Chad VanGaalen, a singer-songwriter from Calgary, Alberta, makes his recordings practically alone, writing every note and playing nearly every instrument. VanGaalen’s most recent album on Sub Pop, Light Information, offers an outstanding example of what he does so well: richly layered indie rock, with tuneful melodies but plenty of strange and murky textures. His songs have a touch of the lo-fi quality heard in classic Guided By Voices records, although it’s not because of any tape hiss — it has more to do with the way VanGaalen blends his various elements into an alchemical stew. It isn’t always immediately apparent which instrument is doing what in a song.
How does this translate during a live performance? As VanGaalen demonstrated during his Dec. 2 gig at the Empty Bottle, his songs also sound great when they’re played in a pretty straightforward style by a rock band. The tunes were less ornate and more direct — like an alternate but equally compelling version of the brilliant audio art VanGaalen creates in his home studio.
Opening act Un Blonde — the solo project of Montreal-based musician Jean-Sebastian Audet — played a very loose set, with some awkward pauses as Audet seemed to be deciding on the spot which song to play next, signaling that information to his backing musicians right as a song began. I sensed a bit of restlessness in the audience, and yet, I found it fascinating to watch, somewhat like witnessing an impromptu rehearsal. This was my first exposure to Un Blonde’s music, and I could tell that Audet’s a talent to watch.
The lineup at the Empty Bottle on Thursday, May 22, was a musical version of the Trans-Canada Highway: three Canadian artists, each from a different province — Chad VanGaalen of Calgary, Alberta; Cousins of Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Bry Webb of Guelph, Ontario.
The headliner was the delightfully odd Chad VanGaalen, who has been releasing somewhat lo-fi, psychedelic home recordings for the past decade. But he hasn’t toured much, remaining something of an enigmatic figure — in my imagination anyway. A recent press release from his label, Sub Pop, feeds that sense of mystique, noting:
He has never worked in a commercial recording studio. By his hands alone, one line, sound, shape or word leads organically to the next. Over the last ten to fifteen years, Chad has been producing living maps in songs, drawings, modified instruments, animations and performances–shifting forms pointing to another world, infinitely more liveable, maybe hidden just under the surface of our own ever-disintegrating reality.
Always a fan of esoteric instruments, Chad taught himself to play an aluminum pedal steel guitar. His experiments with this instrument unify the album, along with themes of death, transformation, fear, benign evil, and the eccentricity of love. A newfound affection for The Flying Burrito Brothers, and the sci-fi mysticism of the 1980s graphic novel The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius, also drove the album.
There is indeed a certain amount of alt-country on the new record, but it sounds more like the Shins doing country than the typical sort of Americana that falls under the label.
As far as I know, VanGaalen had never played in Chicago before Thursday’s gig. Commenting to the audience about his drive into the city, he remarked, “The city goes on forever. … But now that we’re here, it’s a very nice place.” VanGaalen also told the audience about playing Frisbee earlier in the day with a Chicago man who seemed to him to be a meth addict. And he complained about his guitar, describing it as “a bad eBay purchase.”
That guitar sounded just fine, however, and so did VanGaalen’s big array of effects pedals, which he used to transform that single guitar into a psych-rock orchestra, with help from a two-piece rhythm section. And VanGaalen’s voice, often rising to a falsetto, artfully conveyed the many memorable melodies he has fashioned on Shrink Dust and previous records.
I was surprised to see how young the audience of VanGaalen fans was — it seemed like barely anyone in the nearly full room was over the age of 23. Where did these kids discover VanGaalen’s music? And why weren’t any of the somewhat older indie-rock fans I usually see at Empty Bottle shows like this in attendance?
With two outstanding opening acts, Thursday’s show was impressive from beginning to end. The evening started out with a set by Bry Webb, lead singer of the Constantines. The songs on his new record, Free Will, are mellower than the Constantines’ rock, almost qualifying as folk, but they still has something of that Constantines edge to them. His set at the Bottle included a nice cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Calvary Cross.”
I wasn’t familiar at all with the middle band in the lineup, Cousins, but the guitar-and-drums duo quickly won me over with songs that rocked pretty hard with soaring melodies — including at least three about lead singer Aaron Mangle’s grandmother. The group’s new album, The Halls of Wickwire, is dedicated to her memory. How Canadian is that!