On his seventh full-length, indie-rock nice guy John Vanderslice switches labels from longtime home Barsuk to Secretly Canadian imprint Dead Oceans, presumably to avoid complacency. But when has the Tiny Telephone studio founder phoned anything in? Although these dozen songs impose a new, accelerated-tempo brevity, the cumulative effect is still very much a Vanderslice record.
Romanian Names contains the requisite harmonic warmth, adventurous hooks, and halfway-private lyrics evincing irony and introspection. Kept in check by regular producer Scott Solter, Vanderslice makes room for tenderly arty aural shimmers and other nice touches, both decorative and functional. Elegantly dissonant piano accents in the chorus of "Fetal Horses" accord with the mid-'70s-era Steely Dan changes of "Carina Constellation," just as the heartbeat of "Forest Knolls" sets up the tick-tocking lope of "Summer Stock." Themewise, the album offers suggestions of ruined relationships. A certain wounded vindictiveness skitters under the pop sheen of "C & O Canal," on whose banks the singer and an erstwhile beloved parted ways. After the breakup, he reports, "I tracked down your friend and won her heart over slowly/Then I walked away/Hope it gets back to you someday/La la la la la la." By contrast, the poignant empathy Vanderslice once summoned for the doomed pet bunny of Pixel Revolt's "Angela" gets transferred here to a young gymnast in the stripped-down title track. And in the beautiful, confidently rueful "Too Much Time," he points out that "freedom is overrated." Ah, is that why he changed labels?