New Music From John Vanderslice, Sebadoh, and Wooden Wand

John Vanderslice

Emerald City

(Barsuk)

This latest disc from San Francisco singer, songwriter, and audio auteur John Vanderslice was born from mitigating circumstances, mostly having to do with his French girlfriend being denied a visa by immigration authorities. Apparently, the legal limbo had a tumultuous effect on his psyche, because it reverberates in Emerald City's skittish melodies and unmistakable sense of disconnect. Given his knack for quirky discourse and obtuse imagery, Vanderslice has never been the most accessible artist, but his lilting tunefulness and self-effacing charm have proved increasingly endearing over the course of half a dozen outings. Emerald City doesn't vary from that earlier template, but its shifting tales told from troubled perspectives—reflections on 9/11, the folly of a foreign war, a kidnapped daughter who turns up dead, and an omnipresent paranoia—create a haunting residue. Despite the occasional glimpse of optimism—specifically, the sense of renewal that accompanies the puckish lure of "The Parade"—it's a darker demeanor that prevails. Sometimes the tone is deliberate, as in the edgy, agitated "Numbered Lithograph" ("I've never been lonelier"), but mostly it's more diffused, as evoked in the wistful lope of "The Minaret" ("I can see both sides and it paralyzed me inside"). Ultimately, Vanderslice circles back to confront his calamitous situation head-on, fueling the dogged sway of the final entry, "Central Booking." "The whole mess could sink me again/Held up at Kennedy/Sent back to de Gaulle/Looks like September has won again," he moans, exiting the album as uncertainly as he started. LEE ZIMMERMAN

Sebadoh

The Freed Man

(Domino)

It's pretty hard to understand the beautiful mess that is Sebadoh without first hearing The Freed Man. The genius behind the original Sebadoh was the war raging between the songs written by Lou Barlow (downer folk) and those written by Eric Gaffney (noise-punk). Both men have entirely different musical tastes (not to mention drastically differing senses of entitlement), which led to an ego-driven push-pull on each Sebadoh record they made together. This reissue (originally a self-released, 30-minute cassette) is long (79 minutes), rambling, chaotic, and weird. Beautiful ballads poke their heads through a muck of cassette-tape hiss, and feedback tramples over the most solid pop songs. The album's highlight, Barlow's "Soulmate," completely implodes at the end into a nosedive of fuzzed-out strumming. Most tracks are held together by snippets of television dialogue, rough acoustic interludes, or detuned hardcore. In other words, it's like a cut-and-paste playground or, as Barlow so aptly states in the liner notes, "a stinking garden of delights." Considering that Barlow and Gaffney have recently reunited, the timing of this reissue is perfect. But the irony looms larger since Barlow has also rejoined his old band Dinosaur Jr. (The Freed Man referred to his being fired from the band). But this is a piece of history, and as a document of a time and place in American indie rock, it's one of the most important. BRIAN J. BARR

Wooden Wand

James & the Quiet

(Ecstatic Peace)

The words of James Jackson Toth rarely make sense. Unlike Dylan, who intertwines avant-garde poetry and traditional narrative, Toth (aka Wooden Wand) deals in mystical abstraction and hermetic metaphor almost exclusively. But that's cool. It's fun just getting lost in the dude's gnarled wordplay. "His chief 'mong the charges/His high treason to the crown of the cadavers," he croaks on "Blessed Damnation," off his third and latest disc, James & the Quiet. Toth's music, however, is a problem. James, produced by Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, is a stripped-down folk-rock album, one gazing directly upon Toth's leaden croon. But the guy can't sing; he makes Kris Kristofferson sound like Mario Lanza. To remove some of the weight resting upon Toth's shoulders, Ranaldo should've nestled his sing 'n' strum inside multilayered arrangements and kaleidoscopic production, something the Wand is obviously capable of. The version of "The Pushers" from the live disc Wooden Wand & the Sky High Band, From the Road Vol. 7 features brooding organ and searing axe work. It blows away the austere version that opens James. It takes guts for an artist to exhibit his limitations. But it doesn't change the fact that after three songs, James & the Quiet is a total slog. JUSTIN F. FARRAR

 
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