Canada’s Chad VanGaalen is known for his lo-fi aesthetic and his eclectic sound, ranging from acoustic-driven folk to synth-driven pseudo-electronic experimentation. Just above the surface, though, VanGaalen is a talented songwriter and producer, churning out tunes that sound both homespun and bigger than their origins. Diaper Island is no exception; recorded in VanGaalen’s basement and hewn from a batch of 80 songs, the album represents a cohesive whole that feels both natural and meticulously crafted.
VanGaalen’s is certainly a lo-fi sound, but unlike recent lo-fi one-man buzz-bands (Cloud Nothings, Hanoi Janes), he sounds like’s using the tape machine for some real, spiritual reason. This is not low fidelity for its own sake; VanGaalen belongs in the same musical tradition that includes anything from Elliott Smith to early Iron And Wine.
Diaper Island (named like a comedy; hits like a tragedy) is a melancholy album of bittersweet gems made up of charming simplicity accented with unexpected segues, harmonica interludes (on Heavy Stones, which sounds a bit like a Band Of Horses outtake). But VanGaalen’s voice – shrouded as it is in reverb, and mixed low among the din – is the centrepiece. He’s got a fragility to him that today’s folk-pop boy bands aim for. This is never more evident than on Sara, which centres on the plea, “Sara, wake me up when you’re home,” hinting at the futility and desperation of being half of a failing relationship.
There are a few rock ‘n’ roll moments on the album (Replace Me, Blonde Hash, Freedom For A Policeman). These feel out of place at first, but they’re also a necessary foil for much of the rest of Diaper Island. In these moments, VanGaalen takes on a sort of shoegaze sound, fuzzed out guitars, echoing heavily, committed to tape. It says something about VanGaalen’s versatility that while these harder moments sound like a departure in the context of Diaper Island, he does them quite well, practicing restraint even while chasing a driving beat and pounding out a guitar solo.
Can You Believe It?! feels like the sort of noisy experimentation that Paul McCartney and Youth did on Electric Argument, but here VanGaalen trades in his melancholy delivery for a shout of exasperation (“Oh, come on! Can you believe it?!”). The somber and forlorn album closer, Shave My Pussy, certainly jumps off the track listing, but it’s not a joke. The song’s narrator begs, “Baby, will you love me? I’m feeling ugly”. It’s that subtle interplay between humour and sadness that makes for meaningful, lasting music, and VanGaalen walks the line with the best of them.