REVIEW: John Vanderslice: Time Travel is Lonely
John Vanderslice: Time Travel is Lonely [Barsuk, 2001]
Three words? Wailing whirling wonders.
With Time Travel is Lonely, John Vanderslice has taken conventional indie rock instruments - piano, drums, bass, electric/acoustic guitar, trumpets, organ - and transformed them into something that sounds altogether new, altogether idiosyncratic. From the crisp percussion to the recurring, rhythmic guitar throbs, unexpected sounds and rhythms wind themselves into precise sonic arrangements, decorating and deepening the landscape for Vanderslice's wide, expressive voice. It's like a stripped down folk Dismemberment Plan, like math rock Neutral Milk Hotel. It's like so many bands that should exist, but don't quite. That is, until now.
"You Were My Fiji" kicks things off with alarm-clock beeps and licks of acoustic guitar, threading in Vanderslice's voice like it's some strange, warbling instrument. Like Jeff Magnum, his delivery can occasionally grate on the nerves, but the fierce proximity of his emotion, the round mouthfuls of words, conspire for an ultimately positive effect. "Keep the Dream Alive" is a simpler, more poppy number; its bizarre, melancholic sea imagery contrasts with soaring summer trumpets and electronic busywork in the background. "My Old Flame" begins as acoustic guitar ballad and ends with a slow breakdown of xylophone, violin and blips. It fades through the temporally-squeezed whalesong of "Interlude 3" into the rousing "Time Travel is Lonely", where mechanized guitar crunches work with crisp drums to drive a blaring song forward. "Listen! Wear your headphones!" demands Vanderslice, just before he lifts the song into a synth-powered, anthemic chorus. The melody crests, returns to the seismic guitars, then drifts like foam into its sad, crooning conclusion.
From one high into another - the singsong piano of "If I Love or If I Die" would be at home on a Penguin Cafe Orchestra disc, and the double-tracked vocals (with tuba accompaniment) remake John Vanderslice as the macabre English cousin of Elliott Smith. Of course, Vanderslice is ten times more interesting than Elliott Smith, and the song leaves more questions than it gives answers.
The disc is one long, emotive high, but it peaks with "Do You Remember?", where martial drums slam a wrenching rhythm under Vanderslice's vivid melody. Horns, buzzing bass and mellotron lace the tune, occasionally rising up in a maelstrom swirl of noise, then descending again under the constant, unstoppable drum pacing. Vanderslice's search for the man in that famous Tienamen Square photograph finally falls apart into a noisy, raspberry mess, recalling the Beta Band's delicious "Dr Jones".
Time Travel is Lonely finds a thematic home in the buzzing, dreamlike epics of Neutral Milk Hotel and the Microphones. Vanderslice's songs are passionate and colourful, melancholy but frequently redemptive. They are arranged with skill but not excess, novelty without precociousness, and make for an excellent, surprising listen.