To The Moon

by Greg Locke
To The Moon



       Vandolah's Mark Hutchins writes fuzzed-up songs that could easily mix and tangle on a college radio station alongside material written by guys with names like Pollard, Lytle and Barlow. To the Moon, Vandolah's third proper (fifth overall) album, features seven new Hutchins songs as well as "Ignorance is Bliss," an excellent tune written and sung by Vandolah guitarist Dan Greunke. Also present on To the Moon are full-time Vandolah drummer Kyle Stevenson and part-time Hutchins collaborator, Kevin Hambrick (The Orange Opera), whose keyboard work is scattered throughout the mix on three tracks.

       In a pseudo press release that accompanied To the Moon, Hutchins asks, "Is this a short album? A long EP? Are those now archaic record industry terms in the age of the iPod? It's a collection of songs, I guess." To this reviewer, To the Moon is either the most generous EP since the Pixies' Come On Pilgrim or an economical album made to be played twice in a row. Being that Hutchins is a rightfully shameless student of the Bob Pollard School of Rockcraft, his instinct to call this 33-minute disc of new material an EP isn't a surprise; but make no mistake, it's an album – not a "mini-album," but a full-blown album, brimming with guitar-based indie rock cleverisms and hummable melodies that get better and better with each listen.

       Vandolah begin their latest offering by blasting off into cyberspace with a fictional character named "M.I. Angola," a red hot man "Encased in a plastic stream, in a wilderness pose / Without a wrinkle in his clothes." Yet another example of Hutchins' noted ability to write seemingly about anything with loose wit and clever charm, "M.I. Angola" starts things off on familiar, Guided by Voices-friendly ground – but, for the most part, that's where the expected GBV comparisons end.

       "Sounds like a bummer but it's not," is how Hutchins describes "Dreaming Back the Dead," To the Moon's second track. More akin to Elliott Smith (or whoever your acoustic-based, indie-minded singer/songwriter of choice may be) than a Pollard rocker, "Dreaming" is a concise, sweet song full of warm, comforting longing. The aforementioned Greunke-penned "Ignorance is Bliss" is hardly a case of Spiral Stairs or Mike Mills bone-throwing. Greunke's song turns out to be one of the best on the album, offering a nice contrast with it's straight-ahead lyrics, Hutchins-worthy melodies and  memorable hooks. "I'm Suffix" is easily the most classic Vandolah track on the album. Doused with baffling but memorable phrasing and swaggering guitars, Vandolah churn out their most windows-down-cool song to date; look for this one to be the new opener (or encore) when they play live.

       One aspect of Vandolah's music that has never received enough attention is their oddly poetic lyrical content, likely due to their foremost power hooks and power melodies. Though their songs don't sound a bit like anything Pavement ever recorded, Hutchins' laid-back approach to catchy, witty, almost always ambiguous writing is very Malkmusian, and by that I mean that it's often too far out in its own brainy, erudite universe for the everyday listener to really comprehend. That said, the gist is always there, ready for sharp ears to dig and ponder. And for those lucky enough to get their eyes and brains fixed on a lyric sheet, Hutchins' self-amusing writing style is the work of a wandering, bookish mind. Stringing together memorable one-liners in a slacker-but-scholarly manner, Hutchins' writing is as strong as ever on To the Moon, featuring quotables like "Hope is back ashore / Dreaming back the dead / I hope a thousand more dreams will fill your head" and "You fall so well so expertly / You remind me of somebody / When you get your way / Soon you'll fade like moving smoke from a grenade."

       Hutchins' slightly-beyond-bedroom-closet recording and production is as impressive (and fitting) as ever. Limiting themselves to modest self-described "90s-ear Pro Tools-free desktop digital glory" production perfectly suits the band – who would've surely been signed to Matador Records had they been around in the mid 1990s. Clean but fuzzy, Vandolah are not just one of the first, but likely the finest of the impending 90s revivalist movement, and To the Moon is their most cohesive, consistent offering yet.

       One of 2007's great pop/rock/indie albums and maybe the best Hutchins-related release to date, Vandolah's latest will be celebrated (and played live) at a free show at Borders in Fort Wayne on September 15 at 7:30 p.m. Be there, or be the guy/gal who secretly gets made fun of by the smarmy rocker cats with nothing better to do than listen to great music and make fun of people who aren't doing the same. (Greg Locke)

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