Having placed such emphasis on 9/11, terrorism, and conspiracy theory on his past two albums, San Francisco transplant John Vanderslice has shifted focus for Romanian Names to themes of a more introspective nature. Always the strict advocate of analog, Vanderslice has fine-tuned his production prowess to an art form — in addition to producing his own works, Vanderslice has contributed production duties to artists such as Spoon and the Mountain Goats. With Romanian Names, Vanderslice has made a beautifully rendered album, if not one that occasionally treads into innocuous terrain.
Vanderslice has always had an exceptional ear for melody. Even in the past, he could sneak in notions as controversial as the World Trade Center attacks being “fake” (Emerald City’s “Tablespoon of Codeine”) while lulling listeners in with hummable refrains and the cottony tranquility of his voice. And from album opener “Tremble and Tear” forward, Romanian Names proves to be one of Vanderslice’s most melodiously rich yet. The aforementioned tracks as well as “Sunken Union Boat” and “Carina Constellation” find Vanderslice flirting in pop territory without forsaking his signature pristine sound. Even on a subtler track like “Too Much Time,” with its prog-synth line sweeping under tenderly delivered lyrics, Vanderslice’s warm incantations never fail to leave a lasting impression.
So what is perhaps troubling about Romanian Names is that some of the songs just aren’t as memorable as others are. “Fetal Horses” starts out fine enough, with shimmering piano cascading over chords that seem to be plucked from REM’s “Man On the Moon,” but the track fades to obscurity before we even arrive at the half-baked chorus. Elsewhere, the false start of barely two-minute “Oblivion” fades out before it ever takes off, a sign that perhaps this should have been relegated to B-side territory.
Even still, the bulk of Romanian Names is classic Vanderslice, brimming with lush arrangements, sharp, introspective lyrics, and ace production that more than lends to the intricacies of each arrangement. And it is, by all accounts, a solid album; it’s just that we have come to expect better from someone with such a flawless back catalog.