John Vanderslice

Cellar Door

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John Vanderslice muses about family and pseudo fantasy on Cellar Door, his fourth solo album. He's comfortable inside the sputtering sonics of the understated indie rock universe he and collaborator Scott Solter have assembled; it is assemblage, after all, since Vanderslice's pristine production -- when applied to his own songwriting -- acts as enormous and super-sharp ghost scissors, snipping, trimming, and carefully carving curves and swirls into a pop paper crane both delicate and dark. He patiently puts buzzing keyboards up against tense, ringing electric guitars and percussive overtures ("Coming and Going on Easy Terms") and begins the album with blurts of backmasked and treated acoustic guitar over whining drums ("Pale Horse," which suggests the heady, off-kilter pop of pals Spoon), through it all mulling the meaning of familial relationships and dwelling in places or on characters that drift in the margins of reality. Vanderslice is a prison guard, a door gunner, or the junkie offspring of a gone-bananas mother. In the pretty, desperate "They Won't Let Me Run," he's an angry man cuffed to his last name's legacy; inside the electronic throb of "Up Above the Sea," he's a reluctant hunter, unwilling to kill but wondering what will happen if he does. "Everyday the bluebird comes down," he sings. "Can't figure out if he brings me luck/Or if he's trying to tear me down." These story-songs of Vanderslice's have a Smog quality about them, as do their persistently unique blend of instrumentation, style, and flair for a subtle hook. Like Bill Callahan, Vanderslice's lyrics often unfold in the first person, but frequently leave actual identities in the shadows. There's inescapable warmth and hope in the surging strings and descending chorus melody of mid-album standout "Promising Actress." But what about those unsettling chimes that run through it, and words of a gun and a mysterious cowboy? These at-odds questions make the listener queasy, but dizzy with enjoyment. In the end, listening to Cellar Door is like feeling happy upon hearing the tiny plinks of a childhood music box, only to grow uneasy as the unexpected memories twist into creepy déjà vu. Another impossibly creative and consistently satisfying offering from one of indie rock's most prolific personalities.

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