John Vanderslice is one heck of a producer. In the context of a review, that could read like a backhanded compliment; many records written by studio wizards reveal a disappointing lack of creative depth. (Chris Walla’s solo record sounds great, but, you know.) But Vanderslice’s musical history is peppered with inspired moments. His strongest album to date, 2004’s Cellar Door, exuded luminosity on both the engineering and songwriting fronts; JV’s meticulous knob-twiddling lent itself perfectly to the record’s surrealist, film-inspired songs.
The succinct, perplexing White Wilderness was recorded live in a span of three days with San Francisco’s Magik*Magik Orchestra, and the group’s thick, playful arrangements serve as an undeniably fresh backdrop for Vanderslice’s trademark avant-humanist narratives. Aurally, the album is impeccable — although its production is credited to studio veteran John Congleton, you gotta believe JV had a hand in it too — and, like most of Vanderslice’s catalog, White Wilderness sounds marvelous on a decent pair of headphones. But its songs often feel confused, half-baked. Many of them, like the Vanderslice solo track “After It Ends,” begin promisingly but fizzle out and die before they should, left as frustratingly lean sketches filled with unrealized potential.
At times, White Wilderness calls to mind that bastion of dense, orchestral indie pop, Sufjan Stevens. But Stevens’ work is alertly conceptualistic; in contrast, Wilderness is frequently unfocused. There are moments of bold lucidity: “This town is a deceptively cold place,” Vanderslice intones on “Alemany Gap,” a shining example of the guy’s faculty for saying a whole lot with very little. The song itself is one of the album’s more memorable ones, and, perhaps not coincidentally, it’s one of the few times the Magik*Magik Orchestra holds back. When the group lets its freak flag fly — on the frenzied “The Piano Lesson,” for instance — its brash eclecticism tends to eclipse Vanderslice’s songwriting and his voice, which benefits more from musical subtlety than the opposite.
Indeed, there is a disconnect afoot on White Wilderness: the Orchestra’s lively arrangements are mostly quite fascinating, but JV’s exacting pop sensibility and his backing group’s exploratory approach don’t always balance each other out. When they connect, though, it’s pure splendor. Opener “Sea Salt” is a great tune, featuring an acidic Vanderslice (“I’ve wasted my days/ Battered and ground down by wave upon wave”) and a beautifully moody performance from the string section. Closer “20K” is brooding and incisive, as directly alluring as Vanderslice’s best work but also compositionally profound. The sweeping title track is similarly striking. The effectiveness of these meatier pieces raises the question: What would White Wilderness have been if given the standard scrupulous Vanderslice treatment?
But despite its lack of focus, the record’s immediacy is also kind of charming, and there’s something else about White Wilderness that makes me less inclined to toss it aside; only a few listens in, it’s proven to be a grower. Songs I initially dismissed as insubstantial have begun to reveal some hidden weight. And although the blithe abandon under which it was born is a departure for the usually fastidious Vanderslice, the album sort of makes sense as a continuation of the expansive, cinematic vision he introduced with Cellar Door. At the very least, you can’t fault the dude for his ever-expanding creative ambition. Not when it sounds this good.