May 18, 2011

If you need Douglas Martin, he’ll be flossin’ in Austin.

Chad VanGaalen could feasibly be referred to as indie rock’s foremost genre shapeshifter– a distinction that would be pretty cool if he weren’t as frustratingly uneven and easily  capable of hopscotching between styles of music. For every genuinely terrific number the songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist/visual artist has written (“1000 Pound Eyelids,” “After the Afterlife,” “Sing Me to Sleep,” “Willow Tree”), there are loads of others tarnished by sloppy songwriting, marked with token genre tourism, or reeling from a general lack of focus. This lack of focus extends itself through all of his albums, which sometimes resemble poorly curated mixtapes for a girl or boy you have a crush on but have never met. Though VanGaalen has never released anything as horrifically bad as Fiery Furnaces, the lack of cohesion on his albums almost make the Friedberger siblings look like the poster children for Adderall.

Maybe I’m being a little too hard on VanGaalen; none of his albums are bad. In fact, Infiniheart is really, really good, though a little short of being great. His success rate is much better when sitting behind the boards. Shortly before releasing Soft Airplane in 2008, VanGaalen produced the self-titled debut album of delightfully inscrutable art-rock band Women, an album and band that was almost famous in every sense of the word (read: an almost critically lauded band whose album almost found its way on a ton of year-end lists).

After both Women and Soft Skeleton made their proper rounds, VanGaalen reconvened with the band to record the stunning Public Strain, a record that was my favorite of 2010. Before Women’s brothers engaged in fisticuffs onstage and effectively sent the band on a still-standing hiatus, Public Strain gained them a cemented spot as perennial favorites of the psych-leaning garage-rock faithful (i.e. the type of people who actually read my Dirty Shoes column). The album also worked wonders for VanGaalen’s reputation, showcasing him as a producer with a tremendous ear, one who knows how to utilize analog grit without resorting to cheap lo-fi parlor tricks. It seems as if VanGaalen’s work on Public Strain had as profound an effect on himself as it had on fans of the record, because new record Diaper Island feels like a close stylistic relative.

“Do Not Fear” opens the album on a terrific, anthemic note, building a crescendo all the way to its fist-pumping climax before quickly diverting into a dark sprawl halfway through. This and its gorgeous follow-up “Peace on the Rise” both recall the alternate tunings and slinky, eerie guitar work of Jim O’Rourke-era Sonic Youth, and could easily sneak their way onto Murray Street or Sonic Nurse if nobody was looking. Even VanGaalen’s solemn croon of, “Slip into the same old dream every night” sounds strikingly similar to the type of vocal melody Thurston Moore would use on a song like this. Aside from its clear reference point, “Peace on the Rise” is an incredibly well-written tune, right down to the woodwind-led drone breakdown.

Throughout Diaper Island, VanGaalen tinkers with the ebb and flow, throwing arty post-punk burners like “Burning Photographs” beside country ballad “Heavy Stones” and whistling-bolstered folk tune “Sara”–switching the pace while simultaneously displaying his talents as an above-average songsmith. The styles explored on Diaper Island are no less varied than on any of his other albums; it’s just that the genres he chooses to explore here are close enough to each other to sustain a sense of cohesion. Driving alt-rock (“Replace Me”), Sabbath-like proto-metal (“Blonde Hash”), and krautrock with 60’s psych breakdowns (“Freedom for a Policeman”) are all etched in the record’s grooves. Only the slipshod “Can You Believe It?” stands out in a negative way by sounding like a mess, but even it turns out to be an interesting mess, complete with sloppily distorted guitars and ink-blot synth lines staining up the scenery.

The album’s final quarter ends up being just as extraordinary as the first, starting with the downtempo trough through murky waters that is “Wandering Spirits,” with all its sonic adventurousness carried within it two minutes and forty-five slow seconds. “No Panic / No Heat” serves as the cleanest, most sophisticated song on Diaper Island, all clicking rim shots and floating arpeggios and a floating climax of a bridge. The chorus of multi-tracked VanGaalens sound disarmingly inviting while cooing the song’s chorus, “How long have you been running / With feet made of stone?”

The album’s final song may be the most emotionally affecting tune VanGaalen has written since Infiniheart‘s “1000 Pound Eyelids” (after surveying a horrific car wreck, he sings, “I’m super sorry, but my eyes got really heavy / And the last thing I remember is your smile”). A stark tune featuring just VanGaalen, a baritone ukulele, and some eerie effects during the chorus, he manages to wring a great deal of pain out of a little over two minutes, creating an utterly heartbreaking tune about the societal pressures of female body standards and appropriating a compelling and poignant character fighting with her depression. The first and final lyrics of the song? “Maybe if I shave my pussy, then he’ll love me / Baby, will you love me? I’m really feeling ugly.”

Only Chad VanGaalen would bookend his finest album to date with such a harrowing song, and have it titled “Shave My Pussy”. Such is the beauty of the weird world that is his mind.

MP3: Chad VanGaalen-“Peace on the Rise”
MP3: Chad VanGaalen-“Sara”

MP3: Chad VanGaalen-“City of Electric Light”
MP3:Chad VanGaalen-“Willow Tree”

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