Label: Sub Pop
Soft Airplane (2008) seemed to be the album that Calgary native Chad VanGaalen had been building towards since the release of his debut Infiniheart, released just three years earlier. It toned down the schizophrenic nature of his earlier work and presented a muddled, but focused approach to creating pop melodies out of strange arrangements. Well, Diaper Island replaces that album on the mantle in every way, shape and form. With its grungy guitars and lo-fi production, it’s not just his finest artistic achievement to date; it’s also one of the best albums of the year.
Last year, VanGaalen produced Public Strain, an album of drone rock from fellow Calgary band Women. The hazy guitar chords and blown-out vocals of that record seem to inform the stylistic change on Diaper Island. The electronic experiments of previous records are mostly absent, as VanGaalen ushers in a whole lot of noisy guitars and steamrolling percussion. For the most part, this is a record that could easily fit in with the resurgence of garage rock in the late ’90s and early aughts, when bands such as the Hives and the White Stripes were making albums equally influenced by indie forefathers Guided By Voices and Pavement. He blazes a trail with balls-out rockers like “Burning Photographs” and “Replace Me,” which employ fuzzy bass lines and riff-heavy verses in a manic, blistering fashion. The Beck-tinged “Can You Believe It!?” gravitates between an overdriven, power chord chorus and a laidback verse delivery with splashes of electronic blips throughout. This contrast of tones is not confined to that one track though. In fact, it is the effortless nature of fluctuation between the noisy, drone-heavy tracks and the gentle lamentations that makes Diaper Island such a cohesive and consistently surprising record.
Though the chunky guitar tone suggests an aggression mostly unheard from VanGaalen up until this point, he knows how to balance it out with moments of subtlety. “Heavy Stones” is anchored by a mellow, beachy groove that could soundtrack just about any summer evening spent lakeside. “No Panic/No Heat,” with its fingerpicked guitars and string section, revels in a sense of sedation; as he states, “I’ll be taking my sweet time/ Rolling softly along the meadow/ Dragging my broken pieces behind me.” VanGaalen adjusts his vocal delivery appropriately for each set of songs, carving out the listener’s own emotive responses with precision. When he isn’t straining his vocal cords on the heavy and addictive “Blonde Hash,” he’s self-harmonizing his warbling, vulnerable coo on album standout and ode to his wife and muse, “Sara.” It’s this sonic and vocal malleability that allows the record to go by in a flash, the constantly shifting framework keeping every track fresh.
The lyric sheet for Diaper Island is as agile as the music it accompanies; just as the music fluctuates between aggressive and meditative, so does the lyrical subject matter. On “Replace Me,” he tackles existential angst with a manic fervor, shouting, “You sit and wonder/ If you’re special by design,” until it’s interrupted by an appropriately piercing, dissonant guitar solo. In contrast, “Peace on the Rise” is more interested in being pensive and atmospheric, as gentle harmonies surround folk-tinged lyrics such as, “We can sit around this fire/ And let our spirits fly on out/ Watch it as the flame gets higher/ I can see it in your eyes/ Peace was on the rise/ Slip into the same dream every night.” All of this lyrical and sonic malleability comes full circle on the barebones, foulmouthed closer “Shave My Pussy.” A haunting, vulnerable ode to prescribed ideals of beauty, it’s a jarring finish to the ruckus that preceded it, made all the more powerful due to its stripped-down elements.
In many ways, Diaper Island has come out of left field. There isn’t much in VanGaalen’s discography-except the previously mentioned Women album-to suggest that the garage rock vehemence of this record was hiding behind all the off kilter experiments. It’s the simplicity though that makes this record such an instant classic. It’s sweet and warm, but isn’t afraid to roll up its sleeves and take on the world at the same time.
by Kyle Fowle