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John Vanderslice

San Francisco songwriter John Vanderslice knows a thing or ten about writing great pop music: he honed his singing, songwriting, and guitar-slinging skills in the late lamented MK Ultra, he records many great bands at Tiny Telephone studio, and now he crafts smart, sassy songs under his own name. With help from friends in Creeper Lagoon and other former members of MK Ultra, Vanderslice created Mass Suicide Occult Figurines (2000, Barsuk Records). The album's title comes from Neutral Milk Hotel's "Song Against Sex," and its songs come from a long tradition of beautiful and biting pop music. Lovingly crafted, masterfully recorded, and reverently presented, these are grand, soaring songs -- like the tunes that burbled out of home hi-fis in the 1970s -- laced with an edge of dark humor.

There is something almost insidious about Vanderslice's ability to craft melodies and mold them together with beats, sticky hooks, and clever lyrics. "Bill Gates Must Die" will sink down into your subconscious and become an invective that pops out at you when you walk down the street, while you're in the shower, while you're in a meeting. There is no escape and there shouldn't be: this is the very definition of pop music, stuff so urgently compelling that you cannot shake it. Despite its inflammatory title, which inspired a brilliantly executed media hoax, the song is not a death threat against the Microsoft mogul. In fact, it tells the fictional tale of a delusional web kiddie porn addict who blames Gates for his obsession ("Someone made this easy, made this inevitable/So, for bringing me here, Bill Gates must die"). On "Speed Lab," sweet harmonies, crunchy guitars, and soaring melodies underscore Vanderslice's lyrics about toiling in a Central Valley drug den. Despite the dark subject matter, it's actually a love song. Who knew that cooking up crystal meth could sound so romantic? The lush and gorgeous "Ambition" highlights Vanderslice's skill at combining clever lyrics ("Don't worry about your boy, he's got his computer") and complex instrumentation.

In addition to being a great songwriter and all-around swell guy, Vanderslice is a huge proponent of free internet music, so he has graciously agreed to make all of Mass Suicide Occult Figurines available for streaming. The track "I Miss the War," meanwhile was one of three live-to-two-track recordings done in early 2001 with Bob Weston to appear on Vanderslice's Insound Tour Support EP.