Tuesday, September 2, 2008
"No one knows where go when we're dead or when we're dreaming."
After powering through most of God Is Not Great on the plane yesterday, it's hard to immediately change gears and spend time questioning what happens after you die. That being said, when the questions come courtesy of the beautiful songs Chad VanGaalen wrote for Soft Airplane, the experience is a rewarding one. Chad has always written tales of death, murder and rage, but in a way that forces you to start asking the same questions and feeling the same emotions.
I read an interesting review of the new Okkervil River record on Rawkblog where Dave mentioned that "critics as musicians are failures, much more often than not; they know too much to fuck up, which is unfortunately a preventative measure to playing rock 'n' roll music." If that statement is true, the other side of the coin would indicate that only when a musical soul is secluded from the shouts and whispers of the critical public can true greatness or incredible failure occur. Such is the case for VanGaalen.
I hesitate to rely on the easy play of labeling him as a musical recluse riddled with insecurities when I talk about his songs, because that cheapen the success of this record. Even if it's only subconscious, those words force the reader to think the sounds were contrived by luck or simply good timing; the result of someone stumbling upon the combination of sounds without much thought and that couldn't be less true when it comes to VanGaalen.
He's obviously a unique man with social anxiety and an unquenchable thirst for creative expression and as a result Soft Airplane is incredibly spontaneous and challenging, but at the same time multiple listens show how well the record is thought out. Sound effects, textures and emotion are nestled into the folds and corners, and until you can listen to the complete song, you aren't really hearing Chad's visions.
The opener, Willow Tree, is more or less a banjo-driven tale, but in true VanGaalen fashion it is all questions about death and what to do when he dies. The simple banjo riff is ear grabbing, but it's the development of the track that helps it work. The tracks grows just like we do; from simple tasks of youth to a reflective adult who questions our all too short time on this earth. Layer after layer of horns, self harmonies, accordion, xylophones appear and retreat with perfect timing and the 3:13 song is as powerful as any I've heard this year. Chad is secure and strong and at the same time racked with fear.
And that is what makes Soft Airplane great.
VanGaalen can pen a straight-ahead rocker or an intimate, folky ballad but for the most part he's able to blend his inspirations and influences into a sound that is unique to him. Tracks are picked up by ramshackle percussion and drum machine electro driven beats - TMNT Mask is a fantastic collection of sonic explorations, but he can soften tracks about death, murder and revenge with well placed, double tracked vocals, harmonica and xylophones or break them apart with static explosions.
At the end of the day, Soft Airplane is probably the best record I've heard all year - from Canada or anywhere else - and should solidify VanGaalen as the musical talent his fans have long been been screaming to anyone that would listen. He's taking everything great about his back catalog and improving on it with every song.