February 5, 2004

Test Spin: John Vanderslice

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There’s a scene from the cult flick Donnie Darko in which Drew Barrymore tells the film’s protagonist, “This famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, ‘cellar door’ is the most beautiful.” In fact, it was none other than Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien who first used the phrase to explain his love of language. Sounds, when removed from semantics, could attain for Tolkien a richness and aesthetic beauty beyond any superficial sense of understanding. On his new album, Cellar Door, singer/songwriter/producer John Vanderslice seems to take this philosophy to heart, or at least to his studio headphones, as he disentangles sound from its conventional functions and adorns his tightly crafted chamber pop with layers of surprising sonic embellishment. Vanderslice appears to approach synthesized and manipulated sound with the same technical finesse and precision with which a linguist would study and deconstruct a sentence fragment. He somehow turns the lo-fi paradigm on its head, creating a densely produced and catchy pop album that remarkably retains a sincerity far too scarce in most contemporary indie rock. The songs exhibit a reverence of both the substance and style of recorded sound. Instead of sacrificing sincerity for polish, Cellar Door successfully weds its wrenching narratives with a lush production style that blends the over-the-top orchestrations and compressed drums of David Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) with a bit of the meticulous aural tweaking and quirky nuances characteristic of someone like Jim O’Rourke. Moogs abound, but they are artfully thrown into the mix with some sweeping strings, horns, and glockenspiels for a truly compelling, if not completely original, confluence. Part Pet Sounds, part pet rock. Part vintage, part visionary. All quite impressive.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas