splendid > reviews > 2/23/2004
John Vanderslice
John Vanderslice
Cellar Door

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "They Won't Let Me Run"

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There was a philosopher, whose name isn't important. He said that we're all flies in a bottle, and that it's our job to figure out that we're flying back and forth against the insides of said bottle, that it's essential to our being human that we realize not only that we are flies, but that we are in a bottle, and that there is a world outside of the bottle. There's only one way out, really, and it's imagination. The imagination has taken a beating with the advent of Purchased Credibility (see Rolling Stone's incredibly vacant and image-conscious "young editors" giving Justin Timberlake artistic propers) and the return of the Major Label As Only Way To Make Art Without Starving mentality. Literature is suffering and so is film, but no art form has taken the sort of bloody assault on its imagination by the Culture Industry as music, specifically that which will be dubbed, hereinafter, The Music Formerly and Still For Some Reason Known as Punk Rock (TMFSFSRKAPR). Bands playing three chords and sporting faux-hawks are put together by big corporations and "passed" (without a peep from the mainstream media) as four-star, first-rate "artists" and "musicians" and "songwriters".

That's why an artist/musician/storyteller like John Vanderslice is such a shock to the system, and why his latest long player is an inspiration and an exciting return to the days of the imaginative songwriter. Vanderslice is the musician who is concerned not only with melody and song, but with the difference between hurts and loves, losses and gains, chaos and order, and the way that music can not only represent those things with truth and beauty, but can produce a place outside of them, can pull the cork and release the fly so that it can see the world within which it has been trapped for so long.

Cellar Door's eleven songs come together in a sort of softly spoken recognition. In "Pale Horse" -- the album's opening track, and one of two or three traditional, straightforward rock songs -- Vanderslice again borrows lyrics from the literary world (this time from Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy"), a recognition of the artist as one who borrows, who "makes new", to borrow from Ezra Pound. It's an assault on the senses, with acoustic guitars that are constant and consistent, surrounded by horns, keys, samples, and precise, demanding drumming. The song, like all of Cellar Door, is a product of Vanderslice's masterful production, a fact not often overlooked but always under-appreciated -- JV is in control of the entire process, from beginning to end, and his decisions are always imaginative, if not always in the interest of traditional melody.

This becomes more evident on the guitar-less tracks, the hunter-signifying-the-hunted "Up Above The Sea" and the tender, beatific "Wild Strawberries" -- songs that would crumble quickly in the hands of a producer who mistook their understated qualities for deficiencies. Those songs dissolve into the anthemic "They Won't Let Me Run", the album's obvious single. The tale of a man trapped in the stifling world that is The American Family, "They Won't Let Me Run" details a young man's forced adherence to tradition and the ways in which, to paraphrase Godspeed!, dreamers are killed with debt and depression.

There are three standout tracks, songs that are as expertly crafted and played as any since Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. "White Plains" details, with great compassion and insight, the disappearance (if it ever existed at all) of the American Dream, with Vanderslice weaving stories about pharmaceutical reps and Vietnam Veterans (perhaps a reference to Martin Sheen's desperate Captain Miller), with each story a little less certain of "the real" but ultimately quiescent, as if the mere creation of the song has exposed the cracks and sealed them at the same time. "White Plains" gives way to "Promising Actress", the album's earworm, with its refrain of "Sometimes a cowboy's just a man / in a cowboy suit", sung with the blue-eyed soul that only someone as talented as Vanderslice can get away with. It's perhaps the least pretentious and most successful adaptation of film to song I've ever heard -- an ode to David Lynch's Mullholand Drive and an interpretation as well. "Coming and Going on Easy Terms" harkens back to the perfectly aggressive pop songs that have littered each of Vanderslice's last three solo albums and his time in MK Ultra; perfectly-placed synths and sounds (there's an angelic, voice-like sound backing him during the chorus, most likely the product of a keyboard) blend with his delicately furious songwriting ability.

Cellar Door does not match the understated grace note of Vanderslice's masterpiece, 2001's Time Travel Is Lonely -- it's something new, something that is desperately needed in such a vacant age. Theodore Adorno writes, "The shock aroused by important works is not employed to trigger personal, otherwise repressed emotions. Rather, this shock is the moment in which recipients forget themselves and disappear into the work; it is the moment of being shaken." Vanderslice has been observing the bottle in which we're all stuck, and with Cellar Door, he has created an important work within which he shocks us into disappearing.



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