Life and Death of an American Fourtracker
is the result of
over 300 hours spent in Tiny Telephone Recording, the studio owned by
San Francisco engineer/singer/songwriter John Vanderslice. With help
from talented engineers John Croslin (Spoon, Guided by Voices,
Beulah, Creeper Lagoon and Preston School of Industry) and Scott
Solter (the Court and Spark, For Stars and Tarentel), the result is
an album "recorded in Sloppy Hi-Fi" that weaves experimental pop
songs through airy sequences. As with previous Vanderslice albums, it
draws on diverse instrumentation, styles, genres and techniques, and
a grab bag of other inputs and influences that, in the final mix,
make up a satisfying 12-course sonic feast.
Vanderslice has put out a loose concept album about a boy,
"Kevin," who has had an entire career a "micro-career"
putting out 16 full-length, four-track cassettes by the time he's 19.
The album includes satirical commentary on the creative life of
American romantic artists who get "washed up" by 19. Whereas
Vanderslice's last album, 2001's Time Travel Is Lonely,
focused on memory and loss, Fourtracker
takes as its subject
matter the destructive qualities of creative impulse and
suicide. It probes bipolar disorder and mania, the struggles of
girls against boys, and drugs. The album also takes cues from
fourtracker culture, because the obsessed protagonist spends a good
deal of time in his basement with a box of TDKs.
Although he calls himself a solo artist, Vanderslice returns with his
collaborative style and a little help from several talented friends.
He's orchestrated multiple influences and styles into a cohesive
theme album with much personality and multidimensionality and
a story stirring for any pop-culture enthusiast with a taste for
jangling guitars, romanticism and studio experiments.
One layer of that multidimensionality is that again, Vanderslice
presents a cultural tsunami of references, with the album gathering inflows from surrealism, prog rock, other indie
rock artists, etc., into a pulsing, frothy mix. Vanderslice's first
solo album was named Mass Suicide Occult Figurines,
Neutral Milk Hotel lyric from On Avery Island
's "Song Against
Sex." This time out, fans of The Microphones should note references:
the song "The Mansion," for one, and a so-called 1996 cassette
recording, The Glow: Part 3,
listed in the protagonist's
"discography" on Vanderslice's site
on the site is a matter-of-fact "outside observer's" account of
Kevin's story, which fleshes out the liner notes' enigmatic synopsis which reads simply, "From home
recording and acid epiphanies, to chandelier swinging and night
The discography also shows a reference to the Danielson Famile's 2001
album, Fetch the Compass Kids.
A line from "Rallying the
Dominoes," about the destructive, or at minimum challenging,
properties of being on a creative roll (or, more bluntly, crazy
manic), becomes the title for the "1995" cassette, My Energy Hurt
Among still other references is one to Yes' 1972 album,
Close to the Edge
(influenced by his older brother, John grew
up listening to prog- and art-rock). (See Neumu story: "John Vanderslice: Obsessed With Making Music."
However, in Kevin's discography
an "r" has been amusingly added to "close." Finally,
is framed in the first and last tracks by songs
with lyrics taken from William Blake's poem "Infant Sorrow," about
the pain of birth. There are certainly additional references waiting
to be uncovered.
Vanderslice is known for strong love songs that unite the heart and
mind with other unmentionable body parts, only because they're so
moving. They're not prurient or licentious; in fact, the effect is
always earnest and innocent, yet somehow romantically compelling.
This time out, his most romantic song is not about a boy and a girl,
but a boy and his machine. Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard
adds high breathy vocals to Vanderslice's own ardent voice on the
mystical "Me and My 424." With its full, melodious guitar- and
keyboard-driven sound, rhythmic and heavy on the hi-hats, "424" is
about a boy obsessed with personal recording. There's a tension built
into the song, lyrically and musically. It catches like your wool
sweater on a splintered fence, and itches like your scraped knees.
I piss you off in slanted rhyme
Walk away in 3/4'stime
And the nude descends
The stairway once again
Basement living always mends
I'll come to you then
Shell shocked, pale gray
And a box of TDKs
And me and my 424.
The muse has spun this feverish, sun-deprived youth, and this is, in
a way, Vanderslice's updating of Patti Smith's "Land," in that it's
about a boy consumed by creative passion and dangerous urges
urges so visceral they're sexual. The song sounds as good as it feels
to wash the dirt from the wounds of those skinned knees.
Cult punk-folk fave John Darnielle (Mountain Goats, Extra Glenns) authored
lyrics for the album, including two romantic relationship/suicide songs. "Cool Purple Mist," track 10:
Late Spring rain, cool purple mist
Strawberries big as a baby's fist
Earth is soft and it yields to pressure
The moon is far too bright to measure
Comets crossing overhead
And I wish that we both were dead.
The other song penned by Darnielle, "Nikki Oh Nikki," has Mates of State's Kori Gardner Hammel
adding the harmonies for which that band is becoming well known.
Bill Swan of San Francisco's Beulah lends the clarion call of his
trumpet, most strikingly (and Beulah-like) on track five,
"The Mansion." With its tender and ultimately resigned melody, "The Mansion" details the emotional and physical struggle between Kevin and Nikki at
a Holiday Inn in Riverside, California, where they land after a Greyhound trip
across the States. Kevin has taken Nikki to the West Coast to try to
make it as a creative person.
But, by track seven, "Amytriptaline," named for the psych med also known
as Elavil, Kevin's been jailed for
disorderly conduct and drugged by the state in Pasadena. He sings to
the psychotropic medication that will balance his moods, reining in
his creativity (as well as his madness): "500 milligrams held down by
a pharmaceutical hand/ Are needed everyday/ So we can regulate my
uncontrollable urge." "Aimeeeee-tryp-ta-line," Kevin sings, with the
emphasis upon the first two syllables, as if it's a girlfriend
enslaving him in a troublesome relationship.
Spoon member Jim Eno drums on a handful of songs on this album with
overall affecting percussion and interesting syncopation. Kind of
Like Spitting's Ben Barnett plays both jangly acoustic guitar and
rubbery fretless bass on "Interlude #5," a moody instrumental which
actually comes five songs after "Interlude #4," curious with
squawking sounds, plus lush and twangy ones from the Court and
Spark's pedal steel guitarist Tom Heyman.
This is a stirring album, from start to finish. There's the distorted
melody and electronic effects of Underneath the Leaves," with
Vanderslice's moody voice singing enigmatic lyrics ("I found the
key underneath the leaves/ And I was set free/ I found the truth
underneath the leaves/ And I was complete"). There's "Greyhound,"
with its echoed vocals asking metaphysical questions to a
tune with a resounding rhetorical "Why?" embedded in the song structure. Track 11, "From Out Here,"
s denouement, provides mysterious closure before
heading into track 12, "Fiend in a Cloud, Pt. 2," which draws upon
the framing device of opening and closing the album with Blake's poem.