The most noteworthy thing about John Vanderslice’s new album is this: Romanian Names is the best record he’s made to date. The 12 songs represent a career-defining moment, a pitch-perfect collection written and recorded with the utmost care and attention.
Vanderslice is certainly not the first artist to make such a leap several albums into a career – think Guided by Voices on Bee Thousand, Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight or Of Montreal’s Sunlandic Twins. JV’s newest, his first for Dead Oceans, makes that colossal step and separates itself from an already top-notch body of work.
Throughout Romanian Names, JV sings with a newfound, unwavering confidence. He gets right at you with the sing-along choruses and punchy hooks of album opener “Tremble and Tear” and the poppy gem “C&O Canal.” The songs know when to patiently step back with subtle gestures and knock-out atmospherics like those on display in “Forest Knolls” and “Summer Stock,” and the album is glued together with the stripped-bare title track “Romanian Names” and the gorgeous Arthur Russell-esque album closer “Hard Times.”
Lyrically, JV is employing an approach far less dense, less concerned with narrative and cohesion than in his past works. Instead, he’s found a new tone and angle here, one that feels self-assured, natural, and unafraid. The results are some of his most singular and intriguing lyrics yet.
The process of writing Romanian Names differed from that of prior Vanderslice albums. This time, JV moved outside the normal (and by now maybe too comfortable) confines of his famed San Francisco recording studio, Tiny Telephone. He constructed a simple basement studio in his home, and wrote and recorded the elemental demos for these songs alone with simply a guitar or piano to accompany his voice. The emphasis was placed on melody and structure, putting thoughts of instrumentation and studio wizardry on hold until there was a complete and stable foundation to build upon. The songs were given time to breathe, to be re-worked and re-organized, and sometimes enough time to be thrown out entirely. Benefiting from this organic and evolutionary process, Romanian Names coheres beautifully.
This is not to say that what ended up on tape is less an aural stake-in-the-ground than JV’s past efforts. Like a storied artifact from the ’70s, the tunes were subjected to sonic scrutiny by JV and longtime producer Scott Solter. As a result, Romanian Names sounds as though it were from another time, with JV and Solter’s magic echoing John Cale’s Paris 1919, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Bowie’s Berlin-era output. Romanian Names is a symphony of sounds both subtle and lush, and as an album it provides the perfect backdrop for JV’s deft and fully-realized songwriting.