Soft Airplane – Chad VanGaalen

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The name Chad VanGaalen first grazed my radar in 2006 when I was listening to a Top Songs of the Year List by Edmonton rap sensation Cadence Weapon. It is the kind of name you remember for some cognitive, mnemonic reason. The name appeared again when I was interviewing Shout Out Out Out Out; VanGaalen did the album artwork for their self-titled debut.

As VanGaalen’s name continued to intermittently enter my life for the past two years, including executive production for the tantalizing Women record this year, I became increasing curious of his infamy. This curiosity led me to Soft Airplane, one of the best pop records of 2008. Actually I have no clue if this is the best pop record of the year. I have practically divorced myself from the genre these past nine months. I make this claim of “best of the year” because it’s the album that convinced me to cut pop some slack. VanGaalen proves pop can still do great, surprising things.

While I have yet to dig back to VanGaalen’s previous solo efforts, Infiniheart (2005) and Skelliconnection (2006), my initial befuddlement from Soft Airplane is the hi-fi production. VanGaalen is notorious for archaic recording methods, often mutilating the sound through tape decks and ghetto blasters. Soft Airplane is crisp, which is surprising considering VanGaalen stuck with his trusty JVC ghetto blaster and tape machine. Opener “Willow Tree” is a dainty folk tune restrained to the gentle pluck of a banjo against VanGaalen’s shaky vocals.

The allure of Soft Airplane is not entirely owed to its crisp sound; VanGaalen radiates charm. His voice is modest when he delivers charismatic couplets like “my eyes aren’t working right now, but I’m going to see my baby any day.” VanGaalen embodies a playfulness that hints of psychedelia, but not the “I wrote this as I was peaking” kind of trip music. His appeal recalls the unadulterated personification of childhood that Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips have mastered–that pleasant flashback that brings out the kid in you. As he laments by the river on “TMNT Mask”, you get the feeling VanGaalen sees a funny world, a world enlivened in animation without the aid of tabs. Even in his most defeatist moments when VanGaalen sings of grim times riddled in terror (“Molten Light” and “Old Man + The Sea”), it never hints of force. VanGaalen makes it work, because not every flashback leads to poppies; sometimes it's skeletons and closets.

As I read VanGaalen’s press kit, a lot of names were strewn about: Dan Bejar of Destroyer, The Flaming Lips, Neil Young, and Thurston Moore. The appeal of Soft Airplane is that VanGaalen is a careful balance of all these artists. He is a celebration of all of them at their best at once, on one pop record.