In this era of laptop recording and musical primitivism, singer-songwriter John Vanderslice is living out a grand pop obsession. Writing ornate songs lavished with musical detail and studio experimentation, Vanderslice is a throwback to a time when songwriting and recording meant using analog sounds, not samples.
"We definitely use the studio as an instrument," says Vanderslice, preparing for a show at the CMJ Day Stage at New York's Avery Fisher Hall. "We think a lot about manipulating sounds and pushing as far we can, actually making the recording process creative and part of the content of the album. Definitely."
Working from his own Tiny Telephone studios in San Francisco, Vanderslice has recorded five albums of majestic, mighty pop, the latest, Pixel Revolt (Barsuk), taking a more subdued approach. Some critics have assailed the album for being less rock-hard than Vanderslice's previous records, but that is definitely not something with which the 38-year-old concerns himself.
"How people perceive records that anyone makes is their own problem," Vanderslice chides. "If you are a singer-songwriter and you are not making albums according to your own philosophical and aesthetic bent, then you are lost."
But while Pixel Revolt songs like "Plymouth Rock" and "Trance Manual" do ring much softer than those on such Vanderslice albums as Time Travel Is Lonely or The Life and Death of an American Fourtracker, the subject matter on the new disc is anything but gentle.
"There are a lot of songs about the war in Iraq, about American foreign policy ambitions," Vanderslice says. "The narrator in 'Plymouth Rock' is a soldier who gets shot within a millisecond of his first raid. In 'Trance Manual,' the narrator is a writer who is visiting an Iraqi prostitute. For me it is important to use the possibilities of having an outsider as a narrator; it engages the listener. I grew up listening to Pink Floyd and The Who, English bands making concept records. They weren't pretentious but they felt free to use dramatic tools in the songs, and I find that to be an interesting way to write."
As for the title, Pixel Revolt, Vanderslice conjures meanings both analog and digital, past and future.
"The title just came to me, devoid of meaning," he says. "I am not sure if it means all the lost data that is floating around the ether from satellites or corrupt servers or hard-disk failure. Or it may have to do with the last remnants of an analog world that is falling apart."John Vanderslice
with Portastatic, The National
Sunday, Oct. 23
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