As summer comes to a close and autumn is upon is, the need for an instant hook and a catchy chorus begins to wane. Changes in weather and mood can bring about a change in musical tastes as well, at least in the short run. Weezer, Fountains of Wayne, The Cars and Cheap Trick will all make their way out again, eventually, but in the meantime, only more intimate and intricate songcraft will do. This is when the Phil Elverums, the Elliott Smiths, the Damon Goughs and Joe Pernices strive. Calgary native Chad VanGaalen (don’t confuse it with Van Halen) is one such songwriter, conducting a home-recorded symphony of melancholy, yet accessible pop tunes that should provide the musical warmth needed for the months ahead.
Fuzzy and endearing, VanGaalen’s lo-fi pop tunes are instantly likeable, if not necessarily instantly memorable. But like any album similar in sound, with time, VanGaalen’s debut Infiniheart grows on the listener with ease. Each song reveals its subtle charms and quaint details. The song that is likely to resonate with first time listeners is “Clinically Dead,” a fuzzy pop tune with a catchy chorus you can sing along to, despite some lyrics about a brain dead person being connected to respirators. Yet, being the first song on the album, it has the advantage, which was probably brilliant planning — if they like the first song, surely listeners will stick around for more.
“After the Afterlife” is a slower, breezier but no less accessible song, despite not being an obvious pop hit. Though, honestly, there aren’t many, if any, on here. “Kill Me in My Sleep” features some fine drum programming coupled with a pretty, albeit laid back melody. In the latter half of the song, it seems to fade out into white noise and samples, which drags on a little longer than it needs to, but works alright as added texture. “J.C.’s Head on the Cross,” meanwhile, picks up the pace. A strange, slightly messy instrumental, it works as an interesting transition between more conventional songs.
The chorus of “Blood Machine” is a truly transcendent moment, as VanGaalen’s voice soars with some angelic backing samples. As he sings “Help us escape from the blood machine,” he sounds desperate, almost defeated, but with just a slight twinge of hope. Moments such as these make an album like Infiniheart so captivating. They’re just sporadic enough not to seem overdone. And they’re offset by the subtler or less intense moments, as to create more of a balance, which largely succeeds on the whole.
As the album was originally released in VanGaalen’s homeland of Canada last year, Sub Pop’s reissue of the album is slightly different. Rather than expand the already lengthy album, the Seattle indie actually cut three songs, two of which had actually been written off as hindrances to the overall sound in Cokemachineglow’s review in March of 2004. Maybe VanGaalen took their advice. Maybe he didn’t. I can say that the edit was a wise one, as the finished product is a subtly captivating one and a beautiful farewell to the summer.
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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.