“Ache Beautiful.” It’s a wonderful song from Mike Roe, and, with Romanian Names, John Vanderslice does just that. At times, Vanderslice leans toward Rufus Wainwright’s theatrical vocals; with others, particularly on “Too Much Time”, he brings Jeff Buckley’s singing perfection to mind. And while the sound of his voice may differ from song to song, the emotion expressed never changes; this is an auditory document of one man’s painful heartbreak.
“Packed up my pots and pans,” Vanderslice announces on “Too Much Time,” “Freedom is overrated.” But this is, in reality, half sarcasm, half truth. Every once in a while my family spends a few weeks at my wife’s sister’s house. And I have to admit that the first few days are heavenly! I can do whatever I please – within reason, of course. Once the workday ends, so also do responsibilities. But soon the silent house becomes a cacophony of quiet. And after a great day, there’s no one at home to share it with. Also, with relatively young children, who are changing seemingly by the second, I start to feel like I’m missing out on everything new in their lives. Yes, Mr. Vanderslice, freedom is overrated.
Earlier in “Too Much Time”, Vanderslice sings of rolling up his sleeping bag after shaking out all the beach sand. Surely, his woman didn’t leave him homeless, did she? Yet it’s hard to believe – what with all the sincerity in his voice – that the man’s not truly singing biographically.
Just how Vanderslice has transformed internal suffering into aural bliss is beyond comprehension. In places he’s so cheerful, he’s like a small child telling you about his or her day – as though it’s nothing really at all. But then again, who hasn’t said that their doing just fine, when deep down their whole world was a mess? It’s human nature to put on the happy face, as stupid as that sounds.
Romanian Names is also an instrumentally layered effort. One imagines there is always the temptation to strip everything down to the bare bones after suffering great loss. Indeed, the lack of pretty paper around the box ought to be a big clue that something isn’t any kind of gift. Nevertheless, if you’re anything like me, the full horn section of “Forest Knolls” will nearly knock you off your chair with surprise. “Sunken Union Boat” also features crisp drumming, happily strummed acoustic guitar, and a bright vocal. It’s happy, however, because it’s all about memories of how things used to be, back during better times. This track’s details are astounding in places, as well. At one point Vanderslice notes, “Find the 1955 Dr. Pepper cap.” Even so, he counters his own bliss by reminding himself, “It’s a trick of the mind,” as though he’s waking himself from some kind of IMAX romantic dream.
Nevertheless, this disc’s title track is, indeed, stripped down to little more than acoustic guitar. So there are stripped accoutrements for a strip mined heart, after all. Romanian Names sometimes feels like one long awkward moment. A funeral on a beautiful sunny day. How can such a terrible event take place in such a beatific setting? Where are dark clouds when you really need them? Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself squinting at the sun through tears as this disc plays.