Song of the Day: John Vanderslice – Sunken Union Boat

Chona Kasinger

Chona Kasinger

Every Monday through Friday, we deliver a different song as part our Song of the Day podcast subscription. This podcast features exclusive KEXP in-studio performances, unreleased songs, and recordings from independent artists that our DJs think you should hear. Today‚Äôs featured selection, chosen by Afternoon Show host Kevin Cole, is “Sunken Union Boat” by John Vanderslice from his 2009 album Romanian Names on Dead Oceans.

John Vanderslice – Sunken Union Boat (MP3)

Starting off his in-studio session with Cheryl Waters this past Friday, John Vanderslice said half-jokingly, “I was looking to see what I would play today and I saw that we had four shows archived here and it was the proudest moment of my life.” Truly, we’re the ones proud to have featured John in nearly every permutation of KEXP’s live sessions: going back to 2002, he’s played for us at Bumbershoot, in Berkeley, early on the Morning Show, and even for a John in the Morning at Night benefit show. It’s hard, if not impossible, to find an artist more kind and generous than JV, further proved by the fact he was spending his birthday with us (apparently, not even this band knew!) and then performing a full-set free show at Easy Street later that night.

With his new album, John proves against the stereotype that nice artists don’t suck, nor that he is afraid to change a successful formula. Romanian Names, his seventh album, and first on Dead Oceans, finds the John Vanderslice sound evolving in lyrically and sonically. To begin the process, he moved from his Tiny Telephone studio to his basement and built the songs up from mostly guitar or piano and voice. After full production, once again with Scott Solter, the resulting songs, though, often incorporate more keys and synths and atmospherics than some fans might expect, while alternating between them are more spare arrangements, as with demo-sounding title track. The overt political references of his previous two albums are subdued in favor of more inward searching, though not necessarily autobiographical lyrics. When Cheryl asked what his birthday wish would be, John said that “nothing would change,” referring to his current life and relationship with his wife (who was the subject of parts of 2007’s Emerald City) — hardly the same man who could have done something like the narrator in “C&O Canal”: “I tracked down your friend / And won her heart over slowly / And I walked away /Hoping It gets back to you someday.” Other songs seem more personally specific and thus more publicly vague, as in today’s Song of the Day, “Sunken Union Boat”: “Ready, set, dive again / Open up your mask let the water clean your glass /Find the sunken union boat / Find the 1955 Dr. Pepper can” … “Oh dear me / It’s a trick of the mind.” The song’s jangling, airy melody invite listeners to imprint their own meanings or just merely enjoy it as a two and a half minute sketch.

Following up his Seattle appearance on Friday, JV just performed Sasquatch yesterday and will play a few more dates on the West Coast (in Utah) before he makes his way east with the Tallest Man on Earth. He has a ton of dates listed on his MySpace page, where you can also hear more songs from the album. For now, enjoy this video of “Romanian Names,” recorded during John’s previous KEXP performance, from Opus Music Ventures studio in Berkeley:

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