There’s something endearing about music that always seems to be on the verge of falling apart. We’re not talking mass destruction, like if Iron Maiden’s infrastructural backline suddenly started melting down, but a series of smaller catastrophes: the guitar goes out of tune, the homemade electronics begin to shoot sparks and smoke into the audience, the legs of the organ go out like a buffalo shot from a stagecoach. You get the idea pretty much every time you go to a local band showcase in some smaller city in the Northeast, that heart-thunk moment of Oh shit! when the drummer starts soloing mid-verse and the rest of the band exchanges awkward glances, or when the iPod somehow falls out of the chiptune dude’s back pocket. If music is about control-tight pants, technology, etc.-these are the rough times when entropy turns the mixer all the way to suck.
But, as free jazz and Cage and Lucky Dragons and Mix Master Mike all prove, the hard-wired human fear of chaos can go both ways. Sometimes, the Oh shit! moment, in the right hands, can be infinitely more exhilarating than super-tight studio professionalism. You lose control of your internal metronome and embrace the terror of the void.
Chad VanGaalen, who has a name like a Dutch trance producer and the chased-by-wolves voice bizarro of the Meat Puppet’s Curt Kirkwood, has a promo photo of himself sitting alone in what appears to be his backyard, surrounded by odd gadget-y creations, playing a Casio and sticking his finger into a nest of wires. It’s a scary scene, not only for the rustic hellishness I typically associate with lawns covered in busted-up machines, but also because the whole thing looks like it’s seconds away from exploding. I don’t know if Canada-VanGaalen’s from Calgary- has looser laws regarding these kinds of hi-tech supplies, but if I wasn’t listening to this guy’s music and loving it, I might be tempted to drop a line to Interpol.
Still, to paraphrase the Supreme Court, “If it looks like a duck, it must be a duck.” In VanGaalen’s case, too, what you see is what you get. If you, like me, get a hard on for homemade rave gear, that’s a really good thing. Listening to these cuts, B-sides of 2008’s Soft Airplane (Flemish Eye), you get a sense of how the weird, the out-of-sync and the questionably-conceived can metastasize in genius ways. None of it sounds right. But it all sounds so good.
It’s sometimes difficult to imagine music being made-let alone blogged-these days without a heavy dose of generic calculation. Call it search term tyranny, but I can’t remember the last band that got hyped based on something other than some kind of ostentatious gimmick. This probably has to do with any number of things: the growing unimportance of local scenes, the indie set’s own dictatorial ideas of ironic PR. But weren’t things just a little weirder before the mp3? Not weird in a way that you can categorize, but just subversively, invisibly weird, like Dylan’s Basement Tapes or Sebadoh III, music that sounds off the way a slight case of jaundice might make a person look more unattractive than you remember. Perhaps VanGaalen’s found the workaround to this unanticipated side-effect of digital distribution in that pile of circuits in his backyard, but there’s this cassette era warped-ness in his tunes, an off-kilter malfunction that haunts the music like a ghost in the speaker cabinet. Somewhere between nostalgia and a full-on poltergeist confrontation, this guy has mastered that elusive and alien discomfort that makes old Sub Pop compilations so horrifying and cool. Do you remember Cat Butt, Terry Lee Hale, the Thrown Ups? If you do, you probably know what I’m talking about. If not, I suggest you do some fucking research!
A-side (or maybe AB-side) “Pyramids Float” is, despite it’s hallucinogenic title, pretty close to folk music, or at least the kind of folk music that would emerge from a community raised on cow punk rarities collections and whose Bar Mitzvah’s included an obligatory demonstration of synthesizer atmospherics. VanGaalen nails that middle ground between rock dynamism and clinical paranoia that makes so many mid-80s indie pop records such awesome listens. With a jerky rhythm like a failing motor and a chorus that wouldn’t seem particularly out of place on a Jawbox record, this song is at once almost scientifically close to a meticulously architected crossover single, and technically sketchy, like an inebriated robot, circuit-bent to perform karaoke on command and nursing the damage with pints after pints of mediocre beer.
“Stuffed Animal,” on the other hand, comes across as a kind of deranged house music designed to be played exclusively at regional kiddy circuses. Imagine if the eclectic ingredients of drum-machine chatter, Raincoat’s-style pre-K melodic sensibilities, a children’s chorus, and VanGaalen’s own second-hand auto-detune somehow congealed into an acetate dubplate that you could only play on an orange and blue Fisher Price record player. The batshit appeal here is tremendous. The tune bounces, but sadly, self-reflexively, like a trunk beat for all kinds of universal pre-adolescent baggage.
VanGaalen wards off Armageddon for the duration of these tracks, but just barely. I haven’t seen a car accident for a couple of years, but this is the kind of stuff that makes me want to pay closer attention to the more wrecked parts of the world, the things that don’t fit together, the mistakes that end up becoming bigger parts of who you are than any number of right decisions. VanGaalen starts by breaking a formula. He ends by breaking your heart.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem081/01 Pyramids Float.mp3
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem081/02 Stuffed Animal.mp3