CD / DL / LP
The newest member of Louder Than War’s writing team, Nat Lyon, reviews Dagger Beach, the latest album by singer songwriter John Vanderslice.
John Vanderslice does not write about singular feelings because that is not how real life works. People change over time, feelings change, situations change, music changes, and geography changes. Vanderslice’s latest (and 10th) release, Dagger Beach, is about how you get from point A to point B. Because that is how real life works- and this is the perfect soundtrack for that journey.
Dagger Beach does not dwell in any one place for very long. Each song is very location-specific- the geography and environment shape the mood, music, and story. The album takes us to forests, high plains, deserts, mountains, and beaches where the characters struggle in different ways to move from Point A to Point B- and we get to tag along and eavesdrop.
Listening to Dagger Beach is both challenging and rewarding. From the opener “Raw Wood” the sonics and the stories collide. This is headphone music and the content is deep. As a DIY artist, Vanderslice truly treats the studio as an instrument- and Dagger Beach is an example of his mastery of the concept and the craft. The many sonic elements that characterize the album are understated, and done in a way that is not flashy or distracting. The 13 songs on Dagger Beach are draped over one another- like the structure within each song. The minimal 2-note acoustic guitar riff that starts “Song for David Berman” blends with a treated piano, manipulated electric guitar, and very non-rock percussion. The piano and percussion come in soft, but very dangerous waves. Everything hums and vibrates beautifully- while the protagonist has a panic attack and calls his doctor- only to get dumped to voicemail. “Song for David Berman” does not have a rock beat- it has an unsettling vibe. It is an art piece that totally rocks.
Compared with Vanderslice’s earlier releases, Dagger Beach is a quiet album. There are no screaming guitar solos or anthemic ballads. But this is a totally fucking intense album. John Vanderslice is a masterful story-teller and musician, managing to set the stage, introduce the characters, and let the story play out, sometimes in songs with only two verses. In very simple and clear language he paints scenes and drops in characters (and tape loops) that are not afraid to feel fear or rejection- they’re just people moving from Point A to Point B, like the rest of us.
In geo-centric fashion, “Damage Control” begins at the Great Salt Lake and a relationship between two characters- one that’s holding on too hard- and the other wanting nothing more than to be let go of. This is one of the heavies on the album- propelled by solid, and filtered, percussion by long-time collaborator Jason Slota. The guitar is definitely electric, but manipulated, – and the melody spatially moves around the headphone space- showcasing Vanderslice’s genius as guitarist and engineer. Ambient sounds create a gauzy curtain in the background during the verses of “Damage Control,” but move forward during instrumental breaks. This song is a perfect example of the “sloppy hi-fi” technique that Vanderslice has pioneered. “How The West Was Won” (see video above) is a similarly complex and compelling listen- the acoustic guitar sounds like it was played through a blown speaker- which it probably was. It is a simple riff- but there is a lot of other activity going on behind the curtain- as well as conceptually in the lyrics (hint- the song is NOT about Cowboys and Indians).
In contrast, “Songs for the landlords of Tiny Telephone,” is an instrumental (one of three on the album), with Shawn Alpay playing a beautifully plucked cello line. Ian Pellicci, also credited with recording and mixing Dagger Beach, delicately drops in tape loops. Vanderslice quietly sits in the corner on treated piano. The “studio as instrument” really comes to the front on this song- starting with a short tape rewind intro. A persistent low buzz, like a failing florescent light, flickers overhead. Static from open microphones come in and out of the mix while chairs creak. And the cello sounds slightly distorted. Beautifully distorted in that “sloppy hi-fi” sort of way. It is very easy to get lost in the studio magic happening on Dagger Beach- but it only works because the musicianship and compositions are so well crafted and performed.
John Vanderslice’s semi-autobiographical characters could fill a small village of very complicated people. The lyrics are real and accessible. The structures of the songs are fractured, like everyday life. Things don’t always go, or sound, the way you expect them to- and some times that’s ok. On “Song for Dana Lok” a strummy-Cali acoustic guitar carries us to the beach on a breeze where you feel the salt on your tongue. This is a simple song, about simple pleasures, like finding bitter green vegetables at a cheaper price. Life is like that in John Vanderslice’s world- small pleasures and small victories happen while we’re travelling from Point A to Point B- even though the route can get complicated. Dagger Beach is a significant album that presents both a great performance and extremely innovative production. You will not know how to categorize this album, but you will like it- and find some common bond with the characters- because they are painfully and playfully human.
Recommended if you like: Brian Eno, Grizzly Bear; Atlas Sound; Emperor X; George Bush’s worst nightmare.
You can also stream the whole album from John’s Bandcamp.
John Vanderslice has his own website here. This album & all his others can be bought from the John Vanderslice Shop . Keep up to date with news about John by liking him on Facebook or following him on Twitter where he goes by the handle @Johnvanderslice.
All words by Nat Lyon. This is Nat’s first post for Louder Than War but when more appear they will be listed in his author archive.