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Chad VanGaalen’s Real, Unassuming Genius

‘Soft Airplane” one of the best albums of 2008.

Adrian Mack 4 Sep

Adrian Mack writes regularly about music for The Tyee.

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Sonic Youth and Neil Young’s spirit in young Calgarian’s music.

In the delicate and lovely “Willow Tree,” Chad VanGaalen offers a musical but also a thematic teaser from his new album Soft Airplane, which is released next Tuesday (Sept. 9).

Over an ambling banjo and hangdog clarinet, VanGaalen fashions a gauzy conceit that links sleep, dreaming and death. Not the world’s most original idea, sure, but VanGaalen attacks the idea from about 12 different angles on Soft Airplane, with results that put the record in the running for one of 2008’s very best.

The spirit of both Sonic Youth and Neil Young hang heavily over Soft Airplane. It’s something that you can read about on the website of label Flemish Eye, although I think we would have all caught that anyway, thanks. “Bones of Man” is perhaps the most explicitly Youngian thing on the record, from its run-on lyrical meter and the nebulous mysticism behind lines like, “There was a silent flash before the earth starting to close in on itself,” and on down to the ghostly, quavering male falsettos in the background -- a sound that was trademarked by Crazy Horse many, many years ago.

And “Bare Feet on Wet Griptape” is very definitely the child of early Sonic Youth until a switch-up into rambunctious double-time makes it all VanGaalen. Which is the point, really. Whatever musical DNA the young Calgarian shares with those who preceded him -- you’ll also notice an echo of early ’80s New York electronica fused to Built to Spill in “Phantom Anthills,” and a smirky, basement-scientist version of Scott Walkerish doom-noize on album closer “Frozen Energon” -- it’s the force of VanGaalen’s own vision that dominates, appended as it is to the inexpressible border experiences he’s trying so beautifully to describe all over Soft Airplane.

The fact that it all seems so unassuming only strengthens VanGaalen’s grip on the listener. Personally, I find a lot of the freak folkers he’s lumped in with to be a little precious, but even in a track like “City of Electric Light” -- which is a love song to lamps as far as I can tell -- VanGaalen’s honesty steels against the fear of irony-overload.

The eccentricities come off as real, not calculated. It’s why VanGaalen can get away with the naïve melodies, the kindergarten percussion in “Cries of the Dead,” and the nerd-fi inclinations that drive a track like “TMNT Mask,” in which the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are pondered against the sound of vintage circuit-boards.

And ultimately, behind the many mad-genius moments on Soft Airplane, there’s melancholy and the eternally spooked quality of VanGaalen’s voice, which never makes the artist sound as if he’s impressed with himself. Although he’d have every right to be.

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