Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
John Vanderslice is a record producer, so you might think he owes us a great-sounding album. On that score, the San Franciscan’s new Cellar Door doesn’t disappoint: Acoustic guitars crunch and shimmer, drums thunder like migraines, and unexpected touches of strings and keyboards dart in when you least expect them. Of course, Vanderslice is also a singer-songwriter, so you might think he should use the occasion of his fourth solo album to give us a peek into his psyche. On this score, Cellar Door disappoints very much indeed: Vanderslice has always preferred stepping into character over soul-baring. “Bill Gates Must Die,” for instance, a song from 2000’s Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, wasn’t about the Microsoft major domo. Instead, it portrayed a lonely loser drunk on the power his PC gave him. The characters on Cellar Door are diverse—a rich kid whose family keeps him imprisoned in a small town, a guy who’s lost the keys to his rental car, a torture specialist at Guantanamo—and their stories are without exception nicely rendered. “They Won’t Let Me Run,” the one about the rich kid, is told from the kid’s point of view. He fucks up, gets his girlfriend pregnant, has two kids, tries to leave town, and is dragged back home by the sheriff—all to the tune of some exceptionally pretty, exceptionally muscular indie rock. “Coming and Going on Easy Terms” seems to be about a father traveling through Japan to identify his child’s body: “But my son is alive,” he keeps telling himself, and at the end of the song he’s proved right. It’s a rare happy ending for Vanderslice, who kills off at least two ancillary characters in Cellar Door’s 42 minutes. Album-closer “June July” is another one: Against sparse acoustic guitar and lush strings, its narrator talks about looking out at Civil War battlefields from his mother’s porch, thinking about the deaths of the soldiers there, getting hit by lightning, and waking up to gentle sunshine. At least it might have happened—whether it happened to Vanderslice isn’t really the point. And it does nothing to detract from Cellar Door’s success: Vanderslice might have to give us good drum sounds to keep his studio phone ringing, but when it comes to giving us himself, he doesn’t owe us shit. —Andrew Beaujon