Aural Pleasure

John Vanderslice is a low-budget, poor-man’s Jon Brion. That’s not a shot at Vanderslice’s talents, but rather a recognition of what he’s accomplished in San Francisco with his Tiny Telephone recording studio.

Over the last 10 years, Tiny Telephone has been the hip, affordable recording haven for San Francisco’s indie-rock scene, and Vanderslice has helmed acclaimed sessions by Beulah, Spoon, Death Cab for Cutie, and dozens of other bands.

Like Brion, Vanderslice is an audio alchemist with the soul of a singer-songwriter. His solo
albums always reflect his flair for knob-twiddling, but his choice of instrumentation is usually spare and traditional.

On his new Emerald City, most of the songs are defined by Vanderslice’s aggressively strummed acoustic guitar (bleeding into the red just enough to grate slightly) and a pounding, floor-tom-heavy drum attack. It’s sensitive, folky music, but it’s also teeming with anxiety and

Using his French girlfriend’s real-life struggle with U.S. authorities to obtain a visa, he ponders his own sense of dislocation in post-9/11 America. “Time To Go” is a driving tale of endless escape, and “White Dove,” the album’s most haunting piece, is an explosion of tightly wound anger and hunger for revenge.

At times, Vanderslice reaches for emotional heights (and depths) that his high, pinched voice can’t manage. And while his song structures suggest the influence of the Shins and and New Pornographers, he doesn’t match their hooks-per-song ratio.

He’ll always be a cult figure, because he makes unpopular pop, explores complex ideas with simple tools, and is a natural-born producer who insists on being an artist. But Emerald City has a way of drawing you back, to find the hint of subtext hiding in the spaces between each massive drum fill. That’s Vanderslice’s gift.

“When I said that I was lying/ I might have been lying.”

Elvis Costello wrote that line early in his career for the bridge of “The Imposter,” and he later admitted that the maddeningly complex implications of that lyric almost drove him insane.

Memphis bassist/actress/singer/songwriter Amy LaVere offers a similarly potent cranium scratcher on her sophomore album, Anchors & Anvils, when she lazily croons: “I’m not an actor/ but I act like I am.”

That line tells you everything and nothing about LaVere, and that’s just the way she likes it. These days, you can find plenty of music expressing anger, exuberance, heartbreak, or horniness. But mystery and intrigue are rare commodities, and LaVere is nothing if not mysterious. Slapping her upright bass with a fervor that’s inversely proportional to the intensity of her soft, slightly unsteady voice, she slips into the space between vintage country and torch-song jazz, with detours into uptown blues and avant-funk.

LaVere is obsessed with romantic obsession, and she writes about it with an honesty that’s so naked it can be a bit jolting. The album’s opening track, “Killing Him,” finds her observing: “Killing him didn’t make the love go away,” a line particularly powerful because of the placid way LaVere delivers it.

At times, she sounds like a medicated Brenda Lee, and at others she suggests a white, southern, countrified Billie Holiday. She’s most like Holiday in the way she makes you come to her, rather than belting it out for you. She employs this intuitive restraint when tackling Carla Thomas’s “That Beat (Keeps Disturbing My Sleep).” In LaVere’s hands, it’s a David-Lynch-ian, anti-dance song, a supple groove that sends you not to the dance floor, but to despair. It’s spooky and sexy, and the same can be said for Anchors & Anvils.

Scroll to read more Music Stories & Interviews articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.