Music Reviews
White Wilderness

John Vanderslice White Wilderness

(Dead Oceans) Rating - 5/10

Despite never really getting the commercial recognition he perhaps deserves, John Vanderslice has built up quite a back catalogue - White Wilderness is his eighth full-length since his 2000 debut. Vanderslice plies his trade in writing great indie pop songs: sometimes catchy, sometimes heartfelt, it’s simple but effective, with clever production and instrumental flourishes more than making up for what it occasionally lacks in originality.

Many songwriters entertain the idea of recruiting an orchestra to play behind them, and it’s a direction that works for some: it’s hard to imagine Joanna Newsom’s Ys would have been so deeply affecting without Van Dyke Parks’ excellent string arrangements, for example, while Sufjan Stevens can often be seen with a musical battallion behind him. Done wrong it can easily come across overblown and pretentious, but done right it can add a lot of depth.

Vanderslice’s collaboration with San Francisco’s Magik*Magik Orchestra for White Wilderness is a step away from the electric, effects-laden music that made his name, into something a little more organic. The album was recorded live over three days, something which is reflected in the stripped-down feel of many of the tracks. In his defence, it’s a successful attempt at making something that sounds unlike anything he’s done before - but this is also the album’s undoing.

Sometimes it works very well: The Piano Lesson swells and sparkles with plucked strings and staccato horns from all directions, while the peppy melody of Convict Lake makes for possibly the album’s most enjoyable few minutes. But there’s a pattern here - most of White Wilderness’ best moments come when Vanderslice ups the tempo and returns to his comfort zone. When the pace slows down, as it frequently does, the results are uninspiring and too often grating.

The trouble is that to make room for the sweeping orchestral arrangements that adorn several of these tracks, Vanderslice often takes the pace down to what seems like a crawl. His vocals are best suited to stronger, shoutier efforts, and without the benefit of double tracking and other wizardry his voice can sound frail and flimsy.

This album simply lacks the impact that Vanderslice’s trademark sound usually packs in abundance. The bare bones of his usually excellent songwriting are there, but it’s more constrained by the orchestration than set free. It’s a left turn too far, and I for one hope we see the old John Vanderslice back sooner rather than later.