NPR logo Women + Chad VanGaalen

Women + Chad VanGaalen

I tried to convince my friends to go to the show, but everyone backed out on account of sickness, tiredness or married-ness. The destination was Holocene, a club in Portland where Women and Chad VanGaalen were playing. I ended up venturing out alone, which I like immensely, mostly because I can be a shameless and unimpeded observer. I wore a winter coat the entire time. It's April, I know.

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Holocene wasn't entirely full when Women took the stage, which is a shame. Women is a four-piece band from Calgary. They had VanGaalen join them on stage, hooded, sitting in a corner cradling a keyboard. I had seen Women at SXSW and enjoyed the set but not necessarily the mountainous audience, over which I could never quite see. But last night, my view was clear. Women might combine all that I love about a band. These are strange, angular beasts, both physically and sonically. The singer/guitarist rests his instrument slightly askew against his leg. His right hand is spindly and spidery on the strings, crawling more than strumming. The drummer's mouth is often agape, making him look like a Pac-Man about to snack on drums. He sits erect with his rack tom as flat as the rest of the kit. The bass player has a tame beard and a penchant for playing leads; he may well be the secret weapon. The second guitarist adds the prettiness, but never enough so that it wholly polishes out the roughness.

Despite the fact that the sound person couldn't get enough vocals in the house mix or in the monitors, the mere texture of the singing sufficed, and the specific details of the lyrics weren't missed. Overall, what I love about Women is that the band stops just shy of granting a facile sort of satisfaction. Instead, the glee comes in the nearness it gets to pop, and in the way the group flirts with rock and prog. The whole time I was watching, I felt like I was on a carousel, flying past familiar sights and sounds in a sped-up, dizzying kind of way, so that it's a blur of a familiar landscape until the blur itself becomes its own terrain.

You can listen to Women's song "Black Rice" here.

Next up was Chad VanGaalen, a tall, incredibly handsome man who plays an ugly guitar, a.k.a. the Steinberger. (You might recall Mike Rutherford of Mike + The Mechanics playing the bass version.) To up the hideousness factor of the instrument, VanGaalen has a hippie dreadlock hanging from where the headstock should be. Actually, if a "dreadlock headstock" is what he was going for, not only do I applaud the rhyme scheme, but I also pat myself on the back for solving this crude mystery.

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VanGaalen's Soft Airplane was one of my favorite albums of last year. Two songs in particular, "Inside the Molecules" and "City of Electric Light," were listened to on repeat without either their impact or the resulting giddiness ever receding. When he played the latter, I felt my eyes well up — another reason to attend shows by oneself: It's just you, the music and its unmediated impact. Actually, it wasn't just me. There was a roomful of effusive fans, shouting out yelps of encouragement and mock harassment, dancing in half circles with their arms around one another. At one point, I remember thinking — secretly excited that this might be true, feeling like a younger sibling sneaking into a cooler older-sister/brother event — "Am I at a stoner show?"

Chad VanGaalen often sings in the higher registers, like Neil Young or Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips. But his voice is both sweeter and eerier. Despite mellifluousness and melody, there's nothing precious about the lyrical journeys of his songs. If they serenade, they do so laced with a subtle, creeping poison. Other times, VanGaalen amplifies all of it, guitar and voice together, and I can only describe it as gleeful.

Like the illustrations and animation for which he's also known, VanGaalen sings songs that double as life forces that continually give way to others — shape-shifting, fluid, each whole in its own right, but always with the potential of splitting apart and revealing something either delicate or beautifully misshapen.

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