Monday, October 6, 2008

Chad VanGaalen / "Soft Airplane"

I'd be lying if I told you I was entirely sold on Chad VanGaalen entering the year 2008. Sure, his debut album, "Infiniheart" was a reasonably impressive lo-fi recorded singer-songwriter album and his most recent album (and second overall), "Skelliconnection", earned some nice buzz and a Polaris Prize nomination. However, the change from "Infiniheart" to "Skelliconnection" did not hint that VanGaalen has ready to make the jump to being a premiere artist. His latest offering, "Soft Airplane", finally sees VanGaalen taking advantage of SubPop's technology and releasing an album that captures and solidifies all of his talents.

Opening with the bizarre but nonetheless interesting Devandra Banhart sound-alike "Willow Tree", VanGaalen finally hits his stride with "Bones of Man" and never looks back. "Bones of Man" begins with VanGaalen's voice accompanying a simple guitar line before adding harmonizing vocals, xylophones, and a myriad of odds and ends. Too many chefs may spoil a stew according to the old adage, but VanGaalen knows the perfect portioning. As the song parlays from refrain to one instrumental solo to the next before fading into static, there are no doubts to VanGaalen's talents as a composer, lyricist, or performer. "Cries of the Dead" combines cryptic lyrics ("I can hear the cries of the dead, muffled by the ground, but still loud enough to make it out") and an upbeat pop beat into a song that would be humorously ironic if it weren't so fucking good

His influences are vast and scattered. "Bare Feet on Wet Griptape" sounds like the Talking Heads, both vocally and sonically. "Poisonous Hands" hints at Grandaddy, with its space-age vocals and distant guitar. Hell, "TMNT" (which, yes, does stand for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) is a dance-rock track in the vein of LCD Soundsystem with a (no joke) harmonica solo! In the same way Beck used to do during his creative zenith, VanGaalen takes a disparate elements, slams them together, and creates a coexistence where one would seem unlikely or even near impossible. It's undeniably captivating music. From beginning to end, "Soft Airplane" explores new sonic possibilities, mesmerizes the listener with its beauty and creativity, and never becomes static or redundant.

In fact, the second half of the album might be even better than the disc's exemplary first half. "Molten Light" embraces VanGaalen's lo-fi roots magnificently and the effects combined with the chorus of "she'll find you and she'll kill you!" gives the song an eerie, hypnotic aura. "Old Man + The Sea" drowns VanGaalen's vocals in effects and instruments, only allowing it to approach the forefront as the song changes fronts and sonics during the refrain. "City of Electric Light" somehow manages to sound like Destroyer, Smog, and the Microphones simultaneously, and is every bit as good as those impressive influences. "Rabid Bits of Time" opens "you've been dead for years, but you never knew" before becoming a slow, quiet, melancholic burner of a track. "No one knows where we go when we're dead or when we're dreaming" sings VanGaalen as the song broods with the percussion of tambourines before more and more instruments slowly enter and exit the picture like characters in a play, each delivering one poignant line and exiting the stage. It gives way to a grumble and effects which sound like a train passing over rails. Closer "Frozen Energon" sounds like nothing else on the album, an ambient noise track with blips and static filling the remaining space. The album opens with a hum, and closes in an eruption of noise. In between, it is no less than one of the most original and exciting albums I've heard all year.

Rating: 9.1

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