John Vanderslice

Cellar Door

(Barsuk; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 17 February 2004

John Vanderslice is another singer/songwriter stuck on the edge of perpetual mediocrity, releasing a series of almost-but-not-quite-there albums to an audience constantly awaiting his arrival as a fully realized artist, dating back to his stint as the songwriter and vocalist for celebrated indie rockers MK Ultra. Cellar Door, his forth solo album since the turn of the century and demise of MK, finds Vanderslice playing into the same strengths and weaknesses as before, and it’s as frustrating an experience as it has ever been. Though his songwriting has obviously improved significantly since Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, his over-the-top production and lyrical style, which has always stumbled the fine line between stunning allegorical imagery and crude word play, have cornered him into a very specific corner of an already specific scene and genre.

Vanderslice spent 420 hours recording Cellar Door. Which, for those as terrible at math as I am, is seventeen and a half days of studio time poured into these twelve songs (assuming there aren’t another twelve sitting on the cutting room floor, of course). Straight off the heels of giving John Darnielle’s latest Mountain Goats record a chilling production, Vanderslice returns, along with regular collaborator Scott Solter, to throwing everything possible at his own material. (And, lets be honest, if the kitchen sink were at all musical, it’d be featured on at least six of these songs.) Vanderslice is a pack-rat producer, collecting a favored array of tricks and instruments over the years, congealing into a thick casing that many will be instantly turned off from for any number of reasons. For myself, it’s that it can become so large in scope that it turns incommodious, as the denial of space in such a thick production, something that my favorite producers have always had an instinctual grasp of, can be downright uncomfortable.

For those able to stomach the production, and it isn’t always as obtrusive as might be let on, there is plenty of material here to make this one of his best efforts since The Dream is Over. "Pale Horse" opens the record with distorted acoustic guitar and percussion offering a strong backbone while Vanderslice rhymes off his predictably off-kilter lyrics over layers of strings, horns and a countless number of background noises. "They Won’t Let Me Run" is another terrific song, featuring some of great vocals and lyrics that cleverly deal with regret and constraint ("the morning she threw up/ my options were all laid out/ I follow through and now I’ve got two sons/ No peace, even when you come/ Because they won’t let you run"). "My Family Tree" works despite its awkward lyrics (at times reminding me of Darnielle’s "Mole"), as does "Heated Pool and Bar," which certainly could’ve done without the "my friend is based in Afghanistan/ he goes from cave to cave/ and pulls the trigger at the first site of the man" line, but is a strong track nevertheless. "Lunar Landscapes" is one of the more surprising inclusions as it sounds like a Rufus Wainwright b-side, right down to the operatic arrangement and vocal runs straight out of Poses.

Then there’s the Vanderslice-at-the-movies tracks: Mulholland Drive (titled, appropriately, "Promising Actress;" of all of movies to try and cut down into a pop song, a Lynch movie isn’t worth going for, especially with a chorus line such as "Mulholland Drive/ can you survive a look inside?") and Requiem for a Dream ("When It Hits My Blood," a far more successful attempt at adapting an already melodramatic plot-line and the gorgeous production manages to make up for his insistence to replay the first scene of the film where Leto is stealing and selling his mother’s television). Then there’s the succinct "Wild Strawberries," inspired by the brilliant art-film of the same name; it features a gorgeous melody, strong lyrics and a sweeping finale featuring a Crooked Fingers-like production and waves of Vanderslice’s vocals.

Like every other Vanderslice album, there are the handful of tracks that keep it from from being a solid, consistent listen. The aforementioned "Promising Actress" is one of the less intriguing productions and melodies of the lot, as is "Up Above the Sea," which sounds like it was produced for the Swollen Members. Then there’s the uneventful "White Plains" (a shame considering it has some of the better lyrics on the record) and similarly plodding "June July"; though certainly not the only overproduced song of the lot (hey, those 420 hours had to go somewhere), it certainly the track that, along with the otherwise excellent "Coming and Going on Easy Terms," feels the most overdone and as a result, it’s an underwhelming closer.

Bottom line: Cellar Door is another hit-and-miss effort form Vanderslice that offers just enough great material to keep us hoping that the next album will be the one where he exercises enough quality control to finally give us a fully realized and appositely produced product. I hesitate to call this his best work since The Dream is Over since it still has a fair amount of filler, but no more so than any other of his solo albums with the possible exception of Time Travel, which still had the tedious William Blake homage numbers and superfluous interludes. To pick amongst Vanderslice albums is to pick which has the least offensive filler and enough highs to offset the inherent lows and in that respect, this record certainly ranks up there with Time Travel, and is a step up from the 2002’s decent The Life and Death of an American Fourtracker. So, of course it’d be nice to finally receive a solid effort from the man, but we’ll have to work with what we’re given, and if that means stubbornly sticking by an above-average songwriter in naive hope he’ll grow out of his inconsistency, Cellar Door is a fine excuse to keep the dream alive.