Chad VanGaalen

Infiniheart

(Flemish Eye; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 2 March 2004

Infiniheart is the debut full length from singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Chad VanGaalen. It’s the product of many years of bedroom recordings—he’s been recording for about ten, but only about four years worth of material were included here—filtered down, with three new songs added for good measure, into this hour long collection. VanGaalen is first and foremost obsessed with the aural possibilities of home recording, taking advantage of the solitary act by methodically piecing his songs together, even going to the lengths of making his own instruments. A quick look at the liner notes reveals a homemade violin, finger piano, clarinets and harp, all of which join an array of other instruments (VanGaalen himself gives up on listing them) as part of the clever arrangements that are just part of what makes this debut so promising.

But what exactly is so special about another singer/songwriter bedroom recording? First off, there is something intrinsically warm and soulful about VanGaalen’s voice—which, like his songwriting, lands somewhere between the incredibly sincere timbre of Neil Young, a younger Jeff Buckley (his work with Gary Lucas, mostly) and, at times, even a little M Ward and Jim James. It raises these songs to a level rarely reached by fellow bedroom singer/songwriters, quickly and easily dismissing the stigma that has come to be inherently attached to most artists that partake in its ethic. And, like the rare opening band that is able to vanquish the layers of odds stacked against them and demand attention from the unsuspecting crowd, this unknown singer/songwriter from the lonesome depths of Calgary, Alberta makes his intentions loud and clear with opener "Clincly Dead," an upbeat indie rock number reminiscent of early Built to Spill with the production flair of a restrained Jim O’Rourke, and very rarely fails our imagination for the hour that follows it.

In fact, on only three of these songs does VanGaalen fail to captivate in one way or another and perhaps, given the record’s intimidating length, they should’ve been cut. "J.C’s Head on the Cross" (which almost has a great "Fuckin’ In the Bushes" vibe going and is one of several tracks to perfectly utilize found sound clips, but lasts about a minute too long) and "Graduated Assassin" are inoffensive enough but really add little to the dynamic of Infiniheart. "Dolphinariums," sounding like it was patched together quickly in Fruity Loops, is a distracting segue between the beautiful "Liquid + Light" and album closer "Traffic," and sticks out far too much to even act as ignorable filler. That said, it’s easy to look past such a misstep with so much great material surrounding it.

So there are three slightly out of place instrumental tracks that seem to attempt something that is far less affecting than his more straightforward approach. Is it just his vocal timbre that makes these songs so moving? Well, not quite. His lyrics are crisp, imaginative and full of loaded imagery, never inconsequential or arbitrary; at worst, they merely fail to really grab us (like the wandering tale of "Blood Machine," which has a melody strong enough to make up for its lyrical shortfall), but at its best—like "1000 Pound Eyelids," a post-mortem realization of a car crash ("We must’ve fucked up the car real good because I can’t feel anything at all / I’m super sorry but my eyes got really heavy / and the last thing I remember is your smile") adorned with a fluttering trumpet that cleverly reprises after the final lyrical refrain and a few moments of silence—they manage to become even more memorable than the melody.

It’s also interesting to note the surprising amount of thematic resonance running through a collection of songs that come from years worth of recordings; recurring images of blood, death, regret, sly romanticism and defeated spirit anchor most of these tracks, cementing Infiniheart as a lengthy and detailed comment on what we’re all willing to live through and our almost mechanical need to come back for more.

There’s also a great flow to the album, even with its slightly excessive length and few blemishes, that instantly reminded me of the Microphones’ Glow Pt. 2, in that every note seems perfectly calculated in a slow climax of its own making that resides not in a single chorus or instrumental crescendo, but in a resolution of several themes, both musical and lyrical, and the fluid movement of ideas that remain individually interesting and distinct. The distorted indie-rock feel of "Echo Train" has little in common with the hymnal "Somewhere I Know There Is Nothing," the harmonious folk of "After the Afterlife" or the southern drawl of "Sunshine Snare Hits," for instance, but it certainly all seems to make complete sense and evolve naturally.

There are few things that make me happier than a great album coming out of absolutely nowhere and Infiniheart marks the first of its kind that I’ve experienced in 2004. Like many of my favorites, this is an extremely personal record, but VanGaalen avoids making a charity case out of himself in the process. He clearly wraps himself in his work, resulting in an incredibly cathartic record that is instantly familiar yet terribly hard to pin down to a list of obvious influences; even the comparisons on his website ("Strains of The Flaming Lips, Neil Young, Modest Mouse and Beck") are grasping at straws (not to mention being a tad misleading) in an attempt to give those new to his music some sort of idea as to what to expect. So rather than trying to pinpoint some "recommended if you like"-style list, let me just say this: Infiniheart is a stunning achievement that perfectly showcases VanGaalen’s many talents—-singer, lyricist, songwriter, producer and arranger—and though its epic length might be off-putting at first, it won’t take many listens before you’re clamouring for even more.