John Vanderslice: A 'Lesson' In Orchestral Pop
John Vanderslice has earned a reputation as a songwriter's songwriter. The prolific musician and producer meticulously crafts pop gems in which every part is in its right place — from his expertly worded lyrics and tight chord progressions down to the strings and even the snare drum. It's that attention to detail that enables Vanderslice's songs to feel timeless and familiar, even when brand-new.
However, unlike previous albums — which were likely spawned by months of studio tinkering, rewriting and overdubbing — his latest effort, White Wilderness, was captured live over the span of a mere three days. But by no means did Vanderslice trade musical complexity for immediacy. White Wilderness is as fully orchestrated as any in his catalog, thanks in part to his musical partnership with the Magik*Magik Orchestra, a Bay Area-based collective of classically trained instrumentalists led by director Minna Choi.
In "The Piano Lesson," the Magik*Magik Orchestra's contributions appear front and center, adding new colors to Vanderslice's palette. With precisely plucked strings, regal horns and dissonant bursts of saxophone and warm woodwinds, the arrangement turns somewhat atonal — at least for a pop song. Here, his melodies are imbued with a playfully cinematic quality, without becoming overly precious or saccharine.
Vanderslice has a way with seemingly effortless and elastic melodies that overlap and accompany each other in simple but compelling ways. With the help of the Magik*Magik Orchestra, "The Piano Lesson" satisfyingly blends modern chamber music and Vanderslice's idiosyncratic pop. The end result is a record that's not only surprisingly loose, but also remarkably distinctive.