Something of a letdown by his own lofty standards, but still awfully good by anyone else’s, John Vanderslice’s Romanian Names is perhaps the singer-songwriter’s most obtuse album. There’s never any faulting Scott Solter’s production or Vanderslice’s meticulous composition: Even on the most sparse sounding numbers, like the ominous “Forest Knolls” and the frankly stunning chamber-pop ballad “Too Much Time,” subtle layers of electronic noise and multi-tracked instruments give the songs the rich texture they need to overcome their steady midtempo stride. The lyrics, though, are more problematic. Whereas the songs on 2007’s Emerald City and 2005’s Pixel Revolt subverted conventions of narrative voice in ways that gave those albums real structural depth, here structure and narrative seem like an afterthought. Striking images crop up over the course of Romanian Names (few other songwriters would have the audacity to pass off a line like “Fetal horses galloping in the womb” as the ostensible hook for his or her leadoff single), but they do so in isolation, attempting to ground otherwise free-floating stories. On “D.I.A.L.O.,” the invocation of the Defense Intelligence Agency Liaison Office recalls the twitchy political paranoia of 2005’s “Exodus Damage,” but the song’s narrator never emerges as a fully realized character. Instead, the penciled-in sketch lines show. While there’s something to be said for impressionism, too many of the songs here lack the requisite clarity that would otherwise give them the kind of wide interpretive berth that has become one of Vanderslice’s trademarks. Or put in less critically academic wank-job terms, most of Romanian Names scans as vague for the sake of being vague.
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