John Vanderslice is not the kind of artist that you’ll find gracing the front cover of Q magazine. A media hooked on hyperbole and the shock of the new is probably not going to pin any hopes on a new album from a tried and tested over 40year old singer songwriter and I doubt his record company will reach the FTSE 100 on the back of him. Roman Names could possibly end up camouflaged amongst the masses of CDs in you local charity shop, before finding itself unsought in the 50p bargain bucket and eventually becoming asphalt in a the A127 between Bedford and Luton. If this were the fate that beholds Romananian Names it would be a little unfair, because the album stand up incredibly well to repeated listening.
Romanian Names could have been easy to dislike, it could have been classically ordinary ‘singer/songwriter by numbers’ material, the kind of catchy but empty nonsense that often appears on Radio 2 and is loved by those who own ‘Friends’ box sets and are slowly losing the will to live. All the classic ingredients are there, it’s mid-paced, melodic and it has light fluffy Jose Gonzalez-esque vocals. What really redeems Roman names from AOR graveyard is the subtle experimentation, the strange overdubbed vocals, the electronic landscape lurking quietly behind many tracks. All this happens without ever coming close to indulgence, in fact one of the highlights of the album is its lack of fat; the longest track weighs in at 3min 57 and after 12 song you’ve only invested just over 37 minutes. The album doesn’t suffer from over-reach, it doesn’t suffer the pretence that it’s going to be a classic album, and while there are some pretty ordinary tracks here, Vanderslice has the confidence to keep the songs short and so maximises their impact. The better tracks are also the most quirky, ‘Oblivion’ and ‘Sunken Union Boat’ wouldn’t feel out of place on an Of Montreal album - although they do lack OM’s camp weirdness. Best song on the album is ‘D.I.A.L.O.’, which sound like reigned in and cleaned up ‘Soft Bulletin’ era ‘Flaming Lips’. Worst is ‘C and O Canal”, a song so sickly melodic it sound as if it was made with the intention of appearing in an Apple Nano advert - the irony being, if this album is to eventually sell shed loads, this track will probably be the reason.
I doubt Romanian Names is going to set the world alight, but nor does it fall into the trap of being the only thing worse than being bad - which is being ordinary. It has enough confidence and invention to be well worth a listen and if you do happen to find it in the at your local charity shop. I implore you to rescue it.