Would you believe that in this day and age I was introduced to Calgary-based Chad VanGaalen through a good ol’ fashioned compilation? Yet, it was his appearance on 2007’s CBC Radio 3 Sessions: Vol. 3 that inspired me enough to check out his most recent full-length when it dropped. Since that compilation appearance was a live recording, there was the risk that a studio album would lose some of the charm found in that setting, but to my pleasant surprise, Soft Airplane translates all the warmth and soul of an intimate live show for what one might call a “headphone classic."
The softly plucked ‘Willow Tree” has Chad channelling Neil Young at his most vulnerable, with an almost child-like quivering voice. As the song progresses, it is fleshed out by accordion, vibraphone and softly brushed percussion and while all are present in the mix, the focus never strays away from Chad and his plucking, with the other elements filtering in and out to bolster the haunting theme of death with a strange kind of floating effervescence. What makes the song most creepy is the seamless connection he is able to make between life and death, where most people prefer to deal with the concepts as distinctly separate entities. He uses soft playful imagery such as sleeping all day and hanging clothes on the line with lighting his body on fire the kerosene. Perhaps in this we see the crux of what makes this album special -- the concept of a applying a qualifier like soft next to a powerful machine like an airplane suddenly makes a whole lot of sense in the context Mr. VanGaalen provides.
As the album progresses you never get the sense that Chad is merely going to play to his strengths, as he throws at least one surprise or twist into each song, making each sound or style into his strength whether it be spacey atmospherics or a foot-stomping rocker. This can be found in the strange clicking percussion used in the majority of “Cries of the Dead” or the breakdown of the creaking-found sounds and whistling on “Phantom Anthills.” The real beauty might be in the recording of the album itself, with acoustic and electric guitars, clarinets, reversed loops and synthesizers all sounding richly organic together. Although Chad played most of the instruments on the album, it never sounds incoherent or assembled. You could play the album on repeat and closer "Frozen Energon" would flow back into 'Willow Tree" without the two sounding at all alike.
I have no facts to go on but in the end I get that Soft Airplane might be Chad’s name for death itself, given all the direct references to it and tarnished images of innocence -- like the church in “Molten Light” and the decaying children’s costume in “TMNT Mask,” as well as the disturbing pre-school image on the cover. Either way, Soft Airplane is an incredibly intricate and entertaining listen -- one might call it edutainment -- that places Chad at the top of the singer-songwriters out there today.