[Rating: 3.5 stars]
John Vanderslice has put out seven solo albums, each a slight variation on a pretty successful theme: clean, deeply considered pop songs buoyed by Vanderslice’s intimate, slightly gritty singing voice. For a guy whose songs always sound like the sonic equivalents of polished-to-perfection New Yorker stories, and is in fact notorious for his perfectionism and level-tweaking, White Wilderness, recorded live over just three days in Northern California, is indeed a foray into some kind of wilderness.
For this singular effort, Vanderslice was joined by 19 members of the 100-strong classical collective the Magik*Magik Orchestra, led by artistic director Minna Choi, who arranged and conducted, and also sings some backup for Vanderslice. The result of this collaboration is a lush, layered album, symphonic in scope but still emotionally intimate. With the orchestra, Vanderslice is able to maintain the best-friend-telling-secrets feel of his previous work, while expanding the sound to make it feel more like an orchestral soundscape of all your best friends telling you the same secret. Or maybe the secret is just much, much grander.
The album’s first single and opener, “Sea Salt,” begins almost casually, with Vanderslice’s sleepy vocals layered over not much more than his trademark guitar. But then the orchestra comes in, building intensity and then retreating again and again, creating a lovely, intertwining, swooping song with delicate patterns amid rock sensibilities. Throughout, Vanderslice manages to successfully balance his own aesthetic with the classical training of his cohort. “Convict Lake” should be familiar to long-time Vanderslice fans in its scope, a gem of pop construction in its own right, and “After it Ends” is a simple, pretty sing-a-long on acoustic guitar. “The Piano Lesson,” on the other hand, with its atonal plinking and unusual progressions, seems heavily influenced by the talents and interests of Choi and her orchestra. The partnership leads to clear and beautiful songs with both sonic and emotional depth, and the 30-minute-and-change album is sure to leave the thoughtful listener with an impression of one twice its length.