ALBUM O’WEEK: Chad VanGaalen – Diaper Island
Published on June 17th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
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Calgary singer-songwriter Chad VanGaalen is one of the most quietly and delightfully eccentric figures on the modern psych-pop landscape. Fourth album Diaper Island seems to have been titled in part as a self-deprecating nod towards the reams of ‘garbage’ that he attests to have shovelled up for consideration – the record’s twelve tracks were supposedly culled from a stockpile of one hundred-odd – but, on the strength of this material, it would appear that VanGaalen is as full of shit as the titular diaper.
There isn’t even the faintest whiff of garbage about this solid gold collection of Nuggets-worthy meditations. Reports of a retreat back into lo-fi are somewhat misleading: sure, Diaper Island hasn’t been ironed out into submission by the sheen of modern rock production but it exists in the same velvety smoke-haze as such similarly timeless recent records as The Clientele’s Strange Geometry and The Shins’ Oh, Inverted World.
Sporadic moments of discordant, Sonic Youth-esque guitars notwithstanding, it is Oh, Inverted World which leaps most prominently to Rocksucker’s mind as an obvious reference point: similarly dancing melodies, similarly playful/rueful/incomprehensible lyrics, similarly reverb-drenched strumming and surf-pop rhythms. The minor key, whistle-topped intro to ‘Sara’ – a blissed-out paean to his spouse – even sounds like The Shins’ ‘New Slang’.
The album gets underway with the mysteriously creeping ‘Do Not Fear’, which ascends from murky waters to sky-scraping melody and back again, followed by single ‘Peace on the Rise’ which showcases the compelling synergy between VanGaalen’s creamily textured vocals and the gently trotting rhythm section underneath them. It’s utterly brilliant and, along with galloping third track ‘Burning Photographs’, it establishes through abstract yet attractive instrumental sections that Diaper Island intends to belie its title and take you for a walk around psychedelic mind gardens the likes of which you may not even have known existed.
‘Heavy Stones’ and ‘Sara’ bring the album into a beautiful, folky lull – the latter’s chorus line “Sara, wake me up when you’re home” in particular emphasising the dreamlike nature of these deceptively intricate recordings – before the rocking urgency of ‘Replace Me’, early-Pavement-with-lighters-in-the-air stomp of ‘Blonde Hash’ and fuzzy-menace-interspersed-with-hallucinatory-splendour of ‘Freedom for a Policeman’ blow the show wide open. It’s perhaps the most arresting album midsection you’ll hear all year, and that’s not just a lame pun ‘Policeman’.
Proceedings then get rather wonky with the trashily cacophonous ‘Can You Believe It!?’ (“…It made me piss myself” – just as well Chad’s on Diaper Island, eh?) before the Neil Young lament of ‘Wandering Spirits’ melts into a clarinet-led sound collage which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The Boo Radleys’ lost classic Giant Steps. All of a sudden, what began sounding the most traditional track on the album becomes perhaps its most tripped-out.
Penultimate number ‘No Panic/No Heat’ introduces itself as a doleful country trot in the same vein as ‘Heavy Stones’ before it, not quite preparing you for the at once understated and gobsmacking gorgeousness of its chorus refrain: “How long have you been running with feet made of stone?” What a way to bow out, not least as it segues into the echo-y plinking of closer ‘Shave My Pussy’, which may seem like an Adam Green song title but is in fact a brief study of feminine insecurity and yearning, a Velvet Underground-esque nursery rhyme melody perfectly complementing the subtle air of despondency.
Diaper Island is ideally placed to be a nocturnal summer soundtrack, a quirkily nostalgic odyssey of smoky reverie perfect for flinging on after lying about in the sun with a chilled bottle or three of festival-strength cider. Where VanGaalen turns next remains to be seen – perhaps he’ll unleash those ninety-odd outtakes on us in various clumps, or release another album of intensely peculiar instrumentals under his Black Mold alias – but he’s raised the bar sufficiently highly to command our rabid anticipation.
Rocksucker says: Four and a Half Quails out of Five!
If you like Diaper Island, try: Oh, Inverted World by The Shins, Strange Geometry by The Clientele, Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth, Fun Trick Noisemaker by The Apples in Stereo, Innerspeaker by Tame Impala, Wowee Zowee by Pavement and Giant Steps by The Boo Radleys.
Diaper Island is out now on For more information, please visit myspace.com/chadvangaalen