Album Review: Chad VanGaalen – Diaper Island

[Sub Pop; 2011]

Returning to Diaper Island after months of absence is a welcome vacation. Chad VanGaalen belongs in my personal continuum of loved artists; every season, without question, at least one of his (now) four finely-crafted albums will revolve back into the foreground. Although this latest release serves as a well-honed singular statement, there’s nary a wrong turn to be found on VanGaalen’s previous full-length efforts: the lo-fi apiary on Infiniheart effectively domesticates his vast array of sound collages and clairvoyant folk, analog synapses blast electronic bursts between transmitting lofty ballads of Laputa-like cloud-cities and sinking ships on Skelliconnection, and Soft Airplane merged these eclectic soundscapes into a more accessible indie rock package. The latter also expanded upon his homespun instruments such as the calculated drum machine on “Cries of the Dead,” spotlighted in this recent video interview.

We also know this exceptional aural and visual artist has amassed a surplus of songs and brief experimental blips based on various interviews and reports. In 2009, under the Black Mold moniker, VanGaalen indulged his experimental side, wrapping modular synths around an array of instruments. Earlier this year, he also released the Your Tan Looks Supernatural EP to benefit relief efforts in Japan, which features at least one sharp tune in “Fossilized Eye.” Still, unlike artists like, say, Ryan Adams, there’s a sense he’s holding back to avoid oversaturation. Diaper Island is a focused effort, concerning itself with our rate of consumption. To Calgary Herald, VanGaalen regarded the title as a “metaphor for North American culture – taking turds and wrapping them up in time capsules and burying them.” I suspect Diaper Island resides in the same fictional archipelago as Plastic Beach. Either way you swing it, the metaphor is resonant, perhaps better than what Damon Albarn could muster, even if the imagery more often evokes the sticky incontinence of family life.

Before we resurface and scrub ourselves clean of our societal sludge discussion, it’s necessary to address “Shave My Pussy.” The narrator questions if what the title suggests is the solution to being loved and loving oneself. At its core is a moderately puerile joke, but amidst the simplistic ukulele frame and atmospheric vortex that emerges near the midway point, there’s a cultural assessment. Stephen Colbert often waxes on products aimed at women’s insecurities as with the recent talking vagina ad campaign by Summer’s Eve. This final track can be perceived as a comical ode to the problems we arrive at in the supermarket. Like VanGaalen suggests, many of us feel ugly and insecure upon facing our calorie intake and celebrity magazines.

All of this focus on the titles undercuts the heart that’s always abundant in VanGaalen’s work. When he sang “don’t be sad” in that warbling tone like he was shaking a slender cookie sheet on “The Warp Zone/Hidden Bridge,” he made it really fucking hard not to be sad. Is this musical reverse psychology? On songs like “Heavy Stones,” this gift remains intact as he imparts advice on dealing with death, accompanied by a remorseful guitar – “peaceful / and mourned by the passing / hang your sails / but don’t let them go” – only to shift the focus on his own failings before closing out with harmonica: “I can’t remember your name / I can’t remember anything.” Also at half-mast are plodding lyrics telling of a “disappearing land” and tossing bodies overboard on “Wandering Spirits.”

The soft spots of woodland whispering on the album allow for refuge from what VanGaalen has dubbed his rock record. He also recorded both albums by fellow Calgary natives Women, infusing their post-punk angle with his usual recording warmth. Recorded in his newly-formed home studio, 2010’s Public Strain featured hissy-pop calamity perfectly distilled into one cohesive album; and now, CVG really lets loose on Diaper Island. “Burning Photographs” churns with an uneasy underbelly, “Can You Believe It!?” comes across like a disconnected track from Blur’s 13, and “Freedom for a Policeman” surges onward with a peace-minded message similar to Mel Brooks’ “Love Power.”

Saving the best for last, there’s “Sara,” a lovely ode to his wife. It’s as infectious as it is emotionally effective, a rare unfiltered approach to songwriting that we’re not accustomed to in his music. In such, “Sara” is to Fleetwood Mac as “Sara” is to Chad VanGaalen: the similarity beyond the title being how each represents a masterful achievement for the respective artist. With CVG, we know there’s always more solid music around the corner; we can only wish the same of Women – so, in hopes that their turbulent band relations will resolve, consider this a “Get Well Soon” E-Card.