Graded on a Curve:
David Vassalotti,
Guitar Dream

David Vassalotti is the guitarist in Florida’s 4AD-signees Merchandise. If you’re hip to that band’s amped-up post-punkish pop, you might think you have a rough idea what’s in store on the man’s latest solo LP, but hey, slow down there, partner. Even those who scooped up Vassalotti’s 2016 solo set should be prepared for fresh developments, as Guitar Dream is a pop auteurist statement recalling the boom in singing and songwriting that sprang forth during the original wave of indie pop while sidestepping mere emulation of those glories. A remarkably assured effort that’s vivid without faltering into the grandiose, it’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital January 25 through Wharf Cat.

There’s been a steadily increasing Anglo-ist vibe to the work of David Vassalotti’s main gig that attained a level of refinement with their 2016 effort A Corpse Wired for Sound; had that record served as my introduction to Merchandise, it seems likely I would’ve been, if not shocked, then at least mildly surprised that the band are a byproduct of life in the Sunshine State.

This statement unquestionably reinforces my upbringing in an era where geography’s relation to individual/ group dynamics played a much bigger role than today. Fittingly in the context of the considerably more wide-open and connected nature of our current cultural landscape, it’s worth stressing that Merchandise aren’t indulging in a simultaneously highfalutin and low-stakes brand of mimicry. This is also the case with Guitar Dream.

The major diff is that the ten songs shaping up his latest sharpen the focus onto a decidedly indie pop state of affairs. Well, except for one thing; the original UK indie pop wave was populated by bands. Just peruse the participants on the New Musical Express’ C86 tape for evidence. After a few acquainting spins, Guitar Dream registers as descended from the roughly concurrent ’80s wave of pop auteurs but with attention paid to the impulse’s overlap with indie pop. Most immediately, I heard The Smiths.

Guitar Dream is a marked progression from Vassalotti’s prior solo record Broken Rope (not his first, but his debut for Wharf Cat). While holding moments of pop tethered to both Merchandise and the album under review here (its closing title track in particular), that one is much more experimental and stylistically broad as it launched from a platform evocative of ’70s-’80s UK DIY.

Broken Rope connected as an occasionally eccentric satisfying whole. It remains noteworthy for its overall coherence, but its follow-up, which is initially striking for its sheer boldness, is a seamlessly sustained pop gesture that could earn him an audience distinct from (but surely overlapping with) Merchandise’s growing fanbase.

Opener “This Extravagant Lie,” with its acoustic strum, baroque string bedrock, unfussy timekeeping (weight subtly delivered through hits from the bass drum), extroverted yet non-overwrought crooning and odds-defiantly successful touches of vaguely Morricone-like electric guitar lines, calmly leads toward a further boost in instrumentation, its sweep including a swell keyboard-horn fanfare and then carried forth with confidence, right up to a finale that’s accented by a simple passage of chiming vibes.

Maudlin is a quality that has sunk the ambitions of countless lesser talents, but with adroitness, deep feeling can be a positive. Such is the case here, in part because Vassalotti doesn’t shovel on the emotion too relentlessly, with second track “The Other Light” a nifty jangle pop instrumental that underscores the man’s preference for home recording (the album was cut in his bandmate Carson Cox’s basement studio).

Just as interestingly, the song highlights Vassalotti’s versatility with a tune as it leads into “The Light,” a less sprightly (yet still chiming) ditty, this time with vocals, that undisguisedly springs from the same structural root. This pulls off a sweet trick of retaining his prior LP’s sense of experimentation while diving into more accessible waters. Another connective thread is the sheer amount of guitar, which is an attribute tipped off in the album’s title, natch. From this angle, “In the Garden” offers an exquisite beauty move that’s reminiscent of mid-’80s Rough Trade or Cherry Red or Ron Johnson.

“Devenir Immortal” is more of a vehicle for Vassalotti’s skills as vocalist, though string glisten remains prominent. As said, there’s a resemblance to those Smiths, but it’s a mild likeness even as “The Lines Between Us” sees him handling the roles of both Morrissey and Marr with what sounds like relative ease. But solidifying Guitar Dream as no copycat thing, “Let It Burn” introduces a strain of country-rockabilly into the equation, with the way Vassalotti sings “when I get drunk, I do bad things” just a gas.

In terms of moxie (if not sound), it reminds me a bit of Mark E. Smith and Matt Johnson of The The, but the song’s hover-blast capper, redolent of Modernist classical symphonics, really drives home how Vassalotti is after something larger than standard neo-’80s post-punk indie pop action. However, if that’s the sound you’re looking for, “Manifest Destiny” should please without a hitch, though the fingerpicking conjures thoughts of the disciples of Jansch, and that’s cool.

“Outlines” intensifies the one-man-in-a-studio-with-his-songs atmosphere while avoiding the underdeveloped (as pop-auteurist projects can sometimes be), and it’s an effective prelude to Guitar Dream’s largest individual canvas as grand finale, “What Shall You Say Tonight?” The opening synth line’s integration into the song’s early moments is emblematic of the multifaceted bloom to come. It might’ve been recorded in a basement, but the anthemic, emotive heft and twang is robust enough to engage, if not stadiums, then certainly balconied auditoriums. He deserves to get there.


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