Head music

Although clocking in at 35 minutes, John Vanderslice’s Life and Death of an American Fourtracker sounds more realized than most albums twice as long.

On the surface, Vanderslice sounds like one of those precocious indie rock types, a knob twiddler with a burnished voice and large vocabulary. But his snappy songwriting is underscored by an even-handed orchestral sensibility.

Right from the noisy, dissonant start of Life of an American Fourtracker, Vanderslice’s third album, it’s evident the chamber music flourishes on “Fiend in a Cloud” or “Me and My 424” aren’t merely after-thoughts. Even when he uses drum loops and sythesizer effects, Vanderslice treats them with an orchestrator’s touch.

Life and Death of an American Fourtracker has been alternately described as a song cycle or a quasi-concept album. Vanderslice’s obtuse lyrics don’t serve to thread a thematic element through the album, but a compositional arc does tie the album together.

Tracks segue into one another (“The Mansion” into “Nikki Oh Nikki”; “Greyhound” into “Interlude #5”), and hints of a later track (“From Here On”) are introduced close to the beginning of the album (“Interlude #4”). Then, Vanderslice ties everything together by reprising the album’s opener.

Impressive? Shouldn’t be.

For quasi-concept albums, this kind of intra-track interplay is normal. It does, however, serve to keep a listener engaged through all 35 minutes of Fourtracker, regardless of any implied theme.

Vanderslice’s scratchy voice fits well within the lo-fi context of the album’s production value, but like those classical underpinnings in his songwriting, his diction hint at something far more lofty.

Smart though Life and Death of an American Fourtracker may be, Vanderslice doesn’t sacrifice the pop song at the heart of all the studio finesse. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the chain gang percussion and ominous drones of “Nikki Oh Nikki” impress your inner Ingram Marshall — not when Vanderslice insists “We’re going to die/We’re going to die”.

Life and Death of an American Fourtracker offers a lot more than most troubadours produce without being overly sufferable about it.

Unlike this review.