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Wednesday, November 22, 2017 
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John Vanderslice
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Life and Death of an American Fourtracker
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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, after a 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. (Also 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 swimming.")

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 Me. 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, Fourtracker 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," Fourtracker'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.


by Jillian Steinberger




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