Almost exclusively, the twelve songs that make up Chad VanGaalen‘s fifth album Shrink Dust shuffle forth into the world as fearful, fragile creatures: like a litter of kittens left abandoned in a well, barely strong enough to climb into the bucket you lower down for them, they greet the light blinking and shaking, fuzzy little wrecks as unsure of themselves as they are of the world around them. But just as those bedraggled little kitties would invariably let out a heart-melting squeak and transform your anxiety into pure joyous relief (“Don’t worry mister, it was touch and go for a minute there, but – look! – I’m OK”), VanGaalen’s creations routinely contain switch-flipping moments that force the listener to turn that frown upside down. Whether obvious – a grand chord change here, a clarinet or harmonica solo there – or almost imperceptible (a wolf-whistling pedal steel guitar or background swell of multi-tracked harmony vocals), these twists – here more than ever – are stunningly effective song-writing tools, and further evidence that the Alberta-based auteur is one of the best in the business today. He’s also one of the most underappreciated: by rights, an artist as accomplished in as many different fields as VanGaalen (he’s also a producer – most notably working with sadly missed noiseniks Women – as well as a film-maker, animator and illustrator) should have a Canadian national holiday named after them, but whilst globally successful countrymen like Bieber and Buble accumulate awards and obscene amounts of money, CVG remains something of a cult figure, toiling away underground without so much as a Polaris prize to his name. Not that such claustrophobic confines have hurt VanGaalen’s working process; on the contrary, his charmingly oddball pop – taking in pastoral psychedelia, acid-fried country, folk rock, scuzzy garage punk and more – feels safely rooted in something seriously substantial, as if being packed in mud and moss and gravel and grass had grown his dream inventions an actual physical body. It’s a clever contrast, this marriage of earthy noise and fantastically surreal lyrical imagery (“Cut off both my hands and threw them in the sand/ Watched them swim away from me like a pair of bloody crabs”), VanGaalen’s creaky Neil Young yelp and heat-warped sonics combining to glorious, otherworldly effect, but if these tunes often feel a bit like slightly botched experiments – runtish, mis-shapen – they are certainly happy accidents: not conventionally pretty, perhaps, but beautiful all the same in their own strange way. For whilst he’s plainly in his element spinning grim fairytales about sprouting tusks and spiny feathers or throwing his broken fingers at the sun those previously mentioned uplifts mean that these songs feed the heart and soul as much as the imagination, and if he never released another record, CVG could rest easy knowing he’d given the world something as gently reassuring as “Cosmic Destroyer” or as downright lovely as “Lila.” VanGaalen’s universe might be dark and full of monsters, but darkness can be comforting and monsters can be heroes too, and these are the bedtime stories we should be telling our kids. Check out “Where Are You?” (featuring animation by CVG) below, and be sure to grab Shrink Dust from Sub Pop on April 29.