John Vanderslice has the luxury of making all (or at least most) of his sonic dreams come true: The songwriter-producer owns a popular San Francisco studio, Tiny Telephone, so he can afford to experiment with sounds and arrangements until he finds the proper dressing for his story-songs. His albums, each released by the same Seattle indie that spawned Death Cab For Cutie, can get spacious and sprawling, even as Vanderslice's mode is generally indie. Lyrically, he's always been an odd duck, compiling concept albums about loneliness and four-track recording (sort of) and generally reaching into strange, daring, and occasionally unwelcome territory.
So it goes with his fifth album, Pixel Revolt, which lacks both a unifying theme and any broad cohesiveness, houses a number of terrific, tough-to-forget songs, and stumbles hard when Vanderslice wets his toes in murky lyrical waters. First, accept the premise that Vanderslice likes to inhabit characters, and that he writes about them with as much verve and emotion as he does about his own life. When it works, as on the weirdly depressing (a phrase that describes much of Pixel Revolt) "Plymouth Rock," it's viscerally affecting: The song, using few words and minimal, ominous instrumentation, tells the short story of a soldier's first day of battle—which results in his death. Even when Vanderslice assumes the persona of a Western journalist visiting an Iraqi prostitute ("Trance Manual"), he's pretty convincing. Even better: He gets personal on the amazing "New Zealand Pines" and microcosmic on "Farewell Transmission." But when he writes about a team of detectives tracking a dead serial killer ("Continuation") or a suicidal battle with depression ("Dead Slate Pacific"), Vanderslice plucks the mood away. Luckily, he's generally able to put it back.
With Superchunk on "indefinite hiatus," Mac McCaughan has turned his full attention to Portastatic—which isn't to say that he's ignored this muse over the years; in fact, he's released half a dozen Portastatic discs since 1994. At first, Portastatic was intended as an outlet for mellower, home-recorded moments, but as Superchunk grew more contemplative, and home-recording equipment got better, the two bands became increasingly difficult to separate. For Bright Ideas, McCaughan even used a real studio—Vanderslice's Tiny Telephone—and onetime Superchunk producer Brian Paulson, who mixed. So, in spite of minor tone, instrumentation, and production differences that McCaughan would probably argue are major, Bright Ideas sounds pretty much like a decent, later-period Superchunk record. Catchy, bright rockers ("White Wave," "Center Of The World")—no "Slack Motherfucker" or even "Detroit Has A Skyline," but not bad, either—nestle near mid-tempo love songs like "Truckstop Cassettes" and the lovey-dovey "Little Fern." Like Vanderslice, McCaughan throws in the occasional questionable lyric ("Love is like an Uzi," he opines), but unlike Vanderslice, his sights are set on better-charted territory, places he's comfortable exploring, but that he's mostly seen before.