of Maine

Chad VanGaalen’s “Willow Tree”
August 14, 2008, 1:38 pm
Filed under: Hasty Music Reviews

One of these days I’m going to take an inventory and index the myriad obsessions of Chad VanGaalen’s lyrics. Prospective categories include: fire, blood, death (with sub-categories for apocalyptic ends, suicides, and specific mentions of graves or burials), aquatic life (real and imagined), science-fiction machinery, and a few body parts (most frequently, hair, veins, and teeth).

For all that, you’d think his music would be more of a downer. But VanGaalen treats such heady subject matter in the headiest of ways, and the tie that binds his content – constant motion – is also the guiding principle of his form. His soundscapes are restless and druggy (VanGaalen’s your friend whose work ethic and imagination both peak when stoned) but startlingly fluid, despite the quirky implements (he builds many of his instruments himself) and scatterbrained instrumentals smattered through his first two albums. Both of those – the solemn, lo-fi Infiniheart (2004) and the more polished, communal, and experimental Skelliconnection (2006, both on Sub Pop) – established Chad VanGaalen in my mind as the most fascinating singer-songwriter to come about since Elliott Smith.

VanGaalen’s third album, Soft Airplane, comes out on September 9, and “Willow Tree” is our first taste of it. It’s one of VanGaalen’s most succinct and uncomplicated songs, but it fits snugly into his catalog. The first verse (“Sleep all day/Just waiting for the sun to set/I hang my clothes/Up on the line”) is delivered in his standard high-pitched quaver, matching his quaint and just slightly ominous words, accompanied by a banjo. Verse two, still relatively unadorned, gets weirder (“When I die/I’ll hang my head beside the willow tree/When I’m dead/Is when I’ll be free”). The jarring refrain (“And you can take my body/Put it in a boat/Light it on fire/You can use the kerosene/Take my body/Put it in a boat/Light it on fire/And send it out to sea”) adds a mournful accordion and a layer of backing vocals.

The song essentially repeats verbatim after that, but it also takes flight. Drums and bass give it a trotting rhythm, and a trumpet counters the accordion’s sadness with the triumph of a swan song. VanGaalen changes a few lyrics just slightly (“And you can take my body” becomes “So you can take my body,” “You can use the kerosene” becomes “You can use the gasoline”), and he seems more certain and serene about his subject’s death. The kicker for me is the xylophone that kicks in at the 2:00 mark: its echo wobbles like a saw, and it matches VanGaalen’s vocal patterns beautifully.

I assume most people have an unyielding alliance with at least one or two musicians, marked by a feeling that you are the precise audience for their style and ideas. Chad VanGaalen’s that guy for me. He gets me to engage with ideas I usually go out of my way to avoid thinking about by placing them in a funhouse atmosphere that’s completely unique to him. I also really enjoy trying to sing like him when I’m in the shower.

\”Willow Tree\”


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