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?