Today’s hipsters are just tomorrow’s yuppies, and the line between the two is a fine one. John Vanderslice has almost always belonged to the former class, with four albums of cutting-edge rock to his credit — yet now he seems to be inching across the tightrope between thoughtful indie songwriting and plain old adult contemporary.
Vanderslice’s skills are still as sharp as ever — his narrative-driven lyrics are provocative without being heavy-handed, and his lush homegrown recording style is still one of his biggest assets. But where these skills used to translate into awesome rock songs, Pixel Revolt often comes off as oppressively bland. Vanderslice’s voice has softened since last year’s Cellar Door, and his greater dependence on drum machines and more ambient synthesizers gives the album a calmer vibe.
The formula works on the sparse ‘Letter to the East Coast’ and ‘Trance Manual,’ but the mellowness is too drastic at times. The intro to ‘Plymouth Rock’ sounds way too much like Sting, and ‘CRC7173, Affectionately’ jumps off like it could be the new Train single. Even the more rock-inclined moments sound forced: ‘Continuation’s two-chord riff and cheesy bass fills lack any of the energy of JV’s older bursts of brilliant guitar pop, and ‘Radiant With Terror,’ with its persistent church bells, just sounds like a less annoying rehash of the Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Disarm.’
Of course, a mediocre showing from John Vanderslice is still better than what most of his contemporaries could pull off. The fact that he can even toy with a more adult sound without a trace of irony is just promise that he may actually stand a chance at aging.