We’re off to see the aftermath

America. Aftermath. Art. All are buzzwords that converge sensibly, yet ambiguously, on John Vanderslice’s new album, ‘Emerald City’

Haily Gostas

Sure, it’s awfully easy to gripe about John Vanderslice’s decision to follow up 2005’s “Pixel Revolt,” a haunting, haunted portrait of post-Sept.11 paranoia, with “Emerald City,” an equally troubled venture that apparently still sees a thick cloud of deathly white smoke behind closed eyes.

John Vanderslice

ALBUM: Emerald City
LABEL: Barsuk

Most people are probably sick of hearing about Sept.11 and its aftermath, but the hard truth still makes its presence known – this country as a whole has yet to fully recover from it. Until we reinstruct ourselves on how to solve problems in a productive, progressive way both at home and abroad, the nightmare will continue to rewind itself in our collective consciousness.

And why shouldn’t it? Nearly (rather, only) six years later, terrorism still has the ability to exercise control over our courses of action – and our discourse. Butter knives in airports, different-skinned families next door or last month’s brief underground break in Manhattan’s steam-pipe system now take on a whole new level of vicious assumption or horrifying uncertainty. Meanwhile, our government uses these and other things as permission to storm countries on their schedule and swipe handfuls from the take-a-penny jar of basic civil rights.

Vanderslice is one of the few musicians unafraid to discuss our current state in song, all while being careful not to tip it over onto either side. He actually wrote much of “Emerald City” while trying to resolve the visa issues preventing his Parisian girlfriend from entering the United States. Though it is the only to specifically address their difficult distance, final track “Central Booking” gives a grueling proposal permission to loom heavy over the album’s entirety – “Looks like September won once again.”

Like “Pixel Revolt,” many of the songs here at least allude to the World Trade Center attacks, while the rest lie trapped beneath the tragedy’s literal and figurative leftover debris. Vanderslice’s frank observations and commentary-through-storytelling style sounded fresh and fierce two years ago, and thankfully the same crucial cry for help runs through the time-honored sounds of his sixth cut. It hasn’t grown stale.

It helps that, musically, Vanderslice is soaring high, his lush folk-pop skills helping both throw and soften the blows from “Emerald City’s” heavy imagery. The swirling carnival of acoustic guitars on opener “Kookaburra” (which immediately unfolds the reoccurring apocalyptic threat of “lightning shot from the sky”) construct a disquieting feel of dread, while the bright, lifting piano riff of “The Parade” sets up a seemingly optimistic tableaux, only to have it then collapse into yet another one of the towers’ bittersweet memoirs.

To add to the eerily transfixing air, Vanderslice puts his celebrated producing talents center stage (he’s the main man behind the beloved Tiny Telephone studios), lassoing feedback and shaping it into an instrument as vital as the gorgeous guitar and piano he appoints so frequently.

His melodies are still strong and unpredictable, littered with a tiny flourish of strings or bitter synth surprises and ranging anywhere from a restless lullaby (“Tablespoon of Codeine”) to intense freak-rock panic (“White Dove”). Audiophiles might be mildly disturbed by the swelled acoustics and the way that certain tracks sound as though filtered through blown speakers, but the stylistic distortion is forgivable because it doesn’t distract much from the album’s solid versatility. Ultimately, lyrics remain the number one element and a stripped-down sound guarantees them the intense focus they deserve.

“Emerald City” works best because its artist isn’t afraid to admit that he doesn’t know who is right or what the solution should be. Instead, he necessarily captures the anxious, ambivalent streak through contemporary American life, and personalizes a national horror.

So don’t mock it ’till you’ve heard it (or until that fateful day comes back in an unexpected flash) – Vanderslice is willing to stand up and be honest about the fears many of us still have, and probably won’t ever forget.