There’s no way around it, John Vanderslice is a studio noodler. Over the course of his extensive discography, you can feel the precision, the revision, the deep layers and deeper control Vanderslice holds over all his work. But this year’s self-released, free EP, Green Grows the Grasses, now seems like a coda, if a temporary one, to his life as his own production guru. Those odds and ends sounded like fruitful odds ‘n sods, the last remnants of 2009’s air-tight, excellent Romanian Names.
Of course, that could just be revisionist history in the wake of his new album, White Wilderness, but either way, there’s something entirely new to Vanderslice on this record. Yes, there are the obvious changes. Vanderslice, rather than bedding down and tinkering with mixes, recorded these songs live in studio in just three days. He also enlisted the help of San Francisco’s Magik*Magik Orchestra, a 19-piece collective led by Minna Choi to record with him. By necessity, the record sounds almost nothing like Vanderslice’s other records, though it certainly has flashes of his sharply observed and deeply melodic pop songs.
The vibe here, hushed even at its most thumping, is new territory for Vanderslice. The first few notes of opener “Sea Salt” sound like a threadbare demo, with that shuffling acoustic and the faint plink of piano keys. But as the song moves, and as Vanderslice establishes a landscape with the tone-changing line, “It’s night here on the ridge,” the strings ripple into the track, and it gets big. No tense synths, no squalls of terse atmosphere, just an organic, gauzy size. It’s a sound that fits Vanderslice’s voice, a bit reedier here than usual, as he sings of a shifting series of locales, many of which often find him isolated and lost in some sort of storm, literal or metaphoric. He gets jangled around in these songs. The end of “Convict Lake” finds him restrained, “bound down like Gulliver tied up in thread,” while the title track has him awash in wavy strings and piano, lost in some huge expanse.
Behind Vanderslice, Magik*Magik Orchestra does all the things his studio theatrics did but with a different, perhaps smoother complexity. They can provide power, like on the powerful rundowns throughout “Sea Salt” or the swirling space of “White Wilderness”, or they can whisper a barely there flourish, as with the mesh of violin, pedal steel, and Choi’s backing vocals on the excellent “English Vines”. Together, Vanderslice and the orchestra smartly avoid falling into self-indulgent lilting or dull balladry. Tempo shifts (like the fuzzy edges of “Overcoat”) or pastoral bounce (“Alegany Gap”) keep things fresh all the way through.
Of course, it helps that Vanderslice drops nine of his tightest tracks on us. Anyone who has caught him live by himself, just him and his acoustic, know he is capable of an arresting performance outside of the gadgetry, and that immediacy comes across here. White Wilderness may be an album that wanders, but it doesn’t wander lost. Vanderslice is lighting out for the territories and keeping only what he needs of the past as he discovers the new. These songs are downright geographic — you can feel them establishing their own space, naming their own land, planting their flags before they send you off to the next one.
The two songs that threaten to upset the balance here are that title track and closer “20K”. Where the rest of the album meshes Vanderslice, as player and singer, with the orchestra, this one gives the orchestra the bulk of the musical load to bare, and they nearly float away. In both cases, the mood fits, but though the melodies — and Vanderslice’s arresting vocals — keep them from falling apart, they seem to wander a bit more than the tight compositions around them.
Then again, maybe that’s the point. Maybe we, as listeners, need to wander a bit through this record, too. Because even in those more wistful moments, there are plenty of beautiful moments to find, and a surprising strength, in the lilting storm of White Wilderness. Vanderslice’s approach may be more direct here, more immediate, but the results resonate just as deeply as anything he could have worried over in the studio, and it ranks right up there near the top of his impressive run of records.