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John Vanderslice - Romanian Names

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Artist: John Vanderslice

Album: Romanian Names

Label: Dead Oceans

Review date: May. 18, 2009

It’s practically de rigueur when writing about John Vanderslice to mention what a nice guy he is – and, indeed, in the very limited contact I’ve had with the man (one phone interview, two albums ago), he seems thoughtful, self-deprecating, empathetic … all the qualities that make up “nice.” But honestly, I’ve been thinking about “nice-ness” and wondering if it isn’t a weak version of kindness, one that doesn’t require messy self-sacrifice, embarrassment or real understanding of other people. It seems like a social skill, rather than a real virtue, and in no way as demanding as integrity, honesty, courage or altruism. Nice is nice, but you shouldn’t get a medal for it.

I’ve been thinking about this while listening to Romanian Names, because this is a “nice” album, not a great one. It pleases with clean, intelligent production, thoughtful arrangements, clever, elliptical words. It assuages your feelings of inadequacy with songs so accessible that they seem to meet you at the door and introduce you to all their friends. It’s like a party in a well-lighted, tasteful room, full of upscale people who read the New Yorker. It’s entertaining enough on the surface in a chattery, well-informed way, but ultimately empty and a tiny bit boring. Somebody needs to say something offensive, or fart out loud, or get drunk and start ranting about the Trilateral Commission, or we’ll all get quietly wasted and want to kill ourselves.

With The Romanian Names, Vanderslice has mostly ditched the personal-is-political hybrids of love song and commentary that enlivened Pixel Revolt and Emerald City. Instead, he seems to be concentrating mostly on love this time around, framing dreamy declarations of infatuation in clean, voluptuous wrappings of keyboard, synth, guitar and harmonies. His prior fascination with big, strident hip hop-ish beats is gone. Everything is lush, smooth, otherworldly clear and cool in cuts like “Fetal Horses,” “Tremble and Tear” and “Oblivian.” Almost no elements of harshness or discord are allowed in, and as a result, the early tracks slip by without much impact. Mid-album, “Forest Knolls,” with its dry, ominous synth beat and erratically placed piano chords, introduces an interesting angst, a sense of threat only partly eased by Vanderslice’s fluid, melodic vocals. A modest explosion of horns mid-cut is almost startling here – both in its unexpected release of tension and because you realize that this is the first time on the album where there has been perceptible tension to release.

Indeed, the best cuts on what is, ultimately, a disappointing album, are the ones that let loose a little, that seem less careful and less afraid to offend. “Carina Constellation” has a loose, jazzy swagger in its piano chords and swinging drum rhythms, a bit of joy in its doubled vocal harmonies. And the title track – a pensive consideration of someone resembling Nadja Comaneci – has a certain economy and grace, evoking story and character in less than two minutes.

Still, mostly, this is an album that sounds reasonably stylish on low volume, in the background, while you’re doing something else, but melts away under prolonged concentration. Even giving it the benefit of the doubt, and of a dozen or so listens in case it was a grower, Romanian Names never got past its initial “nice-ness.” A little difficulty, a little risk, a little offensiveness or abrasion would have gone a long way.

By Jennifer Kelly

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