Most people associate a rock artist’s sound with the songwriting rather than the production. But for San Francisco’s John Vanderslice — who’s also the owner/operator of the famed Tiny Telephone studio — songwriting is so deeply intertwined with his production chops that it’s nearly impossible to separate the two. And even though Vanderslice’s songwriting abilities were never in doubt, Pixel Revolt, his fifth record, makes it clear that Vanderslice is a songwriter obsessed with producing, and not the other way around.
His previous LP, last year’s Cellar Door, opened with the squelch of malfunctioning tape and distorted drums, but “Letter to the East Coast” leads off Pixel Revolt with nothing more than Vanderslice’s soft vocals and the strum of an electric guitar. Piano and strings gently fill the song’s second half, but there is no drumbeat and there’s very little studio trickery.
In fact, Vanderslice almost appears to abandon his trademark “sloppy hi-fi” sound for straight-up hi-fi on this warm, inviting album. Both “Plymouth Rock” and “Trance Manual” sport a welcoming sound that tempers the stark loneliness of their respective narratives. “Angela,” one of the record’s strongest songs, succeeds not because of the blips and beeps that mark its rhythm but because of the gorgeous crash of sound and the descending harmony that punctuates the soaring vocals.
And oh, those lyrics. Vanderslice’s tunes have always been little short stories, and those on Pixel Revolt are no different. Fraught with ambiguities and stifled emotions, his tales are narrated by everyone from a wounded soldier to a guy stalking a pop star to a wavering extremist questioning his dedication to the cause. There’s even — drum roll, please — John Vanderslice, marking the first album where he’s included autobiographical material (although he’s keeping mum about which tunes are which).
No matter how minimal Vanderslice gets, his craftsmanship pulls him through. Songs such as “Dead Slate Pacific” and “Farewell Transmission” leave nowhere to hide for someone who’s reliant on production. Vanderslice never once falters, instead stepping up to show off a vocal range and delicacy that he’d hinted at in the past but never fully explored. Pixel Revolt simply and beautifully reminds us that no matter how great a rock producer is, songwriting talent is as essential as it’s always been.