Pixel on Paxil: Indie rock’s Kevin Bacon releases mid-tempo, narrative-filled outing
If the fractured world of indie rock can be said to have a geographic epicenter, it would likely be the Pacific Northwest. In this capital region, there’s surely a popular party game similar to “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” only with the central hub being performer/producer John Vanderslice.
While not exactly a household name (and not exactly based in the Pacific Northwest—Vanderslice lives and works a bit farther down the coast in San Francisco), even within the microcosm of indie rock he’s played a major role in defining the sound exported from Overcast Country—through his ’90s work with power-pop act MK Ultra, his knob-twiddling at Tiny Telephone studios and his prolific and curious solo career. Browse the client list at the Tiny Telephone website and you’ll see a good proportion of the placards from your favorite snooty record store represented. Vanderslice has left his footprints in liner notes everywhere, and frequently calls upon his indie-circuit buddy-list to make appearances on his own albums.
Not so much on Pixel Revolt, though, which finds Vanderslice in a mellow mood, concentrating on subtle textures and trying not to fall into the producer trap of overdub overkill. Does he succeed? Well, sort of, producing an uneven album that encapsulates much of what’s gone flat in the scene he helped ferment, along with the few flourishes that make him a vital creative force.
Vanderslice has dabbled in concept albums in the past, but like Pixel Revolt’s immediate predecessor, Cellar Door, this album is more a collection of short stories, each one packed with more plot and proper nouns than three-minute indie-pop boundaries usually permit: original murder mysteries (“Continuation”), fading-romance tales (“Angela”) and war commentaries (“Trance Manual”). The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle pays off his studio time by co-writing a few tracks, helping Vanderslice craft elaborate love metaphors like the Joan Crawford, New Haven and chess triad of “Letter to the East Coast.”
Not a man with a traditionally pleasing voice, Vanderslice still comes up with the occasional sneaky melody when he’s not sounding like the unfortunate cross between Conor Oberst and that baritone from the Crash Test Dummies. Plus, you know, he’s a producer, so even the most nondescript tunes are still dressed up in the most velvety fake strings money can buy (“Exodus Damage”), fitted with a variety of exotic keyboard tones (“Trance Manual”) and generally whipped into fascinating low-budget drywalls of sound (“Radiant with Terror”).
Too bad, then, that Pixel Revolt is held back by the constraints of modern indie-rock paradigms: an obsession with uniformly mid-tempo songs and overly tentative use of programmed percussion tracks. Vanderslice is partial to using the occasional keyboard pre-set but too often contents himself with these nostalgic toys and ends up trapping songs like “Dear Sarah Shu” in treadmill-like rhythms. And for all of Pixel Revolt’s dramatic grandeur, the album suffers from an over-reliance on unity of tone, its insistently balladic pace making the relative volume of album-closer “CRC7173, Affectionately” sound refreshingly arena-rock by comparison. Being a mutual friend of the entire Northwest indie-rock scene certainly has its privileges, but it also puts Vanderslice in a position to embody both the sound’s flashes of potential magic and its damnable weakness for inertia.