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Album review: John Vanderslice with the Magik Magik Orchestra's 'White Wilderness'

January 25, 2011 |  6:07 am

JOHN_VAN_240_ It’s never easy to be subtle within the context of popular music. The crowd doesn’t want it; give them flash and flesh and a sugar overdose. For singer-songwriters, flash equals confession or florid imagery: paperback poetry, easy to grasp. Trying something harder may prove unrewarding.

John Vanderslice, the singer-songwriter and producer whose San Francisco studio Tiny Telephone is an indie pop mecca, makes subtle music that can be a bit off-putting. He’s a minimalist, in the literary rather than the musical sense; his spare melodies and carefully contained rhythms combine with scenes rich in imagery but deliberately short on elaboration. The emotion that seeps through his gently disturbing tales can be hard to track: What’s motivating the fear he communicates? What supports the love? The listener’s reward comes in doing the work of drawing her own conclusions.

“White Wilderness” makes that process engaging in ways that are new, though not necessarily easier. Instead of his usual electronically enhanced folk rock, Vanderslice turned to the composer Minna Choi and her Magik Magik Orchestra to complete the nine songs on this 31-minute release.

The semi-classical setting removes some of Vanderslice’s usual tricks — he can’t kick up the energy with a backbeat or use effects to enhance his gentle vocals. Choi’s arrangements carry the songs somewhere else, away from the tension-release of rock and into the more contemplative realm of art song.

What makes “White Wilderness” stand out next to similar work by artists like Antony Hegarty and Joanna Newsom is Vanderslice’s voice, as a singer and a writer. It’s very plain, unassuming; most people could probably imagine speaking in these measured tones. The orchestra’s work creates beautiful settings for what the voice says without either overwhelming it or pushing it past its limits.

The effect is to enhance the feeling, always present in Vanderslice’s music, that what’s being shared is much more important and revealing than a casual listener will catch.

If this all sounds like too much work for a pop album, rest assured that “White Wilderness” offers many pleasures. The jaunty humor of the horn-kissed drug trip “Convict Lake,” the dreamy elegance of the little horror movie “English Vines,” the mysteriousness of the coming-of-age tale “Overcoat” — all of these moods seduce, and help Vanderslice’s brain-teasers sink in more deeply. This music reminds us that subtlety is sometimes worth the time it takes to comprehend it.

—Ann Powers

John Vanderslice with the Magik Magik Orchestra
“White Wilderness”
Dead Oceans
Three and a half stars (Out of four)

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