John Vanderslice has mellowed with age. He’s still capable of writing catchy songs with narrative lyrics, but the delivery is now softer and less electronically embellished. Compared to earlier exuberant offerings like Cellar Door _(2004) and _Life and Death Of An American Four-Tracker(2002), Romanian Names is restrained, even provincial. But in standard Vanderslice style, this latest album traffics in what might be called the Wes Anderson spectrum of emotions: melancholy, muted joy, and occasional good cheer.
Previous album openers, like “Pale Horse” from Cellar Door, announced their arrival with energetic pounding and reigned in noise; but Romanian Names kicks off with “Tremble and Tear,” an optimistic sing-along without much going on in the lyrics (“Here comes the one/Yeah she’s the one”). The subsequent tracks follow in its likeable footsteps: “C & O Canal” chugs happily along like a children’s song, complete with a “la la la” section, while “Fetal Horses” is a striking mix of beguiling, pretty melody with intensely morbid lyrics. But the momentum of the album’s opening dissolves with “Too Much Time,” a slow, surging piece with all the markings of a dénouement, albeit a moving and evocative one.
The disappointment in the latter half of the record is that the songs don’t build much power. “Forest Knoll” falls flat while meditating on our modern inability to hunt our own food, and the closer “Hard Times” simply isn’t compelling enough to be an affecting lament, no matter how hard the string section tries to make you care. In “Oblivion,” Vanderslice complains “can’t write a song/strap the capo on,” leaving the listener to wonder how many of these were churned out with frustration.
There’s no single arresting or insistent song to anchor what is ultimately a collection of acceptable, but forgettable pieces. Don’t expect to be seized with a need to repeat a particular track with the exception of “Sunken Union Boat,” which vies with the dark and unexpected “Summer Stock” for standout song.