John Vanderlice is a singer/songwriter from San Francisco who has shared the stage with some of the top bands of independent music including Pedro the Lion and Death Cab for Cutie. On Pixel Revolt, Vanderslice uses his words to tell stories and his music to evoke the appropriate emotions. There is a listening guide to the album on his website which helps greatly in figuring out what some of his songs are about. But even without that the beautiful music and words create their own meanings in the mind of each listener. His stories range from a tell from the perspective of a solider who has been shot; the song turns into an anti-war song when the solider begins saying, “I lost the reason I’m here.”
Four songs relate to September 11, 2001 in some way. “Plymouth Rock,” which opens with melancholy instruments moving into a lament about war and death. “Exodus Damage” is one of my favorite songs; it tells the story of resignation to the sickness in the world following the events on 9/11. “Trance Manuel” opens, as the title suggests, with a slow drone of drums and the chiming of church bells which continues throughout; the song is about a journalist in the Middle East seeking hope and peace in the arms of a prostitute. And “Radiant with Terror” is a very aggressive song with very poetic lyrics about terror and violence.
The other songs are scattered thematically. “Letter to the East Coast” opens the album with a song that is a little more upbeat; it is a song that would fit perfectly on an Augie March album. “Peacocks in the Video Rain” is a much more lighthearted song though more jumbled in both music and words. Yet the refrain continues to present hope, “I love you too.” “New Zealand Pines” is a very sparse song though contains many different instruments, most prominent is the organ; this song according to Vanderslice is a love letter to an ex-girlfriend. “Continuation” is another aggressive song telling the story of a series of unsolved murders being committed a killer who has “been dead for days, still killing us anyways.” “Dear Sarah Shu” gives advice about love. “Farewell Transmission” is a more straightforward piano ballad is another letter to a friend that seems to be dying. “Angela” is much more full of synthesizers as the character writes a letter to Angela about her lost bunny, which could be taken as a parable about the search for freedom which we all long for. “Dead State Pacific” is a simple song about an encounter with a doctor where the singer realizes that the only thing that will save him is the belief that his lover can. “The Golden Gate” continues the slower pace of the previous song with minimal guitar for most of the song. Vanderslice tells us in the guide that the Golden Gate Bridge is the one of the top suicide spots in the world, though the song wouldn’t let you know that. The stillness of “The Golden Gate” would have been a better song to close out the album, but instead the more musically upbeat “CRC 7173, Affectionately” does. This song tells the story about the benefits of living with the pharmacy.
Pixel Revolt is a superb album, one that I will frequently return to in the years to come. Though probably not an album that will blow everyone away at first listen, I think that after a second listen you can’t help but love the album. Sure it’s a little more inaccessible than some, but just pour yourself a drink, turn out the lights, and let John Vanderslice carry you into his stories.