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The newest entry into John Vanderslice's deep and undeniably remarkable catalog is White Wilderness, and it's a record like no other he's made before. Here are nine new and wildly impressive JV songs captured live over three days in a unique collaboration with the Magik*Magik Orchestra, a collective of classically trained musicians in the Bay Area led by artistic director Minna Choi. The Magik*Magik Orchestra have a comprehensive mastery of classic performance and repertoire, but also have a full appreciation of the aesthetics of indie and underground music.
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I've just listened to it again and take back everything I said that wasn't totally positive. Buy it now and get a pretty cool cover as an Amazon bonus.
By the way, whether you like this album or not, look for a video of him performing "Too Much Time" with the Magik Magik orchestra. Incredible.
After self-releasing a stellar EP titled Green Grow the Rushes late last year, Vanderslice (who recently moved from the Seattle-based Barsuk Records to the Indiana-based Dead Oceans, most recently releasing 2009's great Romanian Names) decided to go for it all, quietly recording the endlessly grand (yet often fragile sounding) White while the indie world celebrated simple records by bands like Best Coast, Wavves and No Age. Now, still new label hoisting him high, he's crafted one of the best winter-season records I've heard since those early Badly Drawn Boy discs. While the mood here shifts around quite a bit, the vibe is always somber (and epic), most likely due to Vanderslice's vocal style (always the focus) and the consistent use of string arrangement and dramatic swells. If you're somehow not already familiar with this indie mainstay, think Andrew Bird, XTC, Beulah and, if your ears are more of the mainstream pedigree, Owl City (or so I'm told). All that said, this is very original music that is hard to compare to anything else out right now.
The grandiose "The Piano Lesson," however, does remind instantly of both Sufjan Stevens and Shugo Tokumaru, arranged in a way that separates Vanderslice from most of the indie pack, coming off like something you'd expect a master like Brian Wilson to listen to on an off day. The overall vibe here is elegance, Choi, MMO and Vanderslice delivering nine fully-baked songs in about a half an hour that are delicately crafted and meticulously arranged and executed. And, of course, there are Vanderslice's forever underrated lyrics, which hold the whole mess together, front to back.
Standouts include opener "Sea Salt," which moves back and forth from minimalist composition to grand string arrangement. The title track, another instant highlight, features little more than Vanderslice's voice, his piano and strings. No guitar, no drums, not even a bass. This approach allows Vanderslice's vocals, here more fragile than usual, to really shine. No bad songs in sight, I'm finding it hard to pick favorites from this very solid set of songs. Though this is a mostly accessible listen, "Convict Lake," I suppose, would be the closest thing the record has to a radio single, the album playing through in a 60s style AOR fashion, passing quickly and memorably as one solid piece of work.
The result is the album Vanderslice has been trying to make for years - a breakthrough album that, theoretically, reminds very much of Andrew Bird's Armchair Apocrypha, a 2007 album made for sophisticated ears that, somehow, made Bird a big name indie artist. Will White Wilderness do the same for John Vanderslice, another songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist who has been working hard for over a decade? Well, maybe. It should. It should because it's lean and mean and far more accessible than the Bird record. But who knows. Indie music being forever ficklie, White Wilderness could just be another record that chips away at listeners, adding to and maintaining a fanbase for Vanderslice. But, damn, listening to this heavily orchestrated pop record, I can't help but holler and cheer, hoping it's the one that finally breaks through.
Here are nine new and wildly impressive JV songs captured live over three days in a unique collaboration with the Magik*Magik Orchestra, a collective of classically trained musicians in the Bay Area led by artistic director Minna Choi.