John Vanderslice is one of the most dependably enjoyable songwriters working today, if not always the most distinctive. His vocal range is limited, his melodies don't vary much from song to song, his pacing is usually slow or midtempo. At the same time, his formula usually yields nice results—I could play his songs all day long and not ever get tired of them.
In fact, that's what I did the day I got White Wilderness—loaded it up and put it on repeat. (It was especially easy since the album is a quick thirty-one minutes.) I must have listened to it four or five times in a row. And I have to say it benefitted from that immersive listening, because it mostly failed to make much of a first impression. It was nice but it passed me by, other than a few tracks here and there. Yet as soon as I'd finished listen #2 I had already begun to claim a few tracks as new favorites.
Vanderslice actually shares the billing on White Wilderness; the album is a collaboration with the Magik*Magik Orchestra. And it's the songs that feel the most collaborative that are also, not coincidentally, the best. Whereas tracks like "Sea Salt" or "20k" simply sound like Vanderslice's ballads with strings, songs like "The Piano Lesson" and "Overcoat" clearly show off the orchestra's virtuosity. The songs are busy and surprising and thrilling. They bring a dynamism to the record that doesn't seem like it would be there if Vanderslice were going it alone. These tracks come in the middle of White Wilderness; not only are they the album's highlights, they make some the other songs better by juxtaposition. "After It Ends," stripped down and orchestra-free, practically glows.
Unfortunately the twists and turns that make the middle of the album so engaging aren't sustained over the course of all nine songs. The rest is more typical Vanderslice; I can't say they're bad songs—they're good!—but they feel workmanlike. The end result is that, overall, White Wilderness feels neither disappointing nor essential.
- John Vanderslice: The Piano Lesson