Chad VanGaalen should probably be one of the biggest indie music artists out there today. Over the past ten years he has released five solid albums of his signature psychedelic, folk-scapes. Van Gaalen isn’t some little artist hidden on an obscure record label; all of his work has been released by SubPop, the same label that carries indie heavyweights like Fleet Foxes, Beach House, and The Shins.
Yet when I bring his name up to other fans of underground music, it often results in quizzical looks. Yes, his songs are filled with grotesque imagery and off-kilter story-lines that may appall the masses, but that same recipe once gave Jeff Mangum and his band Neutral Milk Hotel legendary status.
VanGaalen’s talent as a songwriter is matched by his artistic integrity. All of his albums have been recorded in his garage with VanGaalen doing most of the production and instrumentation. He does all the artwork on his album covers, and he even goes so far as to create all of his music videos as well. Obviously SubPop recognizes this genius amongst us by allowing him to do pretty much whatever he wants with his music, but why hasn’t the rest of the music world wisened up to this brilliance?
The latest album continues his tradition of writing instantly memorable melodies filled with shocking descriptions that won’t be leaving your brain any time soon. The songs on Shrink Dust will be featured on a full-length movie that the constant-factotum VanGaalen has been working on for the past two years. He has hinted that the film will be a combination of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Strange Brew, and I guess the same description could be used to describe the music on Shrink Dust. The album definitely has an otherworldly ambience throughout, and the lyrics to several songs lean toward these same spacey environs. “Cosmic Destroyer” tells of a mythical space creature, always consuming the vast wasteland of the great beyond, and “Where Are You?” plays out like a never-ending journey into the void, searching for a lost love.
VanGaalen did all of the animation for the “Where Are You?” video:
As with every album, VanGaalen’s penchant for experimentation continues, this time with him utilizing the steel guitar and a mouth harp to create what he refers to as his “country album.” The album also has a breezier feel due in most part to the laxity of the guitars, allowing the reverb in the room to create a cozier tone. At times Shrink Dust and its ever-flowing guitars remind me of The Walkmen, that is, if The Walkmen spent a weekend doing a combination of LSD and shrooms while Hamilton Leithauser inhaled excessive amounts of helium. This free-flowing, reverberated aura can be best seen on “Lila,” a space-age gospel song sermonizing love for the long-lost Lila. The entire album features references to this infinite pursuit, hinting towards a possible narrative to the film that will feature these songs.
Not only is Shrink Dust another great album to add to VanGaalen’s flawless track record, it might be his most self-assured and refined. Possibly the sanded down edges and calmer demeanor will open up his music to a wider audience, but I doubt it (most people have trouble warming up to songs about cutting off your limbs or acquiring scales on your skin). He may never receive the accolades and success he deserves, but that might be the key to his freedom to create such a strange melodic brew. 15 years ago Jeff Mangum quit making his own bizarre blend of folk music due in large part to the hype that surrounded his work. Maybe it’s better that VanGaalen stays an unknown to the masses, allowing him and his muse to continue doing whatever they like. Let’s keep him our little secret.