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John Vanderslice

The fourth full-length from John Vanderslice, Cellar Door, is a strong early contender for this writer's best 2004 album. Revered by cognoscenti, Vanderslice has managed to safely escape the notice of the mainstream, which is likely fine with him.

But this volley 'cross the bow of the Zeitgeist will undoubtedly gain him a legion of new admirers, because on the basis of sheer quality, this is a one-listen-conversion-type record.

From the cacophonous beauty of opener "Pale Horse," with its rousing us-against-them chorus ("We are many/ and they are few") and faint hints of Calexico-esque horns, to the immensely touching and nearly-too-sad-to-stand "My Family Tree," Vanderslice adroitly uses first-person narration and bright production (via Vanderslice's own SF studio, Tiny Telephone) to put the listener "in" a song in a visceral, almost physical way.

Cellar Door features character-driven subject matter ranging from the travails of a TV-stealing junkie (perhaps a paean to Requiem for a Dream?) to a foreign policy broadside ("Heated Pool and Bar") that laments, "But you can't be nice ... and you can't be good." It's a testament to Vanderslice's skill as a songwriter that one easily identifies with the wide-ranging cast that populates this gem. It's emotionally resonant in a way that recalls Achtung, Baby or the Afghan Whigs, although it's sonically and stylistically quite different from both.

Cellar Door is an impressive achievement, and one which I could not recommend more highly.

More by Curtis McCrary

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