The first thing that you notice about the new John Vanderslice album, Romanian Names (Dead Oceans), is the sound. The album has a definite sonic quality that is akin to some of the greatest albums of the 1970’s, album’s like Rumours, or David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy. There’s no doubt that this achievement is the result of the completely analog technology in Tiny Telephone, the San Francisco studio that Vanderslice founded with producer Scott Solter.
The recording process was a little different this time, though. These songs started life as piano or guitar/vocal demos recorded in a little basement studio that Vanderslice built for himself. There they got time to breathe, change, grow, and even be thrown out. Only after that process did the recording move on to Tiny Telephone, and the resulting album is a leap forward for Vanderslice. If all the planets are in alignment, this should be the album that gives him the recognition that he deserves. This time out he has blended appealing melodies with lyrical content that is less dense and narrative driven than on previous efforts, and provided the songs with interesting and atmospheric arrangements.
Romanian Names opens with “Tremble and Tear,” which will immediately put you in mind of Bon Iver. There’s something about that harmonized falsetto that gives the song a comparable sense of loneliness, despite the fact that the lyrics here look forward to the arrival of “the one that’s gonna do it to me.” The thudding, bass driven “Forest Knolls,” and the dark tones of “Summer Stock” provide the album’s most interesting arrangements.
On the album’s title track, Vanderslice, accompanied only by acoustic guitar, conjures up a romance with one of the gymnasts that Romania is known for. The closing track, “Hard Times,” sets a tale of lost love set on the Serbian coast against a stirring chamber-pop background.
As you might have guessed, the lyrics, while more accessible than on previous Vanderslice albums, are never banal, and the album is all the better for it. John Vanderslice is well known for shepherding the careers of other artists by taking them on tour as support acts. These include Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent, and Okkervil River. It’s time that this talented artist got his day in the sun, and he has put his best foot forward with Romanian Names.