With White Wilderness, John Vanderslice departs from his intensive, marathon-style studio process in favor of a three-day, live session sprint and turns out an album as worthy of deep exploration and repeat listening as anything else in his expansive canon. To compensate for his standard months of sonic manipulation and multi-tracking, Vanderslice here enlists 19-piece Bay Area ensemble the Magik*Magik Orchestra and the outfit’s artistic director Minna Choi to fill the album’s nine songs with string flourishes, honking horns and various other instrumentation. Vanderslice as a storyteller has long been fascinated by cinema (often times expanding upon the characters and plots of some of his favorite films in songs like “When It Hits My Blood” and “Promising Actress” from 2004’s Cellar Door, respectively about elements from “Requiem For A Dream” and “Mulholland Drive”), so it’s no surprise that he uses the techniques and textures of film scores to reinforce his narratives.
The stomach-drop swells of the title track, pairs Vanderslice’s endearingly hesitant vocals (sounding more resolute, more open than ever before) with a gentle melody and the distant call of careening strings. As usual, Vanderslice chooses his words carefully, allowing the music to mimic the locations laid out in his vocals: “The sky was growing pale, so we held on to the twisted trail.” As our narrator is slowly overwhelmed by snowfall, having more and more trouble keeping track of his love in the flurry, the instruments too express elation and then fear as it becomes clear that nature can quickly turn from beautiful to deadly cold.
Opening track, “Sea Salt” begins with just Vanderslice’s voice and the casual chomp of his acoustic guitar, before unfolding, piece by piece into a complicated, full-orchestra dirge. Comparing his narrator’s self-hatred with the tidal power of oceanic waves, Vanderslice allows the slow-build structure to literally and symbolically drown his character until he is able to finally discern truths about himself in the face of near death. The man-versus-nature, life-and-death themes reach a resolution during the album’s jarringly beautiful and bare-bones centerpiece, “After It Ends.” Vanderslice sings about empty cupboards and empty stomachs as he uses the complete absence of the Magik*Magik Orchestra, allowing the silence in and of itself to become a powerful sonic element. The track’s restraint creates an arc for the entire disc and demonstrates Vanderslice’s masterly capabilities of pairing the perfect instrumental for his stories.
Choi’s backing vocals supply the album with its most beautiful moments. “English Vines” is a twirling folk song, upheld by a blanket of echoing steel guitar, while Choi’s sensitive underlayed voice transforms Vanderslice’s sometimes chunky verbiage into a lovely duet. On “The Piano Lesson,” Vanderslice transforms Choi’s voice into the ultimate acrobatic instrument, a somersaulting choral attack that supplies White Wilderness with its most original and entrancing song.
Best Track: “The Piano Lesson”
Reviewer Bio - Christopher j Ewing is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles with a girl and a designer dog. He is in a band by himself, has a myspace account at www.myspace.com/wastedpotentialproduction and a production company at (www.wastedpotentialproductions.com) for freelance film, video and journalism work.