Chad VanGaalen — illustrator, animator, songwriter, home recorder — is every DIY purist’s dream. It’s one thing to perform virtually every instrument on your album, but VanGaalen takes it a step further: he handmade many of the instruments himself and, with “an old tape machine and a JVC ghetto blaster,” recorded this fractured pop song cycle in his Canada basement. “The songs on Soft Airplane were written and recorded more or less within the same time period, rather than collected from disparate moments,” notes the press release. “As such, it feels more focused, deliberate, thoughtful, and centered” than previous albums Infiniheart (2005) and Skelliconnection (2006). Still, it seems to me somehow misleading, disingenuous even to describe VanGaalen’s music as “focused and deliberate” when it all feels so inherently (and gloriously, I might add) impulsive. On Soft Airplane, he fluently navigates the gamut from fragile freak-folk (or does that silly indie-tastic label remain in ’04-’05 where it belongs?) to acid-damaged electro-pop, culling from a dense, cluttered instrumental palette of xylophones and banjos, synthesizers and accordions.
Why am I so inclined to compare VanGaalen to American indie-folk at its most emotive and sincere? For one thing, the singer’s shakily quavering tenor often calls to mind a higher-pitched M. Ward or Andrew Bird, soaked in distant reverb and homemade backing harmonies. Then there’s the fact that Soft Airplane‘s most immediate, and indeed most touching songs are also its most stripped down. Take, for example, “Willow Tree”, the brilliant opener and potential VanGaalen break-out track, if there is one: indeed, it is the closest he comes to a readymade Sirius Coffeehouse channel staple. It’s also a superb, compulsively listenable song, in which the singer’s uniquely fragile voice projects a sublime vocal melody atop some vaguely Sufjan-ian banjo arpeggios. Lyrically he wastes no time in introducing a relentless fixation on death, mulling freely on his posthumous wishes: “When I die / I’ll hang my head beside a willow tree / When I’m dead is when I’ll be free / And you can take my body / And put it in a boat / Light it on fire / You can use the kerosene”.
“Cries of the Dead” is equally delightful, as much as it feels perverse to apply such a descriptor to a song about hearing “the cries of the dead” and wondering if “maybe it’s your neighbor beating his dog in the basement”. Nonetheless, to listen to the intro is to practically imagine VanGaalen’s mad scientist joy in marrying the percussive sample (found sound, perhaps?) to the gorgeously rich, intertwining acoustic guitar and string parts. “Molten Light” is even more unsettling, a hauntingly nonlinear melody rendered far more disturbing with its uncharacteristically direct narrative about a creature who “grew out of the stone-cold ground” and “could not be killed” (defining refrain: “She’ll find you and she’ll kill you”).
“Molten Light” is an alarming pill to swallow in VanGaalen-land, especially when you notice that it directly follows a full-scale electro-pop ode to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle mask. This would be “TMNT Mask”, the third and most memorable of VanGaalen’s stabs at beat-driven pop (“Phantom Anthills” and “Bare Feet on Wet Griptape” are the other two). (“People, at least in Canada, think of me as a folk musician, but really I came from making beats and listening to hip-hop,” comments the artist, who cites A Tribe Called Quest as a primary influence on this side of the spectrum.) “TMNT” is musically paranoid and pulsing, propelled by an industrial undercurrent, culminating with a frenzied synthesizer-noise breakdown. Funny how Of Montreal’s attempts at this vibe come off as plastic in comparison.
And then there’s “Rabid Bites of Time”, the effective climax to both the album (unless we count three and a half minutes of industrial machinery sounds) and VanGaalen’s obsession with death, dying, and mortality. Lines like “You’ve been dead for years / And you never even knew” sound downright mournful given the funeral-slow tempo. And even more desperate is the wide-eyed chorus of sorts (“No one knows where we go / When we’re dead or when we’re dreaming”), the ensuing apocalyptic blend of wordless moaning, dissonant whirring tones, and dreadfully rattling percussion. It’s a dark conclusion to an album so seemingly anxious to hide its fragile, bleak interior, overlooked by so many critics content to marvel at VanGaalen’s “oddball” or “quirky” songs and persona. In fact, it’s the album’s contradictions and candid emotional messiness that make it exciting.