Chad VanGaalen, Calgary’s most endearingly eccentric lo-fi singer-songwriter, has built up a satisfying body of work in the past decade, the bulk of it in the form of style-shifting, fuzzy pop records on Sub Pop and his own imprint, Flemish Eye. He can be hushed and distant, arty and obscure, but the man knows his way around a good hook, the best evidence of which can be heard on “Clinically Dead” from 2004’s Infiniheart, or “Flower Gardens,” the punk rock charged leadoff track from 2006’s Skelliconnection. Last year, however, VanGaalen spent some of his time recording Women’s outstanding second (and god forbid, final) album, Public Strain, the aesthetic of which spills over into his quieter, jangling new art-pop effort, Diaper Island.
Much to the contrary of “Clinically Dead” or “Flower Gardens,” Diaper Island‘s leadoff track “Do Not Fear” is a humbler, slower burning entry point for the album, a pretty and intriguing start that continues with the tempered, delicately paced “Peace on the Rise.” But VanGaalen has a punk rock streak within him that can’t always be easily quelled, and it arises with undeniable vigor on the upbeat standout “Burning Photographs.” By and large, however, this is an album of chilled-out, Velvet Underground style ballads and Galaxie 500-ish late night hymns, and quite gorgeous ones at that, such as the twinkling “Heavy Stones,” or the folky, whistling heavy “Sara.” They’re delicate and stark compositions, built of simple means but rich in melody and warmth.
The less prominent placement of the harder rocking tracks on Diaper Island merely allows for those that do appear to stand out even more, and seem to come packaged in oddly placed clusters, with a propulsive highlight like “Replace Me” burning brightly and noisily alongside garage rockers “Blonde Hash” and “Freedom for a Policeman.” But the most impressive tracks are often those in which VanGaalen settles into a softer and more somber mood, such as the affecting gospel dirge “Wandering Spirits.” And in spite of its title, “Shave My Pussy” is one of the album’s most oddly beautiful tracks. Chad VanGaalen remains one of the weirdest singer-songwriters in Canada, and for that matter one of the most staunchly lo-fi, but there’s no denying his songwriting ability, which hasn’t waned a bit on Diaper Island.
Stream: Chad VanGaalen – “Sara”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.