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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


John Vanderslice’s multi-narrative masterpiece

Cellar Door, the latest album from John Vanderslice, is articulate, emotional and somewhat schizophrenic. In a very good way.

Every track on the album is told from a separate narrative stance, reading like a series of loosely connected short stories or, even better, loosely connected lives.

“I wanted all the narratives of the songs totally separate, totally discreet, with no overarching conceptualized stuff at all. I wanted every song to be a little bit more personal and its own separate entity, and then we carried that idea over to production so every song sounded different. No two drum sets were ever recorded in the same way. We tried to have a completely different sonic approach,” says Vanderslice.


The technical expertise demonstrated on Cellar Door is truly a rare accomplishment on such a finely written album. Songs warp and thrive within their own set of rules, with simple melodies recurring throughout, bringing it all back together again.

The album begins with “Pale Horse,” where the fierce analog distortion chug of acoustic guitar blends into lushly orchestrated rock. Vanderslice explains, “[It’s] a call to assassination by some highly irresponsible narrator. I just thought that if it’s going to be that disruptive of a message, let’s have it be a study in distortion. And distort the hell out of everything. Every trumpet. Every violin. Everything that happens. Which was really time consuming.”

Another track, “They Won’t Let Me Run,” is a claustrophobic ode to ’50s melodrama and rural families. Here, Vanderslice’s penchant for cinematic inspiration is strongly emphasized.

“I wanted the song to sound cinematic and sparse and open, so we made the drums really dead. And we made the strings sound like they could’ve been lifted from some cinemascope movie. Made it sound hi-fi and sentimental,” he says.

Other songs demonstrate their film counterparts more overtly, like “Promising Actress,” the tale of a wannabe actress asked if she can “survive a look inside” (based upon David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive”). And “When It Hits My Blood,” which begins “I stole from my mother / To hock her TV” and continues to revel in the smacked-out bliss/terror of “Requiem For A Dream.”

Familial themes climax and level throughout the album, with men identifying their dead sons and sons bound to their families forcefully, all reaching a boiling point with the understated fear and joy of “Family Tree.” We follow a man as he explores his loneliness, exposing his own weaknesses as he loses each and every member of his family, until the chorus of “And my family tree is me” rings with almost too much crystalline clarity.

“White Plains” begins with a peaceful memory of love, but quickly switches point of views, to the present. Vanderslice’s rolling voice sings the moment of realization: “But the truth is I have no faith in happiness / It turns to fear draws the devils near / So I jumped the fence and Went out West.” Then the narrator follows his ex-love and gets “a sales job as a pharmaceutical rep / And lived out of hotels and rental cars and a stowable bag” until he is led again cross-country and eventually to Vietnam, where he gives up on everything. Vanderslice’s stories dissect characters in such a way that it would be difficult to leave a song halfway through. You couldn’t help but ask, “But what happens in the end?” This is no little accomplishment.

“Up Above the Sea” is a deeply sad song about a man so confused by his chance at redemption that he kills his would-be savior. The track is beautifully masked by simplicity. About a bluebird, the revealing chorus melodies break away only momentarily from a thumping two-note synth riff. “Wild Strawberries” reflects Vanderslice’s obsession with Radiohead, sounding like an Eno-induced “Everything in Its Right Place” filled out with swirling vocal snippets.

“I think any time you imitate Radiohead, you’re really on the right track,” says Vanderslice.

He also admits to a fierce downloading habit, reveling in the sheer amount of available music.

“I download a lot of music. I feel like music owes me. I think we’ve all spent enough on records that we don’t feel guilty anymore,” he says.

Vanderslice admits he no longer reads books, but his obsession with newspapers is apparent in gems like “Heated Pool and Bar.” It’s a distanced look at the current war, always through a relative of a soldier, but he shifts into a closer point of view as he sings, “My friend is based in Afghanistan / He goes from cave to cave and pulls the trigger at the first sight of a man / it’s total anarchy, shooting tracer bullets at night / A high and holy patrol into poppy fields.” His musical discussion of the war may be distant, but it shouldn’t be overlooked, as so few musicians are taking chances and commenting on current affairs and our troops overseas.

Discussing his characters, Vanderslice says, “There’s some stuff that’s more first person than not. It’s a blend. Because people are really boring, I’m really boring. It’s not like I’m taking Leer jets every other weekend. I’m pretty much just hanging out in my apartment. It’s mostly in my head. Even when you’re doing an outside narrator, it always has something to do with what you believe, just like writing a novel. It’s got to be a part of you. And maybe it’s more real than if you think that you’re writing about your life. Who knows?”

No matter what is and isn’t personal experience, the emotions are real. This is why it’s believable when he sings the joy of an old man who discovers his son is not dead (although he knew all along) in the pop scenario of “Coming and Going On Easy Terms.”

Cellar Door is defined not only by Vanderslice’s familiarity with syntax and hard-hitting emotive displays, but also by his recording studio expertise. He runs his own studio, Tiny Telephone Recording in San Francisco, and many artists recording there stopped in to help with a session or two.

“All those people were recording at my studio, and that’s how I roped them in. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get these guys. It was a great way to grab different players with different styles,” he says. Members of Death Cab For Cutie, Beulah, Creeper Lagoon and Red House Painters (among many others) got in on the album. Vanderslice has also done some production work with Spoon and the Mountaingoats, saying that he’ll only work for his heroes.

Many of Cellar Door‘s songs are highly influenced or centered on traveling and places, and as John Vanderslice begins another year of touring (beginning with a stint in Japan and then traversing America), he prepares for the displacement of touring.

“It kind of makes you crazy. You feel so disconnected from everything you know. It’s really exciting on one level, but there’s this hint of terror somewhere in your brain. You’re separated from your life for so long and you’re responsible for so much. I’m not used to being so responsible. I have five people with me in a van and I’ve got to take care of them. It’s really intense. It fills me with energy sometimes that I cannot contain. And I imagine that schizophrenics have this running through their veins 24/7. Sometimes it’s absolutely exciting.

It never gets old. It’s so weird, but it never gets old for me. I could drive across Montana 50 million times, it’s so beautiful. I love being in Brooklyn or Boston or Iowa City. It just doesn’t matter,” he says.

Make sure to catch John Vanderslice over the next few months as he hits the Midwest in mid-March with Pedro the lion, the Wrens, the Delgados and a few others.

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