Either Pluto (its planethood status no longer saved by technical reprieve) and its three new brothers were mystically aligned, or there must be some other unexplained phenomenon surrounding August 22nd. Like the urban myth that celebrity deaths come in threes, so it appears do great albums by gifted singer / songwriters. (Sadly, the great Bruno Kirby just passed, which means that Billy Crystal and Daniel Stern are pretty much hoping there’s no real curse on Curly’s gold). Both Eric Bachmann and M. Ward had stellar albums being released on the date, two solid consistent albums with a heavy heart. Well, make way for wacky cousin Chad as his sophomore release Skelliconnection could well steal their spotlights with a jubilant jumble of songs that are so diverse, it’s hard to believe they’re from the same record. Chad VanGaalen went from busking in the streets of Calgary and writing literally hundreds of songs to finding his first release being reissued by the great Sub Pop. Infiniheart (what’s his deal with hybridizing words anyway?) won over many critics and fans of lo-fi earnestness everywhere and he garnered comparisons to the likes of countryman Neil Young, Daniel Johnston and bevy of Sub Pop alums including Iron & Wine and the Shins. Skelliconnection only ups the ante.
“Flower Gardens” nearly explodes off of the disc with runaway energy, sounding like some magnificent early Police stuff. “Burn 2 Ash” is one of the songs of the year, frenetic and unrestrained, with some of the best lyrics on the album including, “I would hope for true love / not a pair of handcuffs.” The last thirty seconds with its unconventional instrumentation (including a saw-like violin) merely cement its greatness. “Gubbbish” takes VanGaalen’s two differently pitched vocal tracks and sets them amid a Velvet Underground meets Star Wars universe. Amidst some of these early album gems are a few tracks that clock in at under two minutes and one under thirty seconds. One of the best compliments that can be paid to Mr. VanGaalen is that these shorter tracks should never be considered throwaways. The cacophonous noise created by drums and piano in “Dandrufff” reminds me of some of Sufjan Stevens’ instrumental asides on his state albums and should not be overlooked.
That gives way to the second half of the album which starts with the Devendra Banhart-esque “Wing Finger,” a banjo plucking warbling folkie, not a Weird Al food related parody of a Nine Inch Nails song. “See-Thru-Skin” is one of my favorites from the album, resembling one of Elliott Smith’s later tracks, even in its lyrical content, such as “beauty lies and so does everyone else, just like you.” “Wind Driving Dogs” and “Mini T.V.s” earn VanGaalen the Neil Young comparisons on this particular album. His voice pines and yearns like Young’s over organ, guitar and harmonica as he sings about the title characters eating up the coastline in the former and then repeating the haunting phrase, “they don’t love you” in the latter. “Graveyard” is a slow loping number that is as equal parts Built to Spill as it is Neutral Milk Hotel. “Dead Ends” gets as close to Arcade Fire as any band I’ve heard yet, and this is one guy! “Sing Me 2 Sleep” shares a similar line with a Smiths song, but is more of a mid-era Elliott Smith tune, resonating with deep cellos and low end acoustic guitar picks. Followed only by another under half a minute track, it’s one hell of a way to finish an album.
While the tone and structure of each song is as diverse as the comparisons throughout this review, it is all genuinely Chad VanGaalen. His incredible voice can pull off any kind of song, whether the melodramatic swells of “Dead Ends,” the Young-ian tendencies of “Wind Driving Dogs” or the intimacy of “Sing Me 2 Sleep.” These are the signs of an artist not afraid of his own voice, or afraid to let it roam amongst experimental fields of music. I suppose writing hundreds of songs and singing in front of street walking strangers everyday can give you that kind of courage, but there’s something more to VanGaalen. The reason I may not be able to put a finger on that extra quality is most likely what makes him one of a kind. Maybe it’s in the extra `a.’