A lifetime indie-rocker who fronted the college-radio band MK Ultra in the mid-'90s and now owns the San Francisco studio Tiny Telephone (which birthed records from bands such as Creeper Lagoon, Death Cab for Cutie, and the Stratford 4), John Vanderslice certainly sounds the part. His warbly voice is often a dead-ringer for Bright Eyes' frontman Conor Oberst. But as a songwriter, he eschews the confessional mode that Oberst embraces. Rather, the odd, thoughtful pop songs on Cellar Door evoke a far different indie-rock heavyweight: the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle.
Vanderslice's densely crafted studio pop concocts melodies that serve a series of sharp fictions, which draw influence from all over. Vanderslice reacts to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive on "Promising Actress," finding a suitable poetic explanation for the film's hypnotic impact. ("Like a bomb in reverse/Fragments of truth return.") Vanderslice's film fandom pops up again on "When It Hits My Blood," which draws inspiration from the harrowing junkie's tale Requiem for a Dream. ("When it hits my blood/I'm not her son/I'm the son of a flower/That grows on an Afghani bluff.")
Elsewhere, song origins are not so easily detected. "Coming and Going on Easy Terms" follows a man traveling to the morgue to identify what might be his son, while "June, July" recounts a visit to a Civil War battlefield. "White Plains" is a first-person tale that begins at an idyllic Sunday dance and ends up on the Mekong River. On "Up Above the Sea," old-fashioned electro beats that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five might appreciate evolve into new-wave melodicism as Vanderslice weaves a paranoid parable.
But best of all is "Heated Pool and Bar," which rivals Rilo Kiley's "It's a Hit" as the year's finest bit of geopolitical indie-rock. With a triptych of tales told from the perspective of soldiers in Colombia ("hunting down the rebels over fields of bright and shiny coca"), Afghanistan ("it's total anarchy, shooting tracer bullets at night"), and Gitmo ("I serve in Guantanamo/I bring the prisoners in/The hoods come off and the torture slowly begins"), Vanderslice takes dead aim at the cherished American notion that combat builds character.
-- Chris Herrington
John Vanderslice performs at the Hi-Tone Café Tuesday, October 19th, with Robbers on High Street.
You only have to know a little bit about contemporary rock to realize that the Strokes comparisons piled on the Libertines were more of a marketing ploy than an actuality. Apples and oranges. The Libertines do not have the raw pop songwriting talent that the Strokes have (or had), and if you deny that Is This It is a catchy ride, you don't know the craft.
The Strokes, unlike the Libertines, are not British, nor do they have a backstory built on tales of massive decadence. In fairness, that seems to hold true only for guitarist/singer Pete Doherty of the Libertines, whose serious drug problem was exposed in Vice Magazine this past summer with a picture of the singer sucking on a crack pipe. I'd say that drugs are scrambling your eggs pretty hard if you'd allow that to happen. As of this writing, Doherty is not in the band, but he is on the record, a recording debacle that had to be done in short takes due to the singer's frequent truancy.
Again, the Libertines are really British, meaning that the thickly accented spoken/sung vocals and titles like "What Became of the Likely Lads" would never get confused with any American practitioners of new rock. If the Strokes = Television, which they don't, then the Libertines = the Only Ones, which they, er, might. The Libertines do toss aside guitar intricacies for a more straightforward pub-rock, and they do nod to the Only Ones, as evidenced by being the next in a long line to cover "Another Girl, Another Planet" live. (The Only Ones' Peter Parrett even joined them onstage once.) Most of the album is above-average, stripped-down Brit rock with obligatory attitude, but whatever would have pushed it into the realm of "great" took a break from this one. So, I guess the Libertines have one thing in common with the Strokes: the sophomore slump. •
-- Andrew Earles