As of a couple years ago, it was easy to look at John Vanderslice’s career and judge that he was mellowing with age. His early albums, while carefully crafted, still had a sort of youthful attitude that seemed to disappear on the last few records. 2005’s Pixel Revolt was as mellow as they come — it seemed that Vanderslice, pushing 40 at the time, had all but given up guitars and live drums for a synthesized, almost adult-contemporary sound. But if his new Emerald City makes one thing clear, it’s that age has nothing to do with it. More likely, his stylistic shifts revolved around balancing his roles as a performer and producer: he didn’t necessarily mellow out; probably he just wanted to play with some new studio gear.
Emerald City, on the other hand, sounds like the kind of record Vanderslice would have made eight years ago. It’s heavy on big drums and the kind of deep, organic guitar distortion that comes from overloading an analog recorder. Vanderslice’s big skill as a producer is that he doesn’t pull out these tricks just because they sound distinct, but because they really connect to the songs. In ‘Time to Go’ and ‘White Dove,’ it’s impossible to let your attention lag: for one thing, they’re loud, driving songs, but it also sounds a bit like your speakers are being blown out. Then on the soft, contemplative opener ‘Kookaburra,’ the guitars are clean and gentle, yet there’s such a presence to every instrument that it’s hard to stop listening.
It helps, too, that these are some of the best songs Vanderslice has written in a long, long time. He’s always been skilled at crafting quick character sketches, often inspired by old movies or news events. But Emerald City has a more personal feel — there are fewer external references and more short scenes that feel, in a completely subjective way, like someone’s memories. In short, he’s finally paired the songwriting of mature Vanderslice with the dramatic production of young Vanderslice, which might be the balance he’s been striving for all along.