Let’s play the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other-game: bobcats, acid trips, an acoustic guitar, reverie, a San Franciscan Orchestra. If you guessed San Franciscan Orchestra you would be wrong. If you found nothing dissimilar about bobcats and acid trips then you need to get a new life coach. If you have heard John Vanderslice’s new album “White Wilderness” then you already know my game was a rhetorical device used to draw attention to both John Vanderslice’s lyrical tales as well his collaboration with Magik Magik* Orchestra, and have gone back to listening to the album.
In May of 2009 John Vanderslice collaborated with esteemed composer/arranger Minna Choi and MM*O to produce a series of Youtube videos in which Vanderslice’s tiny heartfelt folk songs were expanded by Choi into cinematic movements. “Promising Actress”, a song based on David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, was by far one of the best adaptations. 18 months later Vanderslice and Choi have cemented their ongoing musical relationship in an album just shy of 32 minutes, recorded in 3 days.
Vanderslice has become known for his intellectual and melodic prowess. His melodies are immediately satisfying while his lyrical content is dense, but rewarding after you hack away at it. However, in “White Wilderness” Vanderslice is no longer a lone omniscient narrator, or solitary story teller- he is constantly engaged in a conversation with the Magik Magik* Orchestra.
The album opens with “Sea Salt” as Vanderslice sings “Sun shines on the Gaza strip/ Smiles on the back alleys of Madrid”. Choi undermines Vanderslice’s cheery global snapshots by plucking throbbing, dissonant notes on piano. His sarcasm is nothing without the Orchestra’s stewing harmonies and suspensions.
On the album’s most texturally complex track “The Piano Lesson”. The Orchestra runs frantically over scales and harmonies that dart in and out of Vanderslice’s vocals, adding tension then disappearing, only to return again when you least expect it. Vanderslice sings, “Two notes ring out/ One within one without/ Go ask anyone I am my father’s son”. His factual declaration sounds like a lie, solely because of the horn section swimming in the background, questioning Vanderslice with their atonal lines.
When Vanderslice retreats to his indie-acoustic niche of acoustic storytelling Magik Magik* adopts to accompany him, no longer serving as a part of the conversation, but rather a host setting the mood for Vanderslice’s narrative. Take for example, “Alemany Gap”. It is quite simply bittersweet. The melody is sweet, bright and bubbling. The rest is bitter. Vanderslice sings, “This town is a deceptively cold place” and follows “I could stay here with you under the neon blue sky/Pink clouds humming by/’Cause I don’t have anywhere to be/There’s no particular place for me.” “Alemany Gap” is so alluring because it’s not a love song, and it’s not a sorrowful recollection- its static, it shifts slightly with every listen. The same can be said about “White Wilderness” as a whole. It is difficult to determine the true narrator: Vanderslice or Magik Magik* Orchestra, but it is worth finding out.