On his exceptionally labor-intensive solo albums, San Francisco singer-songwriter-engineer guy John Vanderslice sounds as if he thinks he's responsible for feeding the world. Last year's Time Travel Is Lonely, his second outing following the breakup of his band MK Ultra, might be the most compelling argument for misplaced ambition since Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a record plenty of healthy people have doubtless spent plenty of sick days trying to unravel. Like a more balanced version of that band's Jeff Mangum, Vanderslice, the owner of a small but busy Bay Area studio called Tiny Telephone, makes records the way Kmart hemorrhages cash, filling every possible inch of tape (and it's always tape, the digital-defying Vanderslice is happy to tell us) with multitracked guitar parts, auxiliary percussion, vocal harmonies and any number of instrumental flourishes courtesy of his extensive list of college-radio-celebrity buds. His forthcoming third album, due in May, makes no attempt to obscure that diligence: Titled Life and Death of an American Fourtracker, it's more workaholic pop that spins a yarn about a home-recording enthusiast who I'm sure is not Vanderslice.
Jim James, the guy who fronts Kentucky's trippy psych-country band My Morning Jacket, probably wouldn't go in for such a high-concept approach--he seems more the bearded Mangum type--but his band's recent At Dawn is no less atmospheric than Vanderslice's careful productions. Really, atmosphere is what seems most important: Free-floating pools of ambient keyboard and amplifier hum collect throughout At Dawn, complementing James' proper songs, which hover somewhere between Neil Young's cracked folk-rock and Spaceman 3's celestial stomp. Like its Californian counterparts Beachwood Sparks, MMJ has seen alt-country's frontier and decided it can be pushed a little further west. Sometimes good things can stand to be messed with.