Chad VanGaalen is a family man, but artistically seems to be haunted by inner demons. He has two bands with his kids. A hardcore band called Crocodile Teeth & The Snugglers and a techno band called Banana Bread. How awesome is that? But if you watch his self-animated videos and listen to the lyrics of songs like "Molten Light" ("As she watched their bodies burn, she whispered, 'I found you and I killed you'") you might think, "holy hell I hope this guy never procreates and raises demon spawn." But inner troubles can create great art, and they have for all of history in all creative fields. Van Gogh immediately comes to mind. Sylvia Plath. Ernest Hemingway. Syd Barrett. Brian Wilson. My current obsession Daniel Johnston. The list goes on and on. The artistic process can help you express what you couldn't/wouldn't say in a normal conversation, and can get some of those demons out. Maybe VanGaalen is completely at peace and just loves to create fiction of an ultra-dark and trippy-as-hell nature. I'm just hypothesizing here. Maybe he's just has an odd sense of humor, after all he does tweet pictures of his "piss drawings" in the snow.
The first lines uttered on Shrink Dust are, "Cut off both my hands / And threw them in the sand / Watched them swim away from me / Like a pair of bloody crabs." Weird shit. Awesome weird shit. The arrangements VanGaalen dreams up are just as bizarre, but work somehow. Finger-picked acoustic guitar. Clarinet. Random synth arpeggios. Pedal steel. All mixed, witch's-brew style, into this opening track. My introduction to VanGaalen was his 2008 masterpiece Soft Airplane. On that album, it was anything goes instrumentally. I was in love. But I wrote on my review of 2010's Diaper Island that it was a disappointment by going to traditional "rock band" (as well as some more straightforward folk) arrangements. Never fear, Shrink Dust brings the weirdness back hard.
The songwriter calls this a "country record," but c'mon; this guy's a goddamn kook. Only in his warped and genius mind could this be country music. Or I dunno, I've never been to the outskirts of Calgary; maybe this is what the "country" is like out there–terrifying and trippy, full of weird creatures. I think he dubbed it such because there is quite a bit of pedal steel here--an instrument he picked up and learned over the past year--but when it's used, it is reverbed big time, and used in a way that is more like a ghost's wail than a Hank Williams homage. This is psych-country. "Hangman's Son" is the most traditionally country, and VanGaalen's slide work is competent enough, adding more texture than countermelody. It works well with this lazy acoustic strumming, harmonica and his typical vocal warbling, not terribly far off from an old-school country yodeler like Jimmie Rodgers. "Weigh My Sins" is stripped back to acoustic and lap steel, so that could be construed as country I suppose, though there is nothing about his pick up truck or favorite bar in the song.
This album is much more interesting and engaging than Diaper, but just like with that album, the dancey, synth-heavy songs like Airplane's "TMNT Mask" are absent. Those tracks took me by surprise when I first got into the eclectic writer, but I grew to love them and I miss their random appearances. There are still rockers here, but sparingly. "Leaning on the Bells" is a big boomer and reminiscent of Diaper Island or "Barefeet on Wet Griptape" from Airplane but songs like these hit harder than on that last album because they're tucked amongst low-key acoustic jams and his clanky junkyard numbers. "Monster" shuffles in 3/4 at a medium pace and has one of the most immediately singable hooks found here--not a common trait in the bizarre nature of VanGaalen's lyrical style. "All Will Combine" is the biggest head-nodder of the track list, with a repetitive bass groove and tasty electric piano that, funny enough, isn't far off from Pharrell Williams' in that "Happy" song (a great song, in my opinion).
"Frozen Paradise" is one of the "prettiest" of the set, with "pretty" in quotes because, well, Chad's version of pretty is one that your mom surely wouldn't agree with you on. Synth bubbles gurgle under reverbed clean electric chords. Following is a gritty electric line, hip hop-esque drum pattern, and the quirky singer talking about getting high and lines about "humanoids" and "our rotting little brains". "Weird Love" is strangely pleasant, starting with some grating cellos but opening up into a light swaggering beat and ambient keys and flute (or recorder?).
To make a long story short, I really dig Shrink Dust, and I'm really glad I do after not spinning Diaper Island very much after I concluded that review. This one will be my soundtrack to make beautiful summer landscapes seem darker…. in a beautiful dark way. Chad would understand what I mean.