John Vanderslice & the Magik*Magik Orchestra

White Wilderness

(Dead Oceans; 2011)

By Andrew Hall | 28 January 2011

John Vanderslice’s eighth album is simultaneously the most ambitious and least belabored effort that the producer and singer-songwriter has released. Following 2009’s Romanian Names, which was wordy but barely left an impression when compared to either 2007’s paranoid Emerald City or the David Berman and John Darnielle-assisted career high Pixel Revolt (2005), this is a good thing; Vanderslice recorded this material quickly, ceding production duties to Paper Chase leader John Congleton and working to the point of billing this album as a collaboration with the Magik*Magik Orchestra, a Northern Californian “modular orchestra of classical musicians between the ages of 18-35.” As a consequence, White Wilderness sounds grandiose, arranged in a way that Vanderslice’s music never has before, but it also breezes by at barely half an hour. Rather than employ the analog trickery that fills up so much space within his catalog, here he relies solely on an acoustic guitar, vocal choruses, strings, and horns—and this approach pays off well, with one consistently propelling the other forward.

This becomes apparent only seconds in. On opener “Sea Salt,” Vanderslice’s frail vocal sets a scene somewhere in the Gaza Strip in the first verse, accompanied only by his guitar and a sparse piano figure. However, a sweetly-played, perfectly harmonic string accompaniment hides the anger underneath lines like “There’s no one I hate more than the man that stands before you now” in the song’s B section. “Convict Lake” is most immediately memorable for the ascending horn motif that persists throughout the song, the kind of figure that wouldn’t seem out of place within one of Owen Pallett’s orchestrations.

As the album progresses, the stark contrast between the orchestral arrangement and Vanderslice’s performance becomes increasingly apparent. More than he ever has before, Vanderslice’s tenor doesn’t convey the confidence it projected on songs like “Exodus Damage” or Emerald City highlight “White Dove.” Here, at times, he simply blends in with the strings, his voice another instrument in an ornate, oftentimes impressive mix. The album’s title track, for example, gives far more space to the strings that occupy its final moments.

However, in places, Vanderslice’s approach instead sounds like an utterly unconventional singer-songwriter with orchestra record. Consider the pizzicato and cymbal-driven rhythms, as well as the descending vocal accompaniments, that drive “The Piano Lesson,” which then through its verses sees Vanderslice in a back-and-forth of sorts with the orchestra’s horn section, or the descending winds against droning horns and snare drum hits that open “Overcoat.” The arrangements are far more surprising than one would expect, neither bombastic to the point of being melodramatic nor so understated as to require close listening to parse at all, as Pallett’s string arrangements were on the Mountain Goats’ Life of the World to Come (2009), incidentally one of only a few projects by John Darnielle not to involve Vanderslice in some capacity. Only towards the album’s end, on “English Vines” and “20K,” which spends its first minute exploring a Radiohead-esque string accompaniment, do the arrangements begin to sound a little unnecessary.

What this collaboration does best, though, is simply open up John Vanderslice’s music. Over the last decade the singer-songwriter has developed a style utterly his own—character sketches built on unreliable narrators, sometimes completely impossible to parse—and his lyrics have been front and center, sometimes distracting from the craft that goes into his productions, which arguably peaked when he discovered how to make John Darnielle sound like he never should’ve been working outside a studio in the first place on The Sunset Tree (2005). White Wilderness gives Vanderslice’s listener something to fixate on other than his often-good lyrics. As a consequence, despite its predictably moderate tempos and unchanging volume, it’s a sign of progress, of potentially great things to come, and Vanderslice’s most immediately welcoming record in half a decade.