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John Vanderslice's Emerald City Offers Parable for Paranoiac Times 

Wednesday, Oct 17 2007
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Local singer-songwriter John Vanderslice has released a number of albums that refer to the Iraq War, either in individual song details or in overall concept. He's a natural storyteller who crafts vivid characters and invests their stories with striking detail and palpable compassion. But his latest release, Emerald City — a reference to Baghdad's "Green Zone" — is by far his most successful attempt at portraying the bleak national mood of recent times.

Emerald City's mini-parables serve as compelling commentary on the moral ambiguities of life during wartime, within a musical framework that's often as evocative as the words themselves. Over martial acoustic guitar chords, Vanderslice spins a disquieting tale about the specters of westward expansion in "Time to Go" ("Burned the wagon wheels for heat, for food/We cut down Timothy Gant who died so twelve could make it through"). "The Parade" depicts an Orwellian street rally and a man who ducks out of the crowd, only to find himself under surveillance.

Vanderslice and I are sitting in his tour van on a dark street on the west side of Chicago, in the shadow of a hulking ComEd power station, discussing the new disc. The building is a decrepit art deco structure that resembles something out of Dune, and we both wonder what sorts of unseen emanations are irradiating us at the moment. It's the perfect backdrop, in a way, for a conversation with Vanderslice. With him, everything returns to electricity and power — as mythology; in relation to his work as a producer at Tiny Telephone, his San Francisco recording studio; and as major themes in Emerald City.

"I knew at the end of Pixel Revolt [Vanderslice's 2005 album] that the next record was gonna be all war, all the time," he says. "I wanted to call it Blackwater, y'know; I'm glad I didn't. But I wanted it to be about the mercenaries, I wanted it to be about privatized war ... I mean, shit, even Alan Greenspan is now saying [Iraq] is a war about oil. I wanted Emerald City to be the equivalent of Immortal Technique for the indie set. I wanted it to be mean and dark and fucked up."

Emerald City is dark and mean. But like all of Vanderslice's albums, his treatment of social ills is nuanced, told through haunting vignettes — the political in the personal. And like post–9/11 life, things are not always what they seem. In the song "The Tower," a reference to that ominous medieval structure in the tarot deck spurs World Trade Center associations: "It's a burning tower/hit by lightning/And people are jumping out/it's coming down."

"Lightning in the tower means the hubris of state power," Vanderslice muses. "It's either gonna be God who smites you down, or in this instance, it's the messengers of God." He wrote the song while touring Australia with the Mountain Goats (whose forthcoming album, due out in January, was produced by Vanderslice). "I thought about the idea that the first lightning bolt came down, and hit a small pond, and created the first microorganisms. And I thought, wow, how much information was encoded in that lightning bolt? That fluke was something incredibly rare; that might not have even happened. And in that lightning bolt was encoded not only the possibilities of electricity for humankind, but a certain history — and if the beginning is encoded in the lightning bolt, it has to have the end, too."

Beyond the literary aspects of the album, Vanderslice is also an ingenious sonic alchemist. In order to create a fitting canvas for his existential setpieces, he devised some novel engineering techniques. One of them is difficult to miss, even in casual listening: The central sound on Emerald City is a blown-out acoustic guitar that sounds like the churning treads of an M1 Abrams tank. Anyone who's heard the Vanderslice-produced Mountain Goats album We Shall All Be Healed can vouch for his uniquely aggressive acoustic guitar timbres.

"I wanted to bring a distressed, claustrophobic distortion back into the music that was completely absent — on purpose — in Pixel Revolt," he says. So Scott Solter [longtime engineer and coproducer] and I made a decision — we're like, 'Okay, we're going to make this mean and nasty. We want to get e-mails from people worried that their CDs are fucked up.'"

Solter has collaborated with Vanderslice on all of his records since Time Travel Is Lonely in 2001 (Emerald City is the singer's sixth solo album, although he previously released three records with his old band MK Ultra). "Scott's been my partner, he's done a tremendous amount of work at Tiny Telephone, and I've never done a production gig without him," Vanderslice says. The two engineers are simpatico behind the mixing console. Solter explains, "When I'm around, [Vanderslice is] very hands off, basically allowing me to shape sonic directions that he feeds off for his singing. When I'm not around, he'll create a particular direction with a guitar or vocal track that I will in turn feed off of. The real strength of our working relationship is that we don't try to control it very much and allow a great deal of humor and a taste for distress to paint the outcome."

This shared "taste for distress" found the pair searching for sounds bombastic enough for an album all about war. "The first order of business was, 'How do we get that fucked-up sound?'" Vanderslice explains. "I spend a whole day with my acoustic and all these different microphone pre-amps, finding out how to get a good distorted acoustic sound, which is very difficult." Acoustic guitar usually conjures the idea of intimate closeness; on Emerald City, Vanderslice's subversion of that expectation is arresting. "What I loved about it was that you expect an electric guitar to be distorted and be grating, but you don't expect an acoustic guitar to deliver that same quality," he says.

Vanderslice also took a shot at rethinking the album's vocals. "I'm a big Bowie fan, and I was listening to a lot of Heroes and Low at the tail end of Pixel Revolt," he says. "And the amazing backing vocals on Heroes, I thought, 'Okay, that's what I wanna do on the next record." I asked Vanderslice what he specifically found appealing about Bowie's vocal treatments. "They were orchestrated; they had a real harmonic impact when they came in," he says. "They were not there to sweeten the deal. They were there to add drama, and to add ... pathos."

His inspired tinkering resulted in a conceptual breakthrough. "I came up with this thing I call 'The Matrix' — a way to put effects on vocals very quickly and then sub-mix them down to tape," he says. "I'd do a vocal take, and I'd have the possibility of up to eight vocal treatments." The album's vocals are indeed remarkable: "It's that sheen — it's angelic," he adds. Layered, disembodied, soaring above and through the mix, the songs' harmonies evoke feelings that run from the elegiac to full-on paranoid; as on the chorus of "Time to Go," in which the titular phrase spills out from overlapping sources, tripping over each other like a mental voice loop from the subconscious.

Vanderslice's ten-story-tall acoustic guitars and his vocal "Matrix" contribute greatly to the album's palpably foreboding mood. "They were both made to serve the menacing quality of the lyrics, and the content of the record," he says. "It's almost like the effect of crows flying overhead — like, oh shit — or a bunch of vultures on a line ... oh no, here they come!" By virtue of his deft songwriting, formidable arranging and production skills, and prescient lyrics, Emerald City is about as surprising, inventive, and relevant as rock albums come. Dissent is definitely alive and well, woodshedding in a dimly lit room with headphones, turning knobs and broadcasting from the beginning of the end.

About The Author

J. Niimi

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