Songwriter continues to finely hone his unique, affecting DIY style
From Stevie Wonder and Todd Rundgren to Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, self-sufficiency in recording—being your own one-man band—has served as more than just a badge of honor. It's also a disarmingly simple way to maintain consistency over the course of multiple albums, if not a career. On Soft Airplane, bedroom/basement-recording aficionado Chad VanGaalen still plays nearly every instrument in the mix, as he did on previous LPs Infiniheart and Skelliconnection, but something's changed. Where earlier albums could seem scattershot, with tracks independently culled from hundreds of stockpiled songs, Soft Airplane is concise and fully-realized.
Here, the meandering, blippy stoner jams skillfully bleed into poignant sentiments—all in the same song. The amalgamation works, especially on one of the album's highlights, "Cries of the Dead," which balances a "neighbor beating his dog in the basement" with the memorable tableau: "You went to the mountains true and painted what you saw / You came back late and hid the painting underneath our couch / And I wasn't there when you made it / But I feel like I'm there when I'm lookin' at it."
It still moves, though, with a lyrical tendency toward the morbid and macabre and VanGaalen's warbly, wavering voice that hovers somewhere near fellow Canadian Geddy Lee's skyscrapingly-high register. In the drowsy, banjo-propelled "Willow Tree," VanGaalen politely requests a Viking-style shrug-off of his mortal coil: "You can take my body / put it in a boat / light it on fire / send it out to sea."
And speaking of VanGaalen's countrymen, the surprisingly sweet "Inside the Molecules" finds Mr. VanG nestling a physics-nerd love poem inside some crunchy, nourishing riffs that could make Neil Young crack a smile, even at his most cantankerous. Much like the basement, Soft Airplane
is a little scary (and dark and dank), yet filled with untold creative surprises and delights.