For a few years now, Chad VanGaalen has been churning out folk rock steeped in home-recording techniques and dark, death-obsessed lyrics. But that doesn’t mean that VanGaalen’s albums are difficult, abrasive affairs on the order of early Smog albums — also home-recorded and also lyrically dark. VanGaalen’s bright, layered sound belies its bedroom origins as much as his earnest, wounded vocals contradict his morbid lyrics. He can make a lyric like “When I die, I’ll hang my head beside the willow tree / When I’m dead is when I’ll be free,” from Soft Airplane’s “Willow Tree,” brim with all the hopefulness of a Sunday morning spiritual.
Since Soft Airplane came out in 2008, VanGaalen has worked with Canadian noise-rockers Women — producing both of the group’s albums in his basement studio. While Women’s excellent amalgamation of ’60s pop and ’90s fuzz surely benefited from VanGaalen’s technical expertise, the band lacked his tenderness. On new album Diaper Island, it seems that some of Women’s pyrotechnics have rubbed off on VanGaalen, and it’s not clear whether this is an encouraging development. Diaper Island turns out to be a transitional record for VanGaalen, in which he keeps one foot planted in the delicate world of his earlier albums while using the other to explore more fractured, uncomfortable territories.
Diaper Island’s first single, “Sara,” is a classic VanGaalen ballad and the most accessible song on the album. Beginning with a whistled melody and acoustic strumming, the song shows how stark, simple, and powerful VanGaalen can be. The first half of Diaper Island follows the same script: stirring singing, intricate riffs, a typical VanGaalen hive of scarred beauty. But on “Replace Me,” the exact midpoint of the record, something changes. The distortion that’s always been at the margins of VanGaalen’s sound comes to the forefront. The vocals get more desperate, the percussion goes from floor tapping to glass breaking. For four songs, peaking with the wild “Can You Believe It,” in which his voice is nearly drowned out by an off-kilter combo of shrieking guitar and rattling drums, we hear Chad VanGaalen’s studied control coming apart at the seams.
It’s kind of thrilling to hear VanGaalen throwing himself into the abyss, even he’s if the uncomfortable in the role. But he actually seems rather pedestrian as a noise rocker. These days, everybody wants to sound like Pavement. What VanGaalen had going for him was the fact that he could take a saturated genre – whispery folk-rock – and make it fresh, with evocative, out-there lyrics and kitchen-sink production effects. For much of Diaper Island, he hits his sweet spot of raw indie folk-rock, but for others he seems to be bending his personality to fit the demands of guitar noise, instead of the other way around.