REVIEW: John Vanderslice: Life and Death of an American Fourtracker
John Vanderslice: Life and Death of an American Fourtracker [mp3s)
Three words? petals stab skyward
Last year, John Vanderslice made an album about winter. Time Travel is Lonely, with its frost-bitten Antarctica narrative, was cold as ice - a fresh, brisk wind with visions of fire amidst the snow. Life and Death of an American Fourtracker, however, is about Spring. Where Time Travel spoke of memory and loss, Fourtracker trembles with the electric sounds of life's messiness and jumble, aural visions of eggs cracking and boys struck dead under sunlight. The blare of Vanderslice's voice bursts from the round like a floral bullet, able to bruise the listener or prod them awake. It's a fierce, vital Spring, this - chamber pop at once loose and driven, the infant eagle whose hard eyes already follow its prey.
"Fiend in a Cloud" opens the disc with crisp drum punctuation and green washes of strings. The strums of acousti cguitar are utilitarian: harmonic backing for the sour croon of Vanderslice's vocals. "Fighting against my swaddling bands / bound and weary I thought it best / to sulk upon my mother's breast," he sings, cribbing from William Blake. Vanderslice pulls the words out like taffy, a choir of baroque "ba ba ba"s burbling underneath. There's something almost exhausting about the way these songs insist insist insist, melody and arrangement and voice pushing at the listener for consideration or affection.
What follows is perhaps the disc's best track, "Me and My 424." This ode to a four-track brings us wholly into the story of Kevin, recluse and disaffected teenager. Although the record leaves this back-story enigmatic, it's explained on Vanderslice's website. Such biography is not necessary, however, to appreciate the record or this song; "Me and My 424 is an easier, softer pop song, drums and electric guitar tapping out like on a slow Spoon b-side, strings rising again to caress the main vocals and Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard on cottony backup "aahhh"s.
The disc is full of guest appearances: Spoon's Jim Eno drums here and there, and there are further contributions from members of Mates of State, Kind of Like Spitting and Court and Spark. Neulah's Bill Swan gives an astonishing trumpet sunrise to the lingering, as-lazy-as-Fourtracker-gets "Mansion", where acoustic guitar plays like harpsichord. The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle in fact penned the lyrics for two of the disc's songs: the chain-crash dance-dirge of "Nikki oh Nikki" and the bustling, synth-and-steam-powered "Cool Purple Mist". There, Vanderslice sings "I wish that we were both dead" amid strawberries "big as a baby's fist", with comets crisscrossing, drums breaking as vines poke through their skins, a choir of voices firing from the wings. Even amid death there is so much vibrance, so much life.
Throughout Life and Death of an American Fourtracker, Vanderslice ably weaves aspects of orchestral pop, indie rock, folk, new wave and even prog, squeezing into each cut the sounds that are called for. The density of the arrangements is almost impossible to break down - squiggly bird-calls murmur under the wide guitar swaths on "From Out Here", and is that a pedal steel? ... It is a proficient and vast album, and although it lacks the pensive contemplation of his last work - although it abandons melancholia for the surge and counter-surge of epiphany, disavowal and rebirth - there's much to to learn - and hear - here. Life and Death of an American Fourtracker is difficult, so rich that it's hard to take in one sitting. Thank god, friends, that its rewards are worth hearing.