The first time I heard the name John Vanderslice, I thought it was some fictional character. I thought "Vanderslice? Nobody could have such a cool name in real life!" I seriously didn't find out he was a real person until 2002 when I went to see the Mountain Goats live. I saw that John Vanderslice was also playing that night and was thoroughly confused. As I was still unsure who Vanderslice was at that point, I asked the head Goat, John Darnielle. His advice: "Don't miss it. He puts on an amazing show." He was right. Vanderslice was awesome. It was only later that I realized he was a member of MK Ultra, a band I was only familiar with in passing but always liked what little I'd heard.
Vanderslice is as good an engineer as he is a songwriter, so his albums always sound amazing. "Cellar Door" is no exception. The production on this record is unbelievable. His attention to detail is sometimes frightening; everything is in a perfect place. His arrangements are wonderful and his use of instrumentation is at times brilliant. On the opening track "Pale Horse," he slightly distorts the acoustic guitars to perfection. It goes well with the abrasiveness of this Mountain Goats-tinged song. When the drums come in, I can't help but bob my head in time. Horns accentuate the build-up, but it all rests on Vanderslice's trademark voice. The way this song is constructed, it should be in a spy movie. I want to sneak around on the floor and throw on a fedora. On "They Won't Let Me Run," he gets angry. It seems innocent enough until he starts yelling "No peace even when you come, 'cause they won't let you run." It's a song about being part of the most powerful family in town, but just trying to get by anonymously. It's excellent.
I've always liked his lyrics and they seem better than ever on this album. He holds the concept of family close, which makes me curious about his past. He sings about the families and people in these stories with such conviction that you can't help but wonder. "White Plains" is full of distorted bass and piano while being blessed with the line, "But the truth is I have no faith in happiness. It turns to fear, draws the devils near." There's sincerity in his voice, and, as he brings the characters in the song to life, I can see them trudging through their shitty, 9-to-5 jobs. He adds strings to make the song even more dramatic and it all comes together in a beautiful mess. "Promising Actress" is a beautiful song about a familiar subject: a small town girl with Hollywood dreams. But Vanderslice makes this song stand out; he makes this subject come alive. The instrumentation is beautiful especially the chimes he uses throughout. They're memorable and they stay with you. I can just see this broken girl sitting alone on her bed on Christmas Eve staring out the window, wishing it were snowing like it would be back home in Indiana. And how can you not love a song with the lyric: "Sometimes a cowboy's just a man in a cowboy suit"? This is one of Vanderslice's best songs.
As much as I love all the bells and whistles he uses and the production tricks he's perfected, Vanderslice is at his best when he strips things down. "My Family Tree" is an acoustic ballad that left the deepest impression. It's a simple song with quiet strings and subtle piano plucks underneath that is basically just him and his guitar. He sings about losing a family yet growing to accept that family as his own. As the song fades out and he repeats, "Oh my family tree is me, now I'm set free," I can't help but imagine him rocking back and forth in the fetal position saying it like a mantra. This is my favorite song on the album.
After hearing "Cellar Door," I am convinced that one of these days, John Vanderslice is going to release a truly magnificent, grandiose album. I don't want to sell this one short, because it's an excellent record, but he still has that once-in-a-lifetime album in him, and he is inching closer to it. This is his strongest effort to date, but I know he is capable of more. One of these days he's going to put out an album that I'll listen to in jaw-dropping awe. 7/10 -- Brad Rose (25 May, 2005)