John Vanderslice

Considering that John Vanderslice's jagged pop and conceptual story-songs have stranded him everywhere from the loneliest tips of Antarctica to Mommy's cluttered basement, it's hardly surprising that his fourth album explores brooding territory. But surpassing previous efforts in terms of sonic design, craft and coherence, Cellar Door (the two words in the English language that J.R.R. Tolkien once claimed sounded best together) earns high marks precisely because of its unblinking self-indulgence. In the hands of any other emo-addled American moper, such romantic accounts of Afghan drug lords and clock-tower assassins would come off like a bored suburban kid slumming in the darkest corners of an overactive imagination. But for Vanderslice, a guy who put himself on the map making "death threats" to Bill Gates, any poetic conspiracy theory is not only expected, it's encouraged with open arms.

An elegant batch of psychodrama, Door covers the bases of strained family ties, accidental pregnancy and why Johnny continues to lose his faith in happiness. Along the way, characters resort to robotic staredowns with bluebirds ("Up Above the Sea"), or visit the city morgue to identify a loved one's body ("Coming and Going on Easy Terms"). A richly textured aural affair, bloated with literary and cinematic nods to Percy Shelley, Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch, this consistently engaging album maintains a keen, vicious eye for detail -- right down to the Bushnell scope of its tragic sharpshooter's rifle. If not for the personal touch, such a gallery of misfits and addicts would make for lousy company.

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