Dager Beach

John Vanderslice: Dagger Beach

2013Dead OceansChamber Pop

John Vanderslice isn’t what I would call a “happy” guy. He uses the word “alone” and “fear” quite a lot in his songs. Granted, when he first started off, both in his band, MK Ultra, and in his solo efforts, he was irreverent and almost stunt-like in some of his performances. After all, this is the guy who wrote “Bill Gates Must Die” and created an entire soundtrack album for a movie that didn’t actually exist. He was avant-garde in an indie artist sort of way. In some ways he’s become more mainstream over time, but also not. He’s a chamber pop guy, who at times is extremely maudlin and embodies the singer-songwriter thing, but is also a studio magician/knob twiddler who relishes experimental flair. This album, which was apparently spurred by his wife leaving him and a subsequent departure from his label (a relationship which I believe only lasted one album), isn’t on its surface any more sad and wallow-y than prior albums. After all, this is a guy who has written a couple albums lamenting September 11th and has openly talked about his depression and other such uplifting stuff. The title that initially intrigued me was “Song for David Berman.” I assumed it was about the former Pavement and current Silver Jew, David Berman. After listening to it, I’m not really sure what the hell it was about, other than a desperate plea for his doctor to answer his phone while he’s in the midst of some crisis or other. Maybe David Berman is his doctor? I’m not sure. Regardless, the album sounds pretty excellent in headphones. That’s kind of Vanderslice’s thing; the mixture of off-kilter drumming, acoustic guitar, tape sounds and his cadre of oddball chirps, boings, and keyboard that make for a very layered, but clean, aesthetic that plays with tone and volume in ways that most other albums don’t. He does seem to get inside his own head a bit as the album wears on, and has a couple too many instrumental ditties that I could do without, but the record is relatively solid based on his past work. That said, Vanderslice is a funny guy. His music isn’t for everyone, and often times I find myself shying away from listening to his stuff for fear it’ll just kind of, well, bring me down. This album on a second listen isn’t quite as glum as I originally thought, but he’s still one of those artists that despite his recording acumen is better appreciated live and in person where you can engage with him as a person and not just marvel at his studio tricks.