I first heard John Vanderslice’s Pixel Revolt when it first came out in 2005. At the time, I gave it a cursory listen and then filed it away, unimpressed. At the time, I was high on Sigur Rós’ Takk…, and in the euphoria of lush strings and warm horns and crashing ‘choruses,’ Vanderslice’s minimalistic techno-folk was a curio at best.
In the past month, listening to more indie and pop, I revisted Pixel Revolt, and now I must admit that it’s a tight, impressive little album. Trying to describe Vanderslice’s sound isn’t easy—production-wise, it’s a good sort of raw, as he subscribes to the school of recording that favors analog equipment (The White Stripes do this also), but I find myself at something of a loss when trying to convey the style of the album.
Don’t expect soaring vocals or big arrangements. Vanderslice’s vocal work is very plain—he never pretends otherwise—and his delivery frank. When he sings about 9/11, or a detective, or a girlfriend’s rabbit, he reminds me a bit of early Mountain Goats stuff, a man alone with his instrument and his crazy lyrics. Musically, Pixel Revolt treads territory somewhere between Thom Yorke’s sample-and-synth-based backdrops and the organic guitar tinkerings of the aforementioned Mountain Goats. It’s a style that takes some getting used to, but it grows on you, and Vanderslice is excellent at it.
My favorite track is “Radiant With Terror,” which is about as aggressive as the album gets, which is not very, but manages to be quietly brooding, with a forcefully strummed acoustic guitar and a glockenspiel/timpani backdrop while Vanderslice sings “back and forth and back and forth goes the tock of the orange, bland, ambassadorial face of the moon on the grandfather clock.” Tracks like “New Zealand Pines” are more sparse, ambient arrangements that serve as palette. “Continuation” (the song about the detective) is a somewhat funkier piece with a guitar groove and occasional string stings.
I’ll be frank: Pixel Revolt isn’t likely to be your Album of the Year. To me, it’s easy listening, good for listening to while I’m working or reading—it lacks the dynamism that makes for a truly great album, but I think that Vanderslice has a real knack for songwriting and a good ear for production, not to mention his attention to detail. Pixel Revolt is full of little touches that flesh out its sound—the dings of the glockenspiel, quiet strums of guitars, the soft rumble of timpani. There’s always something going on, even if the album itself is an exercise in minimalism.
Pixel Revolt may be something of a curio, but it’s got more meat than, say, Thom Yorke’s The Eraser, and it’s catchy and happy enough that I find myself going back to it, and that isn’t easy to do with an album that’s mostly a understated, shoegazing sort of affair.