The career of John Vanderslice is one of the more boggling case studies in indie music. In a scene where one great album can mean the difference between clubs and midsized venues, Vanderslice plods away in a kind of selective anonymity. To fellow musicians (like Spoon and Mountain Goats, who have recorded at his Tiny Telephone studio), he is a friend and equal; to most indie fans, he is an unknown with a vaguely familiar name.
With his second remarkable album of post-Sept. 11 studies, Emerald City, Vanderslice will hopefully earn the notoriety that has eluded him. Following 2005's Pixel Revolt, Vanderslice again broaches a nearly untouchable subject with humility, ingenuity and a quirky type of reverence. The results are often beautiful, like the hazy majesty of "The Parade," or haunting, like the reverb-acoustic fizzles of opener "Kookaburra," or both, like the ragged sweetness of "White Dove."
The range of emotions Vanderslice evokes on Emerald City are never simplistic, but provide the ideal levity for an album that, by definition, is overwhelmed by topicality. Take, for example, "The Tower," a chilling, fuzzy tune that manages to elicit moments of unfettered splendor despite its inherent gravitas.
It may be hard to call Vanderslice's latest a masterpiece--or even a personal best--but its imagery of shattered lands and dreams glossed with redemptive moments of tenderness make it worth continuous spins. Good art can challenge, but great art never gives easy answers.