Undoubtedly the year’s most affecting indie-rock song about having a cousin hunting down rebels in Colombia’s coca fields, John Vanderslice’s “Heated Pool and Bar” builds to an almost unbearable emotional and musical climax: a ragged, slightly overmodulated acoustic guitar chomping down hard on chords that want to be more forceful than they are—want to be as forceful as they possibly can be, which still isn’t forceful enough—over a slipshod, live-band groove that sounds like KMFDM wearing a knit surfer’s poncho, and Vanderslice detailing his friend enduring (and ensuring) “total anarchy” in Afghanistan and his own imagined job overhearing screams at Guantánamo.
The thirtysomething owner of San Francisco’s indie-hot Tiny Telephone studio, Vanderslice uses his recording know-how to push tunes throughout Cellar Door, his fourth solo album, beyond college-rock vacancy. In “My Family Tree,” about the transformation of a strong father into a “lion so meek in the Francis Jay Memorial Wing,” it’s ghostly harmonies standing in for disappearing relatives; in “They Won’t Let Me Run,” it’s a loose pickup-truck bounce to take him away from the results of a one-night stand. “Sometimes a cowboy’s just a man in a cowboy suit,” Vanderslice sings. And sometimes not.
John Vanderslice plays the Knitting Factory October 8.