In "Exodus Damage," one of 14 quietly harrowing tracks on his fifth and finest CD, John Vanderslice sings, "No one ever says a word about/So much that happens in the world." If this is true, it's not his fault: Among other subjects, Pixel Revolt addresses the youth of Joan Crawford, the escape of a pet rabbit, the loneliness of the celebrity-stalker, and the allure of psychopharmaceuticals. And although 9/11 songs aren't exactly the cutting edge anymore, "Exodus Damage" is probably the first one written from the perspective of a conflicted former terrorist. Driven by stinging '80s-era synths, jangly acoustic guitar, and rumbling, almost subliminal bass, this anti-anthem boasts a singularly ambivalent refrain: "Dance dance revolution/All we're gonna get/Unless it falls apart/So I say: Go go go/Let it fall down/I'm ready for the end." For the narrator, who talks to his beloved by cell phone as the second plane hits the World Trade Center, love is "a sad delusion, but sometimes it's true." Love, in all of its indispensable inadequacy, is Pixel Revolt's great theme. It might not be enough to save us, but it's all there is.
The intersection of the personal and the political isn't a particularly original topic, but Vanderslice steers clear of dissertation-ready thesis statements. His lyrics, edited and augmented by frequent collaborator John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, cram a novel's worth of detail and ambiguity into a handful of lines. Take "Trance Manual," which describes a Western journalist's tryst with an Iraqi prostitute. Over shivery church bells and synthesized flute, Vanderslice croons, "Oh, dressed like that/You are a flag of a dangerous nation/Oh dressed like that/You are some kind of declaration." It's at once tender and creepy, poignant and repellent, and so improbably beautiful that it stops your breath for a second.
Meticulously recorded at Vanderslice's own Tiny Telephone studio with mostly analog gear, Pixel Revolt sounds so fantastic that a listener could be forgiven for not noticing the lyrics immediately. Richly layered with looped percussion, plangent cello, and vintage keyboards, the arrangements are pristine but warm, thrumming with organic touches. Unlike so many mad-scientist self-producers, Vanderslice resists the temptation to clutter up his songs with too many found sounds and freaky flourishes; his lucid, emotive, and unfashionably earnest tenor is always at the front of the mix, perfectly decipherable and unassailably human. It's a brave and hopeful voice, the surest antidote to the silence of an indifferent world.
Although Leslie Feist used to go by the name Bitch Laplap and hang with the dildo-wielding electrofloozy Peaches, her U.S. debut carries no trace of her NC-17-rated backstory. Let It Die, the Canadian singer/songwriter's second solo release, wouldn't sound at all amiss in an elevator or an upscale grocery store. Forged from an unlikely coalition of styles — jazz, folk, pop, Latin, disco, hip-hop, and God knows what else — Feist's music is soothing and sophisticated, grown-up but not played out. Most self-respecting music fans are understandably suspicious of the "adult contemporary" label, but if anyone can redeem the genre, it's Feist, who sounds both "adult" and "contemporary" but way too cool for the likes of Michael Bolton and Air Supply. Whether she's performing one of her six stellar originals or covering the Bee Gees, Blossom Dearie, or Ron Sexsmith, Feist finds the common thread linking her disparate influences, the essential kernel that makes them all cohere. The music purrs and pulses, all muted brass and gentle strum, but the real star is her voice, a cracked warble that's one part Billie Holiday, one part Dusty Springfield, and sexy as all get-out.