'My friends came down way too soon', sings John Vanderslice, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar whilst collaborator Mimi Choi and her Magik Magik Orchestra ramp up the drama by adding layers of horns, strings, piano, drums and strategically-placed kitchen sinks. 'I stayed high like the silvery moon'. He pauses for effect, then delivers the punchline: 'I woke up in a hospital bed'. The strings sweep and wheel dramatically. This is White Wilderness in a nutshell: confessional story-telling lyrics, casually poetic images, and a sense of vulnerability which is both given greater emphasis and subverted by Choi's confident arrangements.
The idea of melding together intimate one-man-band folkiness and bright, brash strings and horns has some well-known antecedents in recent indie music, including Sufjan Steven's inspired Illinoise and Joanna Newsom' s difficult but rewarding Ys. Less polished than Illinois and more varied than Ys, White Wilderness contains more obvious echoes of the literate music and subtly clever arrangements produced by a third indie-folkster, Andrew Bird. Like Bird, Vanderslice never seems especially interested in writing a song which gets from A to B with the minimum of fuss. Instead, he'd rather start out in the direction of B, then take a detour towards J via G, and stop off to see K while he's there. His music twists and turns, frequently wriggling free of the listener's clasp; there are few attempts at straightforward verse-chorus-verse songwriting. This is not to say that Vanderslice's music is inherently inaccessible or in any danger of disappearing up its own behind, however: he has a gift for melody and a talent for head-turning lyrics. There are plenty of moments here that will stay with you, from the lovely 'oh-oh-oh's that punctuate his vocal on 'Convict Lake' to the interplay between the dramatically arcing and wheeling strings and lower-register brass during the excellent 'Overcoat'. What's more, the album opens with Vanderslice giving a masterclass in grabbing the listener's attention, lyrically. 'Sun shines on the Gaza Strip' is his opening gambit; 'smiles on the back alleys of Madrid/comes off the stone like' - here he stutters deliberately - 'a b-burning whip'. Then those dramatic strings come in, signalling a sudden shift: 'It's night here on the ridge'. Like all of Vanderslice's story-songs, it's a flurry of intriguingly odd images and abrupt twists.
There are occasions when Vanderslice's inspiration runs dry. 'After It Ends', for instance, is an attempt at a more straightforward, direct confessional song, sans orchestral touches, and it sounds like a lesser Bright Eyes track. It's the successful moments which will stay with you, however, and at a time when winter is finally in retreat and the sun is shining down with increasing confidence, the perky, skewed, oddball pop music on show here can sound gloriously right.