John Vanderslice – Pixel Revolt

John Vanderslice
Pixel Revolt

John Vanderslice has become one of the more prominent names in indie rock, and it’s easy to see why: he has a nearly effortless flair for combining relentlessly catchy melodies with subtly intricate arrangements, instilling each one of his albums with the same loving care and precision found only in master craftsmen. His work is both instantly charming and endlessly listenable; new details and cleverly hidden touches revealed themselves with every fresh spin, little things the average listener never noticed because they were too damn busy singing along.

But Pixel Revolt is different: it’s quiet, and pretty, and a difficult listen for the dedicated Vanderslice fan expecting instant gratification. Of course, Vanderslice’s other albums were often quiet and pretty, and Pixel Revolt isn’t difficult in the same way that Stockhausen can be difficult; after all, Vanderslice is still playing pop music, operating on basic structures in standard 4/4 time. However, Pixel Revolt lacks the immediate appeal of his other albums, and it takes a while for the album to grow and develop. It’s not bad, by any means; nonetheless, listeners will probably only walk away with as much as they’re willing to put in.

On this, his fifth album, Vanderslice settles into – and maintains – a comfortably mid-tempo, low-level groove. The first half is almost unbearably quiet, lacking many of the odd blips and abrasive textures that adorned his other releases: the drums are clean and sharp; the guitars sparkle with hi-fi resolution; and various Wurlitzers, organs, and Mellotrons drape the tracks in velvet sheets thick enough to give Dave “There is No Such Thing as Too Much Reverb” Fridmann a run for his money. Tracks like “Trance Manual” and “New Zealand Pines” lack a recognizable hook to latch onto, the melodies becoming lost in a slow mire of fuzzy textures; likewise, the bouncy piano pop of “Peacocks in the Video Rain” never really takes off, as it seems to happily skip towards a climax that never appears. The only song that really moves in the first half is “Exodus Damage,” an opaquely eschatological rumination on apathy and hope; it’s the closest the album gets to really rocking, and yet it contains many subtle textural shifts that reveal themselves only after close, repeated listening.

The second half of the album is a bit more striking. “Continuation” sports a funky beat that could easily stand behind one of KRS-One’s rhymes, while spinning a tale that is the closest that indie rock will ever get to the gritty crime drama. It’s directly followed by “Dear Sarah Shu,” perhaps the finest and catchiest track on the album; featuring nervous drums, a gated acoustic, and Erik Friedlander’s incomparable cello work, the song carries the same pop appeal and dynamic development that made tracks like “The Mansion” (from Life and Death of an American Fourtracker) so instantly arresting. Similarly, “Angela” and “CRC7173, Affectionately” showcase why Vanderslice is such a talented producer, serving as wonderful examples of his distinct style and technique; both tracks seamlessly combine lo-fi recording with hi-fi gloss without ever becoming over-burdened by extensive studio trickery.

As always, the production and arrangement on Pixel Revolt is near-immaculate: the amount of careful consideration this man gives to each aspect of his craft is astounding, and it’s an absolute marvel to hear in action. Very few producers could integrate as many sounds as Vanderslice into their arrangements without having them harmonically collide, and it’s a minor miracle that each instrument remains clear, distinct, and essential. The slow R&B shuffle of “Plymouth Rock” is perhaps the best example of this; while the song drifts by nearly imperceptibly at first, closer listening reveals a plethora of interesting little details that would otherwise go unnoticed. However, it is perhaps telling that the most affecting song on the album (“Dead Slate Pacific”) features only Vanderslice and his acoustic; it is often easy to forget that Vanderslice is a talented songwriter possessed of a wonderfully distinct voice while sorting through the minutiae of his production, and it’s a rare pleasure to hear a song unadorned with his customary bells and whistles.

Pixel Revolt is perhaps best described as background music, but only in the best way possible; while it doesn’t have the immediately arresting pop charm of his other albums, it slowly draws you in until you find that you’re part of its bewitching landscape, watching life furiously sweep by your eyes. Even the tracks in the first half reveal themselves to be subtly pretty set pieces after repeated listening, while the second half moves with the urgency that was often missing from the first; considering that Vanderslice views the album as a distinct and cohesive artistic statement, I wouldn’t be too surprised if this was intentional. In the end, I am hesitant to say that this is Vanderslice’s best album; however, it is undoubtedly his most rewarding. Just be prepared to spend a lot of time with it.