A confession: reviewing Dagger Beach almost feels like a conflict of interest.
Not that I’m friends with John Vanderslice beyond the Facebook realm — we’ve spoken only once, a phone interview that carried on well over an hour as the songwriter drove from San Francisco to L.A. in an afternoon. But having followed his output closely since 2004’s masterful Cellar Door and the following year’s politically-charged Pixel Revolt, it’s hard not to feel like I know the guy more intimately than many of my actual friends. Vanderslice’s music is nothing if not personal, soundtracking plenty of my own tribulations over the years, and the singer maintains a close enough relationship with his fans — whether through social media or his famous living room performances — to make Wayne Coyne blush.
So of course fans emerged en masse to support Vanderslice’s recent Kickstarter campaign (complete with hilariously personalized incentives), which arrived after the prolific songwriter coped with exhaustion by deciding to tour less, leave Dead Oceans, and self-release albums on his own Tiny Telephone label. The result is vinyl and CD distribution of Dagger Beach, Vanderslice’s proper follow-up to 2011’s one-off orchestral collaboration, White Wilderness, as well as a song-by-song cover of Bowie’s Diamond Dogs. Written and recorded in typically painstaking fashion over the span of 10 months — with help from regular collaborator Jason Slota — Dagger Beach is a marked return to Vanderslice’s impressively meticulous tinkering after the hurried live recording of White Wilderness. It’s also one of his most personal works, eschewing political commentary to address the end of a marriage and Vanderslice’s ensuing depression, as well as a new love (for whom the fragile, blushing “Song For Dana Lok” is titled).
No surprise, then, that much of Dagger Beach plays out like a therapy session with the singer’s greatest supporters: his fans. Opener “Raw Wood” is the most wrenching and direct cut, chronicling the artist’s experiences clearing his mind while camping in the Mendocino National Forest. “In the deep dark woods/ Alone with my fears,” Vanderslice confronts his demons over more than 15 interspliced guitar tracks. Typical of the artist’s self-termed “sloppy hi-fi,” the result belies its many layers with a sense of overwhelming loneliness. “One day the pain will pass on from me to you/ It will then be clear if it’s really true,” the singer declares: “I’ve moved on.” The excellent “Damage Control” is an equally tortured highlight. “I remember when we first met on the Great Salt Lake,” Vanderslice recalls in multitracked unison over one of Slota’s trademarked driving drum loops. “Oh, let me go,” he then repeats.
Like 2009’s Romanian Names, Dagger Beach merges guitars with a swirling palette of synths, keyboards, and drum machines, but the songs are often shorter, like fragments or sketches. Searching and loose, they rarely feel like full-band efforts. “Song For The Landlords Of Tiny Telephone” is a fleeting piano-and-guitar duet; “Song for Dana Lok” places synth squiggles over one of Vanderslice’s most intimate acoustic melodies. “Song for David Berman”, a tribute to the Singer Jews songwriter, has a similar acoustic refrain stopping and starting self-consciously before finally climaxing in a rush of strings.
“Sleep It Off”, a tribute to Emerald City’s distorted acoustic guitar, feels similarly meticulous and unfinished at the same time, puttering off in a jumble of vocal loops and percussive chaos. “Sonogram” makes for a better climax, offering some hint of acceptance: “On and on and on and on it goes,” Vanderslice repeats over his own backing harmonies, placed well with some of the album’s most emotionally-layered loops. The plodding “North Coast Rep” and weightless “Interlude #2” subsequently feel a bit gratuitous, ending Dagger Beach on an unfinished note.
But if that deficiency keeps Dagger Beach from matching Cellar Door or Pixel Revolt, it’s also what gives the album its therapeutic edge. Dagger Beach is unfinished just as the recovery it documents is (or was) a work-in-progress, full of labored obsession and easily sensed isolation — in the “deep dark woods,” alone with one’s fears.
Essential Tracks: “Raw Wood”, “Damage Control”, and “Sonogram”