Chad VanGaalen Soft Airplane

[Sub Pop; 2008]

Styles: eclectic Canadian songsmithing wizardry
Others: John Vanderslice, Final Fantasy, Cloud Cult

Three albums into an already fruitful and prolific career, Chad VanGaalen’s Soft Airplane is easily the strongest, most direct collection of tunes the Calgary, Alberta songwriter has put to tape. His two previous Sub Pop releases, 2004’s Infiniheart and 2006’s Skelliconnection, were wonderful, sprawling home-recorded documents, filled with the sort of simple emotive introspection that any genuine singer-songwriter can employ with ease. However, as he demonstrated on those albums and definitively states here on Soft Airplane, fragile-voiced VanGaalen isn't your traditional singer-songwriter. For one, these songs are too big. The sheer density of a song like “Inside the Molecules” hardly sounds like one man, but neither does it sound like the product of a full band. Instead, it strikes one as if VanGaalen has engaged the hands of a gaggle of ghosts for backup, injecting the rather straightforward song with a thin film of otherworldliness. Knowing that all of these songs are more or less VanGaalen going at it solo leads one to the conclusion that he’s either an apparition, a necromancer, or an alien, in addition to being an entirely new breed of singer-songwriter.

While Infiniheart and Skelliconnection drew inspiration from a myriad array of sources, Soft Airplane seems mostly concerned with death. And while each individual song’s choice of genre and style remains all over the map, this newfound focus leads to a more unified record overall. One would be hard-pressed to call it a cheerful collection, yet VanGaalen often manages to expose a stark beauty in the fleshy undersides of these songs. Take, for instance, album opener “Willow Tree.” The sparse, almost quaint ballad finds VanGaalen, accompanied by accordion and banjo, musing over all the freedom death will allow him and coupling that excitement with a real earnest desire for a Viking funeral at sea. His penchant for this sort of fantastically bizarre imagery is present throughout the majority of the album, whether it be the notion of a neighbor eating his own dog in his basement (“Cries of the Dead”) or a distorted glimpse of a cracked plastic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle mask resting in murky river water and staring right back (“TMNT Mask”).

Getting back to genres and song stylings, VanGaalen runs the figurative gamut. “Molten Light,” “City of Electric Light,” and the aforementioned “Willow Tree” have the subdued quality of a sole guitar-wielding troubadour, while songs like “Poisonous Heads” and “Bare Feet on Wet Griptape” exhibit a more explosive rock band sound. Some of the album’s most arresting songs feature VanGaalen’s own askew approximation of electronic dance music. “Phantom Anthills” and “TMNT Mask” boast incredible synthetic arrangements and, while running little risk of burning up any dance floors, remain ample testaments to the good thinking behind incorporating electronics into the mix. The musical element tying these disparate songs together is VanGaalen’s own crackling warble. His delicately powerful singing voice often elevates the songwriting to a whole new plain.

As wistfully grim as these songs can be, it’s impossible to mistake the glee that VanGaalen finds in his delirious experimentation. To his credit, the experiments almost always work, producing a slew of palpably profound mantras that reach deep into the boggy, shallow waters of the soul. Soft Airplane’s basement-recorded mastery is equal parts charming and unnerving, and on the whole singularly spectacular.

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