2008’s Soft Airplane was my introduction to Calgary’s Chad VanGaalen, and I quickly connected with it. I loved its eclectic nature, running the gamut from creepy folk to synth-powered dance to gritty guitar-driven rock, all tied together with his quivering vocals. I also loved the kitchen sink approach, with VanGaalen almost single-handedly layering everything from clarinet to accordion to banjo and synths over more typical instrumentation, allowing each track to grow into its own beast.
So you can imagine my initial disappointment when I discovered that Diaper Island, his fourth album, is a straight-up rock record. Perhaps VanGaalen is scratching his experimental itch with Black Mold, his instrumental, electronic-focused project, but it still came as a surprise to see him so focused on boring ol’ electric guitar.
But is consistency a bad thing? Or a musical concept? Not inherently, but the bottom line is the songs need to be good. Overall, the album is in the vein of “Bare Feet on Wet Griptape” from Airplane, with songs steeped in Sonic Youth-style guitar tones and strange chords, dissonant rock influenced by music the songwriter grew up on. “By Design” plows through its runtime with two-handed hi-hat and an incessant ping-ponging riff, and “Burning Photographs” starts off rockin’ then breaks down to atypical chords and arpeggios.
We get a pinch of other instruments throughout Diaper Island. “Wandering Spirits” gives us a bit of clarinet and synth in the bridge; “Freedom for a Policeman” features some more synth bleeps; and “No Panic/No Heat” has a tasteful string arrangement. “Heavy Stones”, a rare peaceful tune, would have fit right in on Airplane but seems downright out of place here with vibraphone, accordion and harmonica.
Mortality was a lyrical touchstone of Airplane, but that gets dialed back as VanGaalen takes on relationships on a good majority of these songs. “Sara”, about his wife, is the centerpiece of the album and the simplest track. It’s tender, but not sappy, as his self-harmonizing vocals drift above the building strums of the chorus. Only he could write a love song with a line like: ”Will you drag me into the heart of a boiling sea?” There are a couple odd lyrical twists here, like on the aforementioned “Freedom for a Policeman”, which plays like a teenage punk anthem: ”All your lights are beautiful / As you’re bashing in my skull / And my stolen bicycle / Policeman,” then breaking down to a the hippie mantra, ”Flowers blowing in the wind for you.” Then there’s the closer “Shave My Pussy”, which still catches me off-guard, even though I know he’s no lyrical prude. It’s a striking account of someone desperate for love and acceptance and the things she’s willing to do to attain it, but the delivery, over sparse guitar, is shocking.
While I enjoy every song on the album, I keep thinking there is no single track as captivating as “Willow Tree” or “Molten Light”, or as downright catchy as “TMNT Mask” on this album. If you look at the pacing, Diaper Island starts super mellow, with “Do Not Fear” and “Peace on the Rise”, tracks that are good but probably should be mid-album breaks rather than kicking things off. Down-tempo chill-out songs dominate the tracklisting, and on the rockers the louder instrumentation tends to drown out the lyrics, one of his strengths. I can relate to VanGaalen, forcing restrictions upon himself after years of anything-goes. It’s a test to his songwriting ability, and while I feel he succeeded to a degree—it’s a solid album—I also feel there is something missing and it’s not just the instruments.