Chad VanGaalen seems intent on bringing something quirky, colourful and otherworldly into the world. One particular account involves Chad working on plans to build a giant, grinning monster that could be seen from the windows of a children’s hospital. He’s also working on a feature-length sci-fi animation, Translated Log Of Inhabitants, with the first episode due sometime this year.
Yet his previous output also shows this otherworldly sense; his last album, 2011’s Diaper Island (the album name alone!), with songs like Peace On The Rise and Can You Believe It!?, sounded like songs being beamed in from elsewhere: a sort of extra-terrestrial garage rock. Three years on, Shrink Dust is pitched as a country record but also as a score for his sci-fi animation.
Album opener Cut Off My Hands features some conventional-sounding pedal steel guitar, which certainly brings with it that sense of country. Yet beneath that are lyrics about seeing said cut-off hands wade through the sand and swim away “like a pair of bloody crabs” alongside some less conventional-sounding, modulated pedal steel fused with some saxophone. It brings a sense of alien country, anyway.
Where Are You sounds as if Chad is floating in space as his fuzzy cries of “Where are you?!” permeate alongside equally fuzzy-sounding, frenzied and whirling loops of synth and other bleeping things, although there’s nothing particularly country about this one. Frozen Country brings that back a bit though, with some clean guitar against a backdrop of Diaper Island-like cosmic garage rock sounds and lyrics about “perfect looking humanoids”. It does have a very pleasing, transportive quality; at one point it shimmers, while at another it’s quite grizzly and lo-fi.
Lila has a more languid, peaceful, country-feel about it and is more stripped back; VanGaalen’s voice aches here and put together with the subtle use of synth and reverbed guitar actually creates something very delicate and lulling as he describes Lila, “A million gemstones falling down a stairwell”. It’s an absorbing listen. As is Weighed Sin, which features the pedal steel more prominently and harmonica, as well as cryptic yet rather fascinating lyrics such as “Son, don’t cry. Son, don’t you hang so high. Last night I weighed my sins… I found my way back home, my head was buried beneath the stone”. Considering it took Chad only a year or so to pick up the pedal steel properly, it sounds accomplished and rather moving. The pedal steel is one of those instruments that has the capacity to do that.
Leaning on Bells comes later, bringing back with it the garage rock sound. It’s satisfyingly catchy – rather BRMC actually – and has a confident swagger to it, while lyrics go on about seeking revenge for someone and travelling between worlds. You have to listen closely to the words as they get somewhat lost underneath the pleasingly grimy guitar but, when you do, it certainly brings some added enjoyment and intrigue.
Cosmic Destroyer closes the album with a low-tempo and relaxed country feel, albeit with in a typically CVG fashion: pedal steel against otherworldly backing vocals, crashing cymbals with phasers in the background and an insight into CVG’s mind, perhaps: “The world in your head is the world where you live, the people seem strange up there”.
Shrink Dust certainly carries Chad VanGaalen’s intent very well indeed. It takes you on something of a journey, veering from country to garage rock to something almost literally out-of-this-world. One would love to see him play at Jodrell Bank or somewhere similar, for he’d surely be in his element. The Chad VanGaalen world is one we should all experience.