Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the indie singer-songwriter. Yeah, you know the type: plaintive, high-pitched vocals, unorthodox guitar chords. Probably all recorded on a four-track in the artist’s own bedroom. Let’s toss in a quirky album cover, too, with hand-drawn artwork and typeface just to seal the deal. Think Slanted and Enchanted, or the promo art for that Thumbsucker movie. Put it all together and it’s the stuff the Myspace set have wet dreams over, whether they admit it or not.
So good news for Chad VanGaalen: he is, and has, all of these things. But there’s some good news for us, too: he also has more. More depth, more range, more of a taste for the bizarre. Infiniheart, VanGaalen’s collection of some ten years’ worth of home recordings, is a delightful little revelation – one of those records you run into by chance, listen to on a whim, and when it’s finished playing you wonder how someone this talented has managed to stay under the radar for so long.
Of course it undoubtedly helps that this is far from VanGaalen’s “debut,” even if it is his first proper release. This guy’s a seasoned songwriting pro, the author of some several hundred songs of which only sixteen were cherry-picked for Infiniheart; with that kind of an ouvre to draw from, it would be difficult to put together a record that wasn’t surprisingly eclectic. As it stands, however, VanGaalen’s sheer variety is worth applauding: from the bracing indie-rock blood-rush “Clinically Dead” to the surreal Bright Eyes-esque country-folk of “After the Afterlife” and the paranoid sexual anxiety fantasy “Kill me in my sleep”…and that’s just the first three tracks. Elsewhere, underwater electronic vistas bubble to the fore in songs like “JC’s Head on the Cross,” while the woozy backwards strings of “1000 Pound Eyelids” recall a considerably lower-budget take on Sgt. Pepper. It all adds up to a first-album experience that is truly rare: Infiniheart burgeons with promise, yes, but it also excites with the ambition and originality of this new voice’s here and now.
Sure, there are touchstone influences beyond the one or two I’ve already named. VanGaalen’s apparent death obsession, not to mention his Canadian roots, puts him in good company with the Arcade Fire; while his fragile voice, wreathed in analogue synths, makes the record an occasional dead ringer for a heretofore undiscovered Wayne Coyne solo album. But there’s more to Chad VanGaalen than the sum of his influences: songs like “Blood Machine,” with science-fiction lyrics worthy of Man Who Sold the World-era Bowie but a melancholy soul that’s all its own, display a peculiar and morbid flair for storytelling, tempered with a deep-seated sadness that’s hard to shake. Sunday morning music for Twilight Zone addicts? Maybe. But also the product of a particularly fertile mind, and a release that will make a dozen more of those “quirky” indie singer-songwriter discs worth putting up with. There’s a new boy in town, and he’s finally out of the bedroom. Now sit back and watch Chad VanGaalen blossom.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins
This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.