By Dawn Pomento
John Vanderslice admits to a fondness for Bob Dylan and David Bowie, and his fourth solo CD, Cellar Door, hints at the influence of these two rock legends. You can hear it in the flashes of Thin White Duke drama and Dylanesque poetry. But Vanderslice definitely has his own eccentric voice. For all of Vanderslice's studio wizardry, musical virtuosity and obvious intelligence, though, there's something not quite complete here, something about the work of this San Francisco underground fixture that promises more than it delivers.
On Cellar Door, Vanderslice spins tales of unhappy families or solders doing their often unsavory duty. With the sad junkie tale of "When It Hits My Blood," he crafts a lyric inspired by the film Requiem for a Dream. The rounded mix of subjects is intriguing and evasive. All songs are told from the first person, and very little is strictly autobiographical, according to Vanderslice. In fact, the range and shifting perspective would be too much, too studied, if not for the music. Vanderslice knows how to write a catchy hook that naturally elevates his words. He may be the first singer without a cowboy hat to use Abilene for a haunting refrain, as he does on "White Plains," a song about a tormented Vietnam vet.
So if Cellar Door delivers so much, what could possibly be missing? Vanderslice himself will be able to answer that, if he's able to close the emotional distance conveyed by his own restrained brilliance. Pony up for Cellar Door, but keep an ear out for CD number five. Given Vanderslice's prolific tendencies, the wait won't be long.