The breathtaking clarity of sound on John Vanderslice’s seventh full-length album is less surprising than the twisted chord progressions and ominous overtones. After all, his production talents have always been one of his strengths. Vanderslice’s San Francisco recording studio, Tiny Telephone, is a haven for musicians like Beulah, who recorded When Your Heartstrings Break there. Instead of turning to his usual hyperperfected digital tinkering, however, Vanderslice finished the album with the Magik*Magik Orchestra, Tiny Telephone’s resident musicians, in three days. Under the direction of Minna Choi, the orchestra helps Vanderslice shape his most lush record. The swelling strings of “Convict Lake” are so overwhelming, if you played it underwater, it might make dolphins cry.
Though lyrically intimate, White Wilderness is a grand affair. Verses are separated by gentle bursts of piano, horns, and chimes. Trombones menacingly huff atop “The Piano Lesson.” The effect isn’t necessarily a pretty one. Pieces of the record challenge listeners with instrumental combinations that come off as troublesome when layered together. The title track details a trip through what sounds like a contemporary interpretation a Lord of the Rings-type journey—snowy, dark, and difficult. “Overcoat” splashes around with a squiggly woodwind introduction, embracing a more upbeat rhythm that might be familiar to fans of Vanderslice’s jumpier 2007 release, Emerald City. Most of White Wilderness, though, shows his softer side. It’s a welcome development in his long and diverse career, which continues to reveal Vanderslice’s remarkable creativity and willingness to evolve.