Recorded in his basement with the help of only a few friends, Chad VanGaalen has made the most of his humble resources, crafting an album of rich sonic textures and diverse instrumentation. “Willow Tree,” Soft Airplane’s banjo-driven opening track, could easily pass for a Sufjan Stevens song, with accordion and glockenspiel creating a lush backdrop for VanGaalen’s tremulous falsetto. Elsewhere, Soft Airplane ventures into lofi electronica; the glitchy beats and blippy keyboards of “Phantom Anthills” could have been lifted from any pre-1995 Nintendo game, while “TMNT Mask” is a straight-ahead dance track.
Chad VanGaalen’s sonic experiments alone would make Soft Airplane worth a listen, but it’s his songwriting chops that make the album truly memorable, with lyrics that are poignant and rich with imagery. “I can hear the cries of the dead / Muffled by the ground / But still loud enough to make it out” he sings on “Cries of the Dead.” The hypnotic “Bones of Man” has an indelible hook that will be stuck in your head for days, which would be annoying if the song wasn’t so damn good. “Frozen Energon,” the last track on Soft Airplane, is a four-minute assault of angry, overdriven guitar and dense electronic effects. And although this dissonant conclusion is a far cry from the pop sensibilities that inform the rest of the songs, it is nevertheless a fitting end to an album as eclectic and unpredictable as Soft Airplane.