Chad VanGaalen, Infiniheart

Chad VanGaalen, Infiniheart

People like Chad VanGaalen piss me off. Why? Well, the Calgary-based singer/songwriter/ artist/animator/genius/whatever irks me for a couple of reasons, the first of which is that, well, he makes it sound so easy. As a whole, Infiniheart sounds effortless, the breezy creation of a single summer’s afternoon spent in a bedroom studio (which makes sense, seeing as VanGaalen did in fact record it all in his bedroom). The music skips through the whole alphabet of styles, mining pretty much everything but heavy metal or rap — although the latter comes close with the instrumental “J.C.’s Head on the Cross,” where the heavy, distorted beats stay just this side of CEX or Techno Animal — and yet it all hangs together, a cohesive unit. “Kill Me In My Sleep” sounds like Death Cab For Cutie with its low-key electronic-sounding drums and high-pitched falsetto, while “Clinically Dead” marries the guitar roar of Silver Scooter with the artiness of VanGaalen’s fellow Canadians The Arcade Fire. Name a pop/rock band or musician and chances are good that there’s a hint of their presence somewhere on here (particularly if they’re kind of on the weird side of the spectrum).

In effect, it’s VanGaalen’s voice that holds it all together. He’s got a gorgeous, warbly, plaintive croon, a kissing cousin to the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, Neil Young, or Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek, although he shares the most stylistic similarity to the latter, particularly on the strange, bodily-fluid fixated “Blood Machine,” with comes off like Kozelek collaborating with Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel. Heck, even when the music occasionally lapses, the vocals pull things through beautifully. There’s a tender nakedness to it, very much like the music made by Coyne and Kozelek themselves, that makes it endearing as all hell. “After the Afterlife”‘s a prime example; it’s a gentle, shambling bit of countrified indie-pop, somewhat reminiscent of Okkervil River “side project” Shearwater or one of the Secretly Canadian stable of musicians, and VanGaalen’s voice floats tremblingly over a soaring melody and a folky swing.

Going back to the point, though, part of what I love about Infiniheart is that unworried ease. It’s like VanGaalen just threw it out there, not giving a damn what anybody thought or if anybody was even listening, and I can’t help but love that — I’ve got a lot more respect for somebody who does what they do just because it’s what they do, no audience required, than I do for someone who’s trying to please everybody every single time around. There’s a kind of purity to genuinely not caring, and going by the interviews I’ve read with Mr. VanGaalen, it certainly sounds like he really doesn’t give a damn. Apparently he’s as surprised as anybody that his music’s made it as far as it has, going from tapes he recorded in his bedroom between 2001 and 2003 (although the disc was just released; I have to wonder what he’s got going on right now, if this is merely the “old” stuff) to being the new pop wunderkind on mega-indie Sub Pop. He’s made the jump the way everybody wishes they could do it, pretty much by accident and sheer force of songwriting brilliance.

Unfortunately, the whole unplanned, unasked-for nature of this thing has another side, as well — that’s the second thing that bugs me about Infiniheart, and about VanGaalen in general. A lot of the songs don’t have a clearly-defined end, but rather just sputter or stumble to a close, collapsing in on themselves. Take the aforementioned “Kill Me In My Sleep,” for one — rather than fade out gracefully after the vocals and eletronic-sounding drums dissipate, the song continues on, plinking aimlessly for another minute or two before ending long after it should’ve. On the other hand, “Blood Machine” very nearly staggers to a finish with a bunch of misplaced Tom Waits-ish noises. It sounds like VanGaalen just recorded as much as he felt like doing, and then when he felt like the song needed to end, he just stopped. Which isn’t always bad, mind you, but after a while, it makes you question the motives of the musician in question. It’s the Guided by Voices problem, essentially: where do you draw the line between slacker genius and plain old half-assed laziness? Brilliant though some of VanGaalen’s songs certainly are — the overloaded pop of “Echo Train” rocks my world, to name one — some almost feel like the guy didn’t give enough of a crap to finish them properly.

I know that sounds harsh, and the criticism should be tempered by a big caveat in blinking red neon, going back to the first part: Infiniheart is an excellent album. I dig the melodies, I dig the voice, I dig the quirky lyrics — heck, I even dig VanGaalen’s creepy/cute album art. Barring a few missteps, like the faux-country of “I Miss You Like I Miss You” and the horn-inflected, practically somnolent “1000 Pound Eyelids,” the songs are pretty much classics, gems of pop-rock songwriting. When he’s on, he’s right on, like on the darkly rocking, Grifters-esque “Red Blood,” the catchy weirdness of “The Warp Zone/Hidden Bridge,” and the high plains dirge-blues of “Sunshine Snare Hits.”

Oh, and then there’s “Somewhere I Know There Is Nothing,” which sounds like Nick Drake if he’d never taken those final fatal pills but had gone on to front a Scottish space-pop band — it’s drifting and spacey, seemingly detached, but still nicely urgent. “Chronograph #1,” by contrast, drops straight back down to earth, with delicate guitar lines interplaying with VanGaalen’s flat vocal delivery and gentle finger snaps, coming off surprisingly like the Beta Band (or maybe even Underworld), and album closer “Traffic” strums and stomps confidently along, a fine cautionary note about (I think) waking up one morning in traffic and realizing that your life’s going nowhere.

My only hope is that now, with VanGaalen two years down the line from these recordings, Infiniheart is merely the shot across the bow of the music world, a prelude to the true magnum opus to come. Consider my fingers crossed.

(Sub Pop Records -- P.O. Box 20367, Seattle, WA. 98102; http://www.subpop.com/; Chad VanGaalen -- http://www.myspace.com/chadvangaalen)
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Saturday, October 1st, 2005. Filed under Reviews.

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