Early last year, John Vanderslice set out to make an album about Iraq. "But it became a little overwhelming," laughs the singer-songwriter from San Francisco. So instead, he put together 14 songs about anti-government insurgents, frazzled veterans, and Western journalists hooking up with Middle Eastern prostitutes. Pixel Revolt turned out to be as much about failed romance as as about war. "There are other things going on in life than assessing a military operation," he says.
The indie-pop maven finds the voice of humanity even in the darkest of characters. He becomes his protagonists. Like Bruce Springsteen before him, Vanderslice constructs first-person narratives that take on the personas of folks who have little in common with the 31-year-old studio rat: an online predator, a war-scarred vet, and a detective-turned-murder-suspect. "I have real sympathy for these people," he says. "I have to have the structure of the story, or it's impossible for me to start. I really do have alliances with them."
The songs are also very cinematic. Vanderslice's eye for detail makes even the most mundane tasks surge with life. "Trance Manual" essentially reads as directions from a reporter to a prostitute: "Cross the palisade at the Holiday Inn/. . . I'm in the back of the second-floor basement/I'll have my editors arrange for payment." But Vanderslice methodically outlines the ravaged path the woman must take from one checkpoint to another. "Movies are bigger than music in my life," he says. "I would love to be a cinematographer. I love the craft of editing and cutting."
Like all of his records, Pixel Revolt is awash in the sounds of Vanderslice's own aural playground: Tiny Telephone, the hometown studio where pals Death Cab for Cutie, the Mountain Goats, and Spoon have all recorded. Elaborate string arrangements, wobbly Wurlitzer fills, and looped percussion course through the mix. "The last record was really compressed, distorted, and distressed," he says about 2004's Cellar Door. "There was no sonic space at all. There was no breathing room. I wanted Pixel Revolt to be the opposite of that."
Still, Vanderslice can't quite shake Pixel Revolt's original theme. Even if the antiwar premise is fractured, there's still a sense of dread and lingering doubt that permeates the album. "It's an anti-authority record," he says. "For me, art is about the individual over structures of state, creed, or religion. Fly your own flag."
Tue., April 18, 9 p.m.