Review Summary: One of the better singer-songwriters you've probably never heard of.
At this point in time, it seems almost obligatory that any singer-songwriter needs to be compared to the staples. Every year, the new up and coming poster boy for the genre gets a plethora of Nick Drake, Elliott Smith or Bob Dylan (e.g. Conor Oberst and The Tallest Man On Earth) comparisons thrown his or her way. While these comparisons must be flattering and all, at the same time I can imagine them being really ***ing annoying. Think about it; it sets high expectations for the artist who feels like they need to mimic these greats to please everyone. Then again, if these comparisons never existed, who would give a *** about the artist in which these comparisons are being made? Quite the double edged sword if I’ve ever seen one.
However, one singer-songwriter and producer of highly acclaimed Women
album Public Strain
, Chad Vangaalen, has safely avoided this swarm. Call me an immature fanboy, but I’d be pretty bummed if I had to see the media compare him to other artists more than they actually appreciate his music, because really, this is something to be appreciated.
Something tells me that he’s aware of this as well because upon a few listens to his 2008 effort Soft Airplane
, Vangaalen seem to be trying everything in his power to avoid these comparisons. He’s too sheen for Dylan and too dense for Drake. Not to bad-mouth anyone, but Vangaalen knows how to break the one-dimensional folk singer slump by just being so damn different by bludgeoning them with an eclectic hammer.
The diversity on this album is really what makes it so enjoyable. One minute a banjo floats along in the breezy opener “Willow Tree” then the next a bouncy electronic beat opens up “Phantom Anthills” which envelops into a soaring and cinematic song. This album features thick harmonies in “Cries of the Dead” as well as desolate, straight up creepiness in “Molten Light”. He brings us on this musical roller coaster only to leave us in the cold in the closing noise track “Frozen Energon”.
However, what makes this album so unique has to be the lyrics, but more specifically, how he delivers them. When just listening to the music, it sounds like a very solid folk album, but the lyrics put a whole new, dark spin on it. They range from morbid to twisted to psychotic and everywhere in between. No matter if he’s singing about his neighbor beating his dog in the basement or a spirit finding and killing its murderer, Vangaalen almost always seems cheery and whimsical about it, making the listener question if he has completely lost his mind. I mean who else can sing “I can hear the cries of the dead, maybe it’s your neighbor beating his dog in the basement”
in such an optimistic way? More importantly, what’s more interesting than a mentally unstable folk singer?
Throughout this whole album, Vangaalen always has control and that’s what makes this album such a hidden gem. He knows when to throw a banjo in the mix, or how to construct a beat that could literally hold its place in a hip hop song. He knows when to whisper whatever weird thing comes to his mind in his every so delicate falsetto, or when to grow some chest hair and make a statement or when to seamlessly build from one to the other. Regardless of how he chooses what to say, Vangaalen invites you to what he has to say, but be forewarned, it’s pretty dark ***.