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Van Der Slice Generator 

Caught between a plot and a rock place

Cellar door" is the most beautiful of all phrases in the English language, posits Drew Barrymore's English teacher-character in the 2001 film Donnie Darko, recently re-released and enjoying a second life as a cult-classic-in-the-making. In the film, the phrase serves as your classic MacGuffin, a type of inscrutable plot device created by Alfred Hitchcock.

John Vanderslice appropriated Cellar Door as the title of his masterly 2004 album. And in a way, the phrase functions the same for the cinematically minded Vanderslice as it did for Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly--as a reminder to pay attention, for something remarkable this way comes.

"I really, in another life, would have loved having something to do with making films," says the amiable indie renaissance man. " For me it's a really natural thing to try to condense the plot of a movie into a three- or four-minute song. I grew up watching a lot of Euro art (directors), like Antonioni and Visconti and Fellini, and then slowly I got into more '30s and '40s American stuff, like Preston Sturges and Orson Welles. My love for (film) has never faded."

Look no further than the ornately beautiful Cellar Door for proof of this predilection, wherein Vanderslice employs no fewer than five classics (Donnie Darko, Mulholland Drive, Wild Strawberries, Requiem for a Dream and Hud) to create a soundtrack for the cineaste. "I've definitely done it before Cellar Door, but (this time) it became for me more of a theme for the entire record." Using films as a palette, Vanderslice has created one of the best rock albums of the year.

During the seven or eight months of the year he's not touring in support of minor masterpieces like Cellar Door or 2002's Time Travel is Lonely, Vanderslice manages his San Francisco recording studio, Tiny Telephone, and works on his own albums almost exclusively. He finds time because "the studio's run more as a co-op than anything else. When I'm gone the engineers there really take care of business," and to judge by the Tiny Telephone staff roster--a who's who of the best American recording engineers currently working--that's an understatement. "Sometimes it's a little complicated, to say the least. But most of the time it works out pretty well. And then when I'm home, it's just the studio and music and that's pretty much all I do."

Although this self-effacing polymath becomes somewhat uncomfortable when discussing, for lack of a better expression, his niceness, it's widely held that Vanderslice is alternately the "sweetest" or "nicest" guy in rock music. "I think it's kind of disturbing," he says. "I think that I'm sort of this normal, average person and I worry about how musicians interface with people, if I'm held up to be this ... I mean, I can be as bratty and as obnoxious as anybody, but I'm more or less unpretentious and accessible.

"I do worry about what that means about how some musicians must deal with their fans. I don't know, of course I interface with musicians in a different way," he says, acknowledging the all-too-common disconnect between performer and appreciator. "I certainly do remember approaching bands that I liked a couple years ago and being very alienated ... it's a really horrible feeling, so I vowed that I would never allow anyone to have that feeling if they approached me with nice words about what I was doing. Or criticism, it doesn't matter to me. I just think you should have a conversation with people."

This sentiment sums up Vanderslice's worldview succinctly. Reaching out to your fellow humans, be it through song or film or the simple yet effective "hello," is his modus operandi. And as refreshing as this common decency to others might seem, and as important as that type of engagement is to our lives as humans, it's a mere fourth or fifth reason to recommend him. Don't go see John Vanderslice play simply because he's an engaging, graceful performer who will return your good will rather than glower at you. Go see John Vanderslice because he makes incredibly good music.

More by Curtis McCrary

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