Music

John Vanderslice: Dagger Beach

Dagger Beach's sense of loss and experimentation makes it come across as a kind of midpoint between the Mountain Goats' Get Lonely and Devendra Banhart's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. It's an album that doesn't just reward several listens, it demands them.


John Vanderslice

Dagger Beach

Label: Tiny Telephone
US Release Date: 2013-06-11
UK Release Date: 2013-06-10
Amazon
iTunes

When Amanda Palmer raised a million dollars on Kickstarter in 2012, it made musical crowd sourced fundraising the Next Big Thing. In some respects, that moniker has held up. From the first half of 2013 alone, Kickstarter's logo could be in the credits of albums by Murder by Death, Kevin Devine, Black Moth Super Rainbow, Jo Dee Messina, Cannibal Ox, Brand New, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Polyphonic Spree, just to name a few. Singer-songwriter-indie legend John Vanderslice himself raised almost $80,000 to self-release Dagger Beach, a weird and wonderful album that will grab you somewhere between listens 3 and 4 and not let go.

This suits Vanderslice, who was never a grab-you-on-the-first-listen kind of artist. He's too subtle, his lyrics often mundane and deeply connected to music that itself is subtle, almost wallflowery. Dagger Beach is Vanderslice's 9th full-length, and virtually nothing in his oeuvre could be considered remotely flashy. But Vanderslice is revered for a reason. Each album has incredible depths to be plumbed once you take the time to inhabit the songs, to take your shoes off, note the faded wallpaper and meet the characters. Sometimes they are funny. More often they are tragic. The players on Dagger Beach fall readily into the latter category.

The story behind the album goes like this: Vanderslice returned from a long and exhausting European tour to find that his wife of six years was leaving him. So, he did what any (okay, maybe just a few) heartbroken and exhausted people would do: he hiked hundreds of miles of back-country California. That sense of isolation, of dirt trails through endless quiet forest, of lonesome windswept coasts and narrow roads leading to nowhere, permeates the album. But don't be mistaken: Dagger Beach is a breakup record in the way that Dark Side of the Moon is a record about astronomy. The theme is just a backdrop, a blank canvas ready for paint. Breakups are about disillusionment, disconnection, loss and hurt, and if you've been paying attention to Vanderslice's career, you'd know that's par for the course. 2005's excellent Pixel Revolt was brutal in a way that Scandinavian metal bands would die to come close to.

Dagger Beach features ruminations on time, pain, nature and loneliness, all in opener "Raw Wood", whose darkly shimmering piano line gives a malevolent edge to its centerpiece image. "Harlequin Press" is a well-worn morality tale about hubris and publishing, Vanderslice perhaps summing up his own creative persona when he calls a woman's manuscript, "a promising total mess." Other highlights include two songs dedicated to others, "Song for Dana Lok" and "Song for David Berman", the latter a succinct rumination on connection and disconnection in the modern world: "I called my doctor on his cell / the call went straight to voice mail." In general, though, the tracks blend together into a searching, despairing mass, including a handful of meandering interludes which parallel the sense of wandering which spawned the album.

Vanderslice has a knack for mixing the raw and experimental with the measured and introspective, and Dagger Beach is a reflection of that. The instrumentation is varied and surprising, like the woodwinds, strings and chirping whistles were spontaneously generated. The unpredictability forces the listener to immerse him or herself in the experience, resulting in an album that feels rich and weathered like a piece of driftwood turned into a coffee table. It is full of small imperfections, often a result of Vanderslice's proclivity for analog recording, but that's part of its charm.

On the chorus to "Exodus Damage", arguably the best song from Pixel Revolt, Vanderslice sings, "Go, go, go, go down / Let it fall down / I'm ready for the end." It's a weeping wound of a song, an impotent, resigned tantrum using 9/11 as its backdrop. It shows as much emotion as the album about the ending of his marriage, and in some ways Dagger Beach is the spiritual follow-up to Pixel Revolt, full of songs that bleed and moan and wander the California coast. There's no climax to Dagger Beach, but one can't help but think this was intentional. Vanderslice in his late 40s isn't raging against the dying of the light. He's walking in the woods and making pastel sketches, painting poetry while waiting patiently for the end.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image