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John Vanderslice
Pixel Revolt

Has anyone noticed how much of a wordsmith John Vanderslice has become since he started hanging out with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats? And have you noticed how intricate and layered the production of Darnielle's records has become ever since he started spending more time with Vanderslice? JV is a budding poet these days, and JD's albums have become full of musical life, and it seems they have each other to thank.

Pixel Revolt furthers the Johns' joint enterprise, with Darnielle acting at various times as "editor, co-writer, and midwife" for the record, according to the press notes. And yet, as with all good editors, his influence is very subtly felt. It's Vanderslice's voice that's front and center here (while, conversely, the last couple Mountain Goats records have felt at times too Vanderslicey for their own good). His lyrics on Pixel Revolt, as on his last two solo albums, are ambitious. Sometimes to a fault — there are passages of words that obscure the intricate instrumentation beneath, in the same way that Vanderslice's meticulous and often breathtaking production can fight with his singing for listeners' ears. It's a matter of balance, and Vanderslice does usually keep his two talents working with, not against, each other.

The results are less collusive on Pixel Revolt, but somehow the album's strengths manage to render the songs' tonal and structural disparities quite unimportant; as the final seconds of the album tick by, you're left with a feeling of melancholy, humor, and not a small amount of dread. The album began as a response to the present U.S. administration and, more specifically, the ongoing war in Iraq. There's a gravity to Vanderslice's stories, an authoritative voice and a sensitivity to their characters, that elevates them above pop songs. In "Plymouth Rock," a young soldier, "made up like a Shawnee brave," jumps out of a truck for his first nighttime raid, only to have "white bullets [tear through his neck]," while in "Trance Manual," an American reporter visits an Iraqi prostitute. "I'll have my editors arrange for payment," he tells her, and there's a desperate and resigned sadness in the statement.

"Exodus Damage," which takes its title from a line in the Silver Jews' "Black and Brown Blues" ("Red and white exit light/ That's exodus damage"), is a freaked-out meditation on the circumstances surrounding 9/11, its narrator questioning why "an hour went by without a fighter in the sky." By this point, the album is shaping up to be a rather serious and relatively coherent musical statement, which is a pretty exciting thing indeed considering that the indie-rock community/scene has yet to issue a really declaratory piece of work outside of Conor Oberst's vaguely juvenile (yet still rousing) anti-war anthems. Vanderslice, who had confronted the war on Cellar Door, his previous record, seems to have come into his own as someone able to effectively organize political thoughts into an album-length statement.

And then the record makes a sharp left and never turns back. Vanderslice's need to write in reaction to the political climate apparently evaporated following a particularly bad breakup sustained mid-recording; the album at this point becomes just that, a breakup record — something we can certainly relate to more personally than getting shot in a midnight raid in Iraq, but somehow lacking the excitement and promise the first half of the album delivered. Pixel Revolt feels, at the end, like two EPs packaged together and passed off as a full-length. The justification could be made that the fierce, angry and frustrated responses to international armed conflict and girlfriends leaving are very much the same, though that would seem to be kind of a stretch.

Beyond the divide, the songs are weaker, more scattered. "Angela" uses a runaway bunny as the starting-off point for a discussion between two lovers of moving out of the San Fernando Valley. "Continuation" concerns four detectives on the trail of a killer, and even the neat combination of xylophone and synth backing up the narrative doesn't keep the song from seeming like a superfluous, ill-advised sidestep.

Not all is lost, though, on this second half of Pixel Revolt. "Dear Sarah Shu" is the perfect example of how sublime things can be when Vanderslice gets all his plates spinning simultaneously, at top speeds. A precise, elliptical recap of how strong feelings can disintegrate into weird indigestible particles, the song's message that "in the end, it's love that you'll have to learn to survive" is propelled by a quick, light drumbeat and consistent moans and laughs from a cello that never presses forward to the front.

"Dear Sarah Shu" illustrates how Vanderslice can, if everything is properly aligned, create an anti-wall-of-sound, in which uncountable instruments and unknowable noises combine to form not an impenetrable veil of sounds, but a curtain of beads in which everything is visible, everything is singularly audible, and there's enough space for the lyrics to breathe. At its best, Pixel Revolt applies that theory to politics, heartbreak, loss, and the regaining of hope; there are moments on the album that reflect a talent so unique that you wonder if Vanderslice ever really needed John Darnielle's help or David Berman's song titles in the first place. Probably — but it's clear that the album further defines the singular voice Vanderslice has been crafting for himself for the last five years.

by Neal Block

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