It seems odd that John Vanderslice doesn’t get more praise all over the world. He’s done great work as a producer, put out some pretty solid records, and collaborated with favorites like John Darnielle. Yet he never seems to get the credit. However, on White Wilderness, he should begin to get some recognition, not only for his work with the Magik Magik Orchestra, but as an incredible songwriter as well.
You have to love the fragility in John’s voice from the minute that “Sea Salt” takes off, perfectly matching the quiet piano tinkering in the background of the song. It might be a subdued opening, but as the string arrangements join, the depth of the song really begins to take off. But, it’s almost as if John’s an on-looker sitting beside the orchestra, never really letting the strings overwhelm his sound.
“Convict Lake” seems to have a brighter side to it, as the horns and female vocal accompaniment definitely create one of the shiniest moments on White Wilderness. What will stick out to listeners, however, is how well the lush orchestration fits in perfectly with Vanderslice’s songs. He breaks into chorus at just the right time, and even lets his voice falter just a bit, evoking strong emotions from listeners. Surely one can appreciate his work as he goes quiet, then loud, then grows quiet, almost to a cool whisper, begging you to listen to his storytelling.
Perhaps for some, though, the album might be a bit tedious to work through. Orchestrated moments left and right will definitely call a less self-indulgent Sufjan Stevens, but that’s a lot to endure for many listeners. “The Piano Lesson” is one such song, where everything doesn’t quite fit together, as it has throughout the whole of White Wilderness. It’s one of the few times where even John’s restraint doesn’t seem to give justice to the song living beneath the Magik Magik Orchestra. But, bold artistic moves are made to divide us, and perhaps my subjectivity is getting in the way here.
John Vanderslice‘s bread and butter are those songs when he holds the orchestra back, as stated earlier. “After It Ends,” though one of the shortest numbers on the record, is precisely the type of song that really should render the man a household name for music fans. His gentle vocals and light guitar strumming provide the listener with the intimate moments we always yearn for from our greatest songwriters. Even those songs like “Alemany Gap” where there’s light arrangements in the background allow Vanderslice to break on through with his love for melody. Those enjoying this style of song will also adore “English Vines,” which is perhaps my favorite track of the entire album. Light strings in the background, a little woodwind action and a softly strummed guitar.
All said and done, White Wilderness is a bold statement by a songwriter who hasn’t really gotten the praise he deserves. He might have set out on such a large undertaking to finally make his name known. Every track is worthy of repeated listens, some more so than others. It’s time we gave John Vanderslice his acclaim because this record shows that he deserves every bit of it, if not more.
Download: John Vanderslice – Sea Salt [MP3]