John Vanderslice is a born songwriter–his talent emerged fully formed in the mid-90s, with his band MK Ultra, and hasn’t needed to “grow” much since. The odd but unobtrusive arrangements on “Trance Manual,” from last year’s Pixel Revolt (Barsuk)–which feature flute, strings, church bells, and invented instruments–sound like products of a smart, restless curiosity, not desperate stabs at novelty. Even his most ambitious and dramatic sound constructions–like “Angela,” with its anachronistic blend of beatbox, strings, and futuristic sound effects–are fraught with humanity and vulnerability. Once again he benefits from the ingenuity of engineer-collaborator Scott Solter, but Vanderslice’s eagerness to challenge himself is what really drives Pixel Revolt. His trademark paranoid-conspiracy themes are now informed by biographical material–a shift that might’ve been inspired by his work with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, who was in an atypically confessional mode on last year’s The Sunset Tree. (Darnielle wrote some of Pixel Revolt’s lyrics, and Vanderslice produced the last two Mountain Goats albums.) Vanderslice is the Randy Newman to Darnielle’s Dylan–both have a literary bent and a sense of moral accountability, but Vanderslice adds a perfectionist’s approach to the craftsmanship of his material. His tales are outlined with minimal, expertly employed detail instead of burdened with obfuscatory metaphors, and pull you into surreal spaces the same way a David Lynch film does. His most recent release is the acoustic Suddenly It All Went Dark: Pixel Revolt Live to 2-Track (Barsuk). The Crystal Skulls open. Sat 4/15, 10:30 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, 773-525-2508, $10 in advance, $12 at the door.