Besides the fact that he likes to produce and record his music in his own studio, John Vanderslice has made a name for himself by creating smart, catchy, pop melodies. The acclaim that followed his 2007 album, Emerald City, was a well-deserved hurrah and one that brought Vanderslice to the front of the indie scene. His talents lie in his artistic impression-diverse and varied-but Romanian Names feels a bit underwhelming even for his own standards.
The perplexing asset is how overtly anodyne it all seems. You take a song like “Forest Knolls,” with its pumping tap and airy vocals and you keep waiting for that unique touch of substance and when it finally comes in the form of blaring horns it all feels right. And in sharp contrast, the following song, “Oblivion,” depends on a stagnant organ-like track and lax chord changes through its two-minute duration. Somehow, it just doesn’t make much sense.
Gentle pop wave is the main course on Romanian Names and it all sounds just dandy. There’s rolling pianos, a nice blend of instrumentation and that trademark production that firmly supports the album’s harmless music. “Fetal Horses” is a chiming, well-articulated song that works best as a verse-lead song because the chorus is lazy and sounds almost unfinished. And then there’s the happiness of “D.I.A.L.O.” With interlocking female/male vocals and the comforting buzz of bass and guitars, it’s a pleasant enough addition.
This comes off as a picky criticism, I’m sure, but Vanderslice can do so much more with the gifts he greatly possesses. He’s always welcomed the idea of helping others and he’s an unselfish artist, one whom realizes the importance of lending a helping hand. It seems like he’s taken a deep breath and small step sideways, rather than improving by leaps and bounds as he is well capable of doing.
There is a deep frustration with the title track: Vanderslice reveals an inner look into his heart with a gorgeous guitar ballad that is entirely solo, in every sense of the word. His voice quivers and shakes with the growing crescendos he delivers but just as it’s getting grand, it ends. It’s abrupt and you’re left wanting much more, to say the least.
After you’ve made an album as impeccable as Pixel Revolt, it’s hard to create the same high-quality music time and time again. But where Emerald City was a nice change of conciseness and direct, yet understated sweetness, Romanian Names just feels forced and rushed. The cutesy dance of “C & O Canal” is delicate enough-with pleasing pop-and “Carina Constellation”‘s melody is crafty and catchy but its repetitive style is taxing. And then you can almost forgive the missteps with the moving ease of “Hard Times.” Layered with double-tracking vocal and cunningly quiet cellos, it ends up being the album’s saving grace-just in time too.
It’s not his best effort, by any margin, but it is a John Vanderslice album nonetheless. What Romanian Names lacks in difficulty and depth, it makes up for in restrained creativity and faint tenacity. Though his aim fell short, it goes without saying that even at his moderate average; he’s miles ahead of most of the solo artists attempting to make music.
“Fetal Horses” by John Vanderslice
“Too Much Time” by John Vanderslice