J. Tillman

Vacilando Territory Blues

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Vacilando Territory Blues is J. Tillman's fifth solo album, but it’s his first after joining celebrated indie band Fleet Foxes as drummer and his first on the Western Vinyl label. The record remains loyal to his distinct brand of intimate, lo-fi singer/songwriter fare, but offers a few faster tempos and a broader expanse of instrumentation than prior works with the help of several collaborators, including Foxes bandmates Casey Wescott and Christian Wargo. "No Occasion," for example, is a friendlier-sounding song than typical for him, with vibraphone and Mellotron brightening the atmosphere, but is still steered by Tillman's alluring voice, doleful and direct, as he delivers the futilely hopeful, "I don't want to live again/'Cause I don't want this life to end." Also balanced by lyrical introspection, "Steel on Steel" is an even more densely arranged, head-bobbing pleaser. These songs work well with the more tonally somber ones in the flow of the record, however, the spare guy-and-guitar pieces continue to be Tillman's wheelhouse. For instance, "Vessels" is a standout; a poetic remembrance, at once both haunting and sweet -- even pretty -- with melody in spades. Tillman has said that he abandoned batches of songs written for the album, ultimately using a collection of salvaged material without a central idea or sound. For the most part, this isn't evident without the heads-up, with the exception of two back-to-back "Blues" tracks. "Barter Blues," an epic banjo folk venture that ends with a weird rock jam fadeout, doesn't quite blend in, at least not in the middle of the track lineup. Shrieking saxophones open the next song, "New Imperial Grand Blues," like spaceships landing in the middle of an art-house romantic drama. Maybe the point is to shake things up, but add its deadpan, Peggy Lee-like vocals that temporarily abandon his trademark husky plea, and it's out of place. The album then returns to the sparse and sincere with "Master's House" and finishes in kind. Ultimately, Vacilando Territory Blues still sounds unmistakably like Tillman and not Fleet Foxes or anyone else, and fans will appreciate, even amidst experiments with density and diversity, his continued reliable songwriting and expressive vulnerability.

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