The early songs by the lo-fi indie pioneer Robert Pollard and his "band," Guided By Voices, sounded as if they were recorded in a basement. They were. Today's singers/songwriters have access to a wide array of technologies, old and current, allowing them to create recordings that you would never guess were made in someone's basement. Canadian singer/songwriter/instrumentalist Chad VanGaalen does so with his new record, Soft Airplane, his second for Sub Pop, mixing layered and primitive sounds.
Having spent years busking in Calgary, VanGaalen produced a wealth of songs, often released in fragments on small Canadian-based labels. His first two releases, Infiniheart (2004) and Skelliconnection (2007), were collections of recordings amassed over spans of time. Soft Airplane, however, sounds more cohesive and focused, though there are plenty of eclectic styles, tempo and moods on the album.
Soft Airplane's sound is akin to VanGaalen's Sub Pop label mates, Ryan McPhun (The Ruby Suns) and Dan Boeckner (Handsome Furs, Wolf Parade), sharing their exuberance, experimental textures (samples, tape loops, homemade instruments) and wild eclecticism with a Jonathan Richman-like innocence. These works primarily emanate from the aural "vision" of a single singer/songwriter/instrumentalist. And most importantly, these works succeed. This could extend to the epic arrangements of Annie Clark (St. Vincent) to the pared-down expositions of John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats). And now we have Chad VanGaalen to add to that list.
"Willow Tree" opens the album with a somber banjo-plucked piece that recalls the haunting ballads of Bon Iver or the Fleet Foxes. Soft Airplane soon progresses its tempos, adding electric instruments, from the Shins-esque melody of "Inside the Molecules" to the more grandiose pop of "Phantom Anthills" and "Poisonous Heads."
Two songs that appear toward the end of Soft Airplane -- "Old Man + the Sea" and "City of Electric Light" -- are the standouts. "Old Man + the Sea" is a haunting, melancholic song, reducing the Hemingway novel for which it is named to a grim emotion of vengeance and death. While "City of Electric Light" is a jaunty pop romp, with chunky rhythms that recall fellow Canadian songwriter Dan Bejar (Destroyer, New Pornographers), blending in psychedelic and folk influences, freely coming and going, with the eccentricity of a band like Animal Collective.
What is oddly remarkable about Soft Airplane is that it works as an old-fashioned album. The songs are arranged as such, with arcs in mood, sound and tempo. Van Gaalen's songs are interconnected, yet can be enjoyed individually. And like the Ruby Suns' McPhun, Van Gaalen's "basement" sound is unique, bridging old and new techniques -- Soft Airplane was primarily recorded on an old analog tape machine and a JVC ghetto blaster -- to present the songwriter's wide, fascinating palette.