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Pixel Revolt by John Vanderslice

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John Vanderslice’s new Pixel Revolt album is halfway listenable, but it’s just not that good. I’m afraid I’ll be damning it here with faint praise.

It’s not bad. It’s a competent singer-songwriter thing, and I can at least halfway remember how the songs go while I’m actually listening to them. But not a whole lot of it is sticking with me. Look, I’m all about singer-songwriters, this should be right down my alley. I’m a good audience for this kind of stuff, but it’s just not there.

It’s a nicely polished record, and he obviously took a lot of time getting little bits of different sound combinations. This record clearly wasn’t just knocked out in a day or two. Give him credit for craft and effort. But he’s putting a lot of creative effort into dressing up what are just not very interesting songs.

Vanderslice notes in the promotional material, “the first songs of pixel revolt were written with a desperate need to get rid of some of the searing anger I had after the fall 2004 election.” Thus I was hoping for some impassioned pinko ranting, or something like.

No such luck. There’s not much unique or strong emotion coming out of all this. It’s mostly in fact gentle laments. The lyrics are mostly so poetic and abstract that they don’t end up meaning anything, even if you bothered to study the lyric sheet to figure them out. For example, Vanderslice notes that “exodus damage” is about “an erstwhile anti-government militant regrets his shaky commitment to the cause, but an emotional connection to a mentor is always about more than politics.” In practice this means it’s about some abstract bullcrap that doesn’t have any emotional punch one way or other.

The best song here is probably “Plymouth Rock,” in which “an enthusiastic recruit is shot the second he jumps off a UH-60 helicopter on his first day of battle.” Alright then, it’s about a soldier getting killed. Getting that premise, you hear this first person tale and get something out of it. It’s not even a political statement. It’s not angry at all.

It reaches down below second circuit territorial politics or fourth circuit moralizing to get into a real first survival circuit dread. Hey, that’s starting to get into real emotions. Plus, it has the catchiest tune, with that “I lost the reason” stuff. This one song I might save for iPod use.

“continuation” has some bit of dramatic cop intrigue where the murders continue after the serial killer is dead, implicating the other cops as suspects. I had to get this from Vanderslice’s notes, though. You’d probably have to pay really close attention to get it from just listening to the damned song. Still, it’s got maybe just enough musical oomph that if you dig this kind of thing, you might listen to it enough to decipher it.

Not much of the rest of this really rates a second listen, though. The tunes just aren’t very memorable. You can hear how carefully they are crafted. I want to be nice and all, but you probably won’t remember anything other than maybe “plymouth rock” or “continuation” five minutes after you listen to it.

Maybe if the tunes were catchier, you might get motivated to hunt down a lyrics sheet and extract the Deep Hidden Meanings buried in the hero worship of “Peacocks in the Video Rain.” But they’re not, so why bother?

If you really, really like singer-songwriter stuff, and James Taylor is too hard rock for you, then jump all over this. Even at that, though, aren’t there some Jewel or Cat Stevens albums you don’t have?

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  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    al, your reviews on music are turning out to be very similar to my mom’s reviews of movies: the more she hate’s ‘em, the more intrigued i am.

    by the way, Vanderslice is musically related to the Mountain Goats, who you probably don’t like either.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Haven’t heard the Mountain Goats, but the name sounds promising.

    I’ve bought stuff pretty often that got interesting bad reviews myself. I’m trying to give some description of the contents rather than just saying “I like it” or “It sucks” such that the consumer can get some idea on which basis to make up their own mind.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    the Mountain Goats started as this one man sort of thing, with tunes recorded on a boombox.

    it might not be to your liking (heck, sometimes it’s not to mine) but you might want to check out the record “All Hail West Texas”. it’s worth it just for the song “the best ever death metal band in denton”

  • http://www.skinnyproductions.com thewordcop

    Pixel Revolt is the best album of the year. Hands down. It’s JV’s best work to date. The perfect blend of clever lyrics, heartwrenching storytelling, passionate sound and innovative arrangement. Classic. And 100% addictive.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Now, this comment here smells like a pr plant, as do those first couple of comments up over at Amazon even before the album came out.

    That’s totally cool. I respect gettin’ your hustle on, but you might ought to tone it down just a bit. It kind of jumps out as suspicious. It reads like over the top flackery, what with “heartwrenching storytelling” and such.

  • http://indiesound.blogspot.com mike

    well, i dont know if you listened to the album but it does include rather heartwrenching storytelling. ‘plymouth rock’ and ‘exodus damage’ stand out to me. he is one of the few artists able to capture the tragic events we have experienced recently as a country and i think he deserves praise for it. great album.

  • Chris Vinyard

    I don’t know about PR plant. I don’t have any problems with anybody getting excited about this album. Besides, Who the fuck would care about putting a pr plant on this shitty review anyway? How the fuck do you write anything that includes the words “it’s not bad.” In the first place that’s just lazy writing. Oh, and I don’t think you have to worry about damning John Vanderslice on any levels. Anybody with a sense of taste is going to read this review and either laugh at you, or just be incensed at your lack of understanding.

    I’m here because I was searching for the exact lyrics, because i’ve been finding the songs so amazing as far as lyrics are concerned. Here I was on google and I cought your claim that the words are nonsensicle and end up meaning nothing. I think you’re just not that up to date on world political events, and probably don’t have much of an imagination or an intelect capable of piecing through something abstract and beautiful and sad. I suppose you’d like all your protest songs as dumbed down as Greenday’s American Idiot. True, Plymoth rock isn’t an angry song, but neither was fucking blowing in the wind.

    Oh, and i’m sorry none of the songs “stuck” with you very well. I’m sorry you think they’re not interesting. I’m sorry Mr. Vanderslice didn’t smash you over the head with a catchy easily predictable hook (not that i don’t enjoy these myself) in order to grab your short spanned attention.

    oh, and last but not least
    “Not much of the rest of this really rates a second listen”

    If you’re going to write a review of an album, don’t fucking skip through it on your lunch break and then tear it apart like you even know what the fuck it was trying to say to you.

    Here’s to brighter prospects for your future musical education.

    oh, and don’t listen to the mountain goats. I don’t want you to hurt yourself. That music isn’t for you.

  • http://slicesofyou.blogspot.com BEAST!

    really there wasn’t much special about this album….I agree with the reviewer on this one….I’ve been a huge Vanderslice fan for awhile now and there’s just nothing compelling in it…very bland storytelling, trying much too hard to have some deep meaning

    not his best work by far

    i can’t believe these people in here are getting so defensive….ha…very sad children

    as far as the mountain goats, i dont see why you wouldnt like the music….there is nothing that you could compare to pixel revolt…

  • Ray

    Can’t believe you listened to Pixel Revolt and didn’t conclude that “Exodus Damage” and “Trance Manual” are both great great songs.

    Each to their own I guess.

  • Roberto

    I too thought this album was dull and listless. Too bad too as I’ve been a big JV fan for a while now . . .