Chad VanGaalen

Soft Airplane

(Flemish Eye/Sub Pop; 2008)

By Alan Baban | 6 October 2008

Do not for a split instant think this boy Chad is here on some labelled errand-work. Soft Airplane is his first Great Album Proper—as broadly mapped and exciting as the older stuff, but hatching now into a more evolved and interesting take on what a mobucks Chad VanGaalen studio album could sound like, and why this guy needs to get out of the fucking basement already.

Not that it lacks in his trademark popular experiments, but that they are now being totaled into something linear brings a confidence to Soft Airplane that his previous material at times struggled to suggest. There’s a pan-everything self-awareness here that plays up tidelike: check the opening fake of a tap-in that gets “Willow Tree” going, for instance, or the way “Old Man + The Sea” unloads its emotional heft, pretty hilariously, into a conceited rip of “Tainted Love.” This record takes no small degree of pleasure in sizing itself up, and a cursory listen plants that self as the logical successor to his two previous brilliant and criminally sourced sorta-statements. Airplane, if not something entirely different, is at least something a whole lot frickin’ more: as if in weighing up the basic toughness of his sound, Chad had hit upon the range that makes it so excitingly illusive and then decided to extrapolate abstract-like into whatever major and epically amusing territory the trail would take him.

He has tightened his sound to the extent that it’s easy to overlook just how resourceful and morosely inventive this material can get. Music to him is not so much repository as a big five-fingered reference point, and the real joy is in hearing him cadge sound-off styles into something visionary and remarkably coherent. This is what he’s always done, but Soft Airplane works to highlight the breaking point of this sound: the point at which this shit becomes something more than artfully glossed but still really hummable melodies. This whole album is like receiving a spirited high-five from Chad, who’s presumably already mastered said high-five and sampled it into whatever crazy audio-pictoral gunge drop we get next.

There’s a poignant ease to these melodies, a sense of grace that taps straight into the moldy heritage of this thing we call modern indie rock; that, pretty much, legitimizes its startling onus through the strange and welcoming precepts we often catch in its sound. The big bulk of that sound has to date been enormously vital, often moving: so much of Chad’s material comes at you in the moment, because you sort of suspect it just happened to be written that way. Take, for instance, the slantwise drift that was Infiniheart’s “Chronograph 1.” Everything about the song—its distant gutter pace, the sleepwalking samples, a melody that threatens to flatline—is experience rendered absolute: life into myth and creation. Soft Airplane is, to date, the aesthetic highpoint of that approach. VanGaalen is simply operating at a different, intoxicating level. His reach continues to amaze and expand. His creativity, we get, is still beautifully shameless.

For the most part this sounds like a cliché exploded: a deserved summation or a high-wire launch-pad for something more ambitious down the line. For now, it’s just uncommonly fun to hear Chad work through this material, which, again: arc-tight but really all-over-the-map in terms of the phrases he’s pulling. “Inside the Molecules” could work as a paisley Neil Young, while Sonic Youth get direct nods on “Bare Feet on Wet Griptape” and the seawash bass of “Poisonous Heads.” “Rabid Bits of Time” is every bit the entirely immolating ballad you wanted it to be; when its bottom caves out and you’re left with a funhouse spread of tingly guitars, the melody braves on in perfect little miniatures. Then there’s song of the year candidate “TMNT Mask.” It’s like he took “Ambulance Blues”—the last, best song off On the Beach (1974)—and retooled it as a literally we are on the fucking beach high-house Balearic number. “Phantom Anthills” brings an almost amorphous inevitability to its wish-washing glitch-hop. Which is to say, really, that at no point does he write a good song to later codify on a beat. On “Anthills,” especially, it’s like VanGaalen’s pried into a crevasse where he gets at being profoundly unadventurous and trailblazing all at once. Here the gross surface is the ultimate revelation, and vice-versa.

For all that we merit in the pureness of a sound hitched on wayward trails of influence, it’s important to note that Chad VanGaalen is ultimately not, say, the Strokes. We’re hearing him more as an arranger of sound, something “Frozen Energon” makes clear with its post-auricular sheet metal apocalypse—a sound which, at high volume and in context of his rabid peregrinations, gets weirdly calming and embawlsome. One might argue (correctly) that even here, at the absolute nexus of weird noisy shit, Soft Airplane fails to play at something new, or get to that frontier point where we can start on phrases like “startlingly original” or “impressive.” To be clear, this isn’t The Masterpiece, nor is it just Infiniheart Mk.3. The record works as final restoration in that it gives us the distinct idea that dude still has places to go—it may be, for all that, just some soaring conceit we get prior to whatever journeyman shit is about to come next. What is clear, though, is that this is a finely drawn, funny, animated, and gumdrop authentic record, never less than fascinating in its endless and disburdening involutions.