By: Greg Gargiulo
Lofty yet tangible, downright serious yet rife with whimsy and playfulness, Chad VanGaalen's latest, Soft Airplane (Sup Pop) manages to strike all the right chords (both literal and emotional) with a remarkable tenacity that strings together disparate components into a mellifluous whole. From the broad palette of instruments to the vocal variations to the rich content and thematic recurrences, VanGaalen just doesn't seem to want to exclude any worthy piece from being a part of his construction. Instead of a presumptuous mishmash that plummets before maintaining altitude, Airplane cruises through cumulus clouds and turbulence alike with the same type of cooled-down, confident control.
VanGaalen has an irrepressible penchant for songwriting. Known to laboriously produce songs in massive heaps, the Calgary native has whittled down a piece of his stash into fluid mixture that reflects insightfully on sleeping and dreaming, light and electricity, pain and mortality, and most heavily of all, the great mystery of death. To help present these selections of two cents and wonder, VanGaalen draws from a smorgasbord of traceable influences, the most obvious being oft-compared, fellow Canadian troubadour Neil Young, while others include Beck, early U2 and even 80s synthpop in the vein of Kraftwerk. Occupying a number of different vocal registers - from stark falsettos on Willow Tree" and Rabid Bits of Time" to harsher, deeper tones on Bones of Man" - VanGaalen doesn't restrict himself to one particular key, song style or any element of music really.
Bare Feet on Wet Griptape" has a strong grunge presence that evolves into a celebratory Irish jig. Cries of the Dead" is an eerily cheerful ode to reminders VanGaalen hears of those who've passed, and City of Electric Light," defined by a chipper xylophone, jubilantly ponders natural vs. artificial luminosity. Acoustic or plugged in, utilizing clarinet or accordion or cello, there's a constant sense of brainstorming evident on Airplane, not simply for the sake of random inclusion, but for the cause of adding to an already well-established depth.
And when you think you may have VanGaalen's versatile sound figured out, Phantom Anthills" creeps up and bites you in the ass. With a Tortoise-like hip-hop beat, complete with beeps, blips and scratches, his grid expands even further. TMNT Mask," characterized by synthy repetitions and obscure lyrics, shares in this semi-displacement, yet neither interrupts flow or comes off as even slightly contrived.
On Rabid Bits of Time," Airplane's penultimate track, VanGaalen softly posits, No one knows where we go, when we're dead or when were dreaming." He addresses this sentiment in a combination of arrangements and approaches, sometimes ignoring it altogether, but, in a cyclical motion, it's also at the album's opening where his best take can be found. Brilliantly voiced, acknowledging the mystery," he offers where he'd like to go, in the physical sense at least:
When I die
I'll hang my head beside the willow tree
When I'm dead
Is when I'll be free
Take my body
Put it in a boat
Light it on fire
Send it out to sea