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John Vanderslice's new White Wilderness is something of an experiment in terror—his terror, not yours, so don't worry. For Vanderslice, a studio veteran of the highest order, Wilderness was set up as the album that would destroy everything he knew about making albums. This time, there would be no lattice of overdubs across several months at his famous San Francisco studio Tiny Telephone, analog home to albums by Death Cab for Cutie, the Mountain Goats and more. Instead, he'd jump off a cliff and land in front of the Magik*Magik Orchesta, a 53-piece "modular orchestra" led by Minna Choi, who'd join him for two days of live sessions in the same studio that put Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins on tape in decades past.
"The big fear of someone who does overdub records is doing everything live," he explains, while clipping the claws of one of his two cats. "That's the most terrifying thing, the most unforgiving thing. I'd been so comfortable making these kinds of records that take five, six, seven months—and they really have their own power. I wanted to smash that system."
So welcome to January's White Wilderness, available now from Dead Oceans. Named as much for metaphorical conceits of getting lost and going exploring as for the simple, wild new way Vanderslice decided to record it, White Wilderness used no demos. After three days of rehearsals, Choi and Vanderslice recorded nine songs for the album and two stubborn extras that just wouldn't fit in sequence. (Vanderslice is as mindful of song order as he is of song content.) When Choi led Magik*Magik through original arrangements Vanderslice was often hearing for the first time, he realized the power of the communal collaboration—something different from past Vanderslice-commanded albums like Pixel Revolt or Romanian Names.
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You'll hear it yourself just a few moments into first track "Sea Salt," a simple and understated little song that suddenly blooms just a bit when the strings—triple-tracked to sound like the kind of vintage '60s Mellotrons used to beautiful effect by bands such as the Zombies—appear. Then instead of a first chorus, it breaks open with horns and strings and percussion all in glorious exultation. "White Wilderness" sounds like Van Dyke Parks set free across a Brian Wilson piano demo, and closer "20K" unfolds from a measured and melancholy symphonic opening, a light-through-water effect that fits just right to these lyrics (maybe) about a submarine during a dreamy descent.
As an engineer himself, Vanderslice says he's seen plenty of bands hit a wall because of infighting—potential sapped not by creative impossibility but because of good ol' egotism. So call White Wilderness the album where Vanderslice did the opposite, and let someone else take his music into the unknown.
"White Wilderness, to me, is so visual—it can be taken metaphorically, like you aren't actually in a wilderness, or taken like you are about to die because you are unprepared," he explains. But in his lyrics about pressing on when the path has disappeared, even when it's too far to turn around and go home, there's an encouraging thing there, too. In the title track, Vanderslice offers no ending. The path just fades away, and his characters with it. But listening to this album with all its unexpected depth and energy, it's obvious that Vanderslice as songwriter made it through this particular wilderness—terrifying as it may have been—and found his way home.
This article appeared in print as "Live and Kicking: John Vanderslice faces his terror of doing everything live on his new album."