
vaguely reminiscent of R.E.M.'s 1984 album, Reckoning. Like
(relatively) early R.E.M., this is music that's easy to like, yet it
doesn't sound exactly familiar. It's quirky. And it's definitely pop,
but smart pop. Still, it's music you can listen to with your brain
turned to its "off" position (since it just sounds good).
Vanderslice's lyrics wrestle with substantial issues the
impact of technology, history, revolution, premonitions and dreams,
drug abuse, love, relationships ending, and other major life-changing
events, such that the music is "heavy" in that '60s way, but with a
sense of wonder and open-endedness.
Vanderslice calls his music "baroque pop." Artists and bands in this
sub-genre (Phil Spector, Love, Nick Drake, The Association) have
relied heavily on studio techniques, with layers of harmonies,
strings, keyboards and horns. Time Travel is, in fact, the
result of over 300 hours spent "creatively" in Vanderslice's Tiny
Telephone Studios, a mainstay of analog recording in San Francisco.
Vanderslice's music is not simply "baroque" stylistically; he samples
from true baroque music, as with Bach's Preludium Fugue #7 in
"Interlude #2" (track 11), played on a harpsichord, with self-tracked
choral vocals (briefly verging on the Philip Glass-y).
The addition of "classical" elements generally takes rock away from
its primal origins compare the music of Phil Ochs' early
career to his work in the late '60s, and you'll get the point. Yet
Vanderslice is able to retain that primal emotional power; though
highly produced, his albums aren't overproduced. Inventive
analog studio processes purposefully "distress" the recordings and
otherwise add texture, multiple layers and interest. At base,
however, this is engaging, hooky pop that widens pop's definition,
running the gamut from acoustic balladry to eccentric smart-pop, from
lo-fi synth-pop to chamber-string melancholy.
With a haunting melody and metrical beats that sound like cannons,
"Do You Remember?" is a stellar rocker about a man stepping in front
of the Tiananmen Square tanks. You could be dancing to this and then
realize, "Hey, Tiananmen Square!" Heavy stuff, and a case of
guitar-pop doing double duty by expanding awareness while avoiding
didacticism. "Do you remember the man," Vanderslice sings, "Who
blocked the caravan/ Trying to talk sense to/ The machine gunner/ He
held the ranks."
A sonic dream of courage, even the title of the song, "Do You
Remember," is an admonition to remember, to raise your hand
and say "halt" to bullshit, and not to minimize the persuasive power
of Everyman or -woman when he or she does so. On a record with 13
stunners, this is the song I especially cannot forget.
About vulnerable little kids ambushed on bikes, adults rushing to get
nowhere much too fast, and wasted youths getting a wake-up call,
"Everything Changed" is also singularly intense, yet still rhythmic
and poppy. "For me everything changed," Vanderslice sings.
"Understand I was very high/ I just quit my job/ No I just got fired/
The day she died for me everything changed." How many male rock
artists get all bent about little girls dying in bike accidents
and write a song about it?
Vanderslice's albums typically have songs about the protagonist's
loves, and they're always kind of... well, you want to put your palm
to your heart, or the back of your hand to your forehead. At times
they have a mournful quality not unlike The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood."
Time Travel has two romantic songs: "You Were My Fiji," where
a mariner's relief at reaching dry land is a metaphor for a desperate
man's respite when holding a woman; and, especially, "My Old Flame,"
based on a Robert Lowell poem. Vanderslice has modernized the poem,
adding a clever new verb to the American lexicon: "Ikea-d." The moody
"My Old Flame" sounds like an instant classic. Its mysterious,
remorseful melody calls forth images of swirling leaves and autumn
twilight, while Vanderslice intones tragically, "My old flame/ My
wife/ Poor ghost, old love" to a bittersweet melody. It begins with
acoustic picking and Vanderslice's plaintive vocals and ends
rhythmic, heavy on the hi-hats, which gets the adrenaline rushing.
Then there's the wonderful "If I Live or If I Die." Based on William
Blake's poem on the accidental death of a fly, it has the
theatricality and mischief of a Queen song, with staccato piano,
choral vocals and the absurd questions it poses: "Am I not a fly like
you?/ Are you not a man like me?/ Oh I dance and drink and sing/ 'Til
some hand tears off my wing." The arrangement of this jaunty little
number gives a song about dark ontological ponderables a deceptively
Making meaning out of experience can be a puzzling, open-ended
process that raises more questions than it answers. Vanderslice's
smart-rock foregrounds the relevance of applying reflective
consciousness to history and being. And, perhaps most important, it
just sounds good.