A few weeks back, Sabrina Chap (born Chapadijiev) contacted me to see if I wanted to review her new album, Oompa! Never one to turn down a free meal from female musicians, I obliged and she mailed me a copy (with a hand-written letter, no less — thanks, Sabrina!). While the item was in transit, Kjerstin Johnson at Bitch reviewed it for B-Sides.
Having not heard Chap before, the article gave me a good idea of what I’d be listening to. The cabaret sensibility of “Never Been a Bad Girl” suggested Dresden Dolls (though not Evelyn Evelyn’s super-problematic crip drag) on first listen, as well as Inara George and Jolie Holland in louder moments. The emphasis on classical and ragtime instrumentation also recalled Squirrel Nut Zippers’ dedication to jump blues, jazz, polka, and swing. Both the Zippers and beloved Austin mainstay White Ghost Shivers have cultivated antiquated aural aesthetics to undermine nostalgia with biting observations, sly asides, and at times bawdy lyrics about the realities of modern life. Finally, Chap also seems to share similar feminist camp sensibilities with fellow New York-based retro revisionists Menage à Twang. I haven’t heard Chap on KOOP’s “What’s a Girl to Do” program, but I think she’d be a perfect fit.
I don’t offer these artists up to slight Chap as derivative, but rather to put her in a larger context of artists. I believe Chap’s talents stand up on their own. I’m also interested in pursuing her written work. She’s penned some plays and edited a ‘zine called Cliterature. She also edited Live Through This, an anthology about women who use art to work through self-destructive tendencies. The book contains interviews from Nan Goldin, bell hooks, Inga Muscio, Kate Bornstein, Eileen Myles, and Annie Sprinkle. That’s a helluva dinner party.
Most of Oompa! charmed me. The songwriting is sharp, the melodies are catchy, and Chap’s band possess the sort of musical precision that allows them to really swing. I especially liked the self-effacing opening track “Blueprint for Destruction,” idyllic “Carolina,” reflective “Illinois,” spunky “Never Been a Bad Girl,” and the uncertain but defiantly optimistic “Boat Song,” which closes the album. “Failed Waitress/Failed Astronaut” may rank as my favorite track, as it turns the all-too-relateable subject matter of being college educated yet maligned by limited career prospects into a fun little jig. The slinky “Idiom,” which documents a clandestine hook-up with a sexy female stranger, is a close second.
Unfortunately, there are two songs on Oompa! that I can do without. “Little White House” brings to mind the nuclear family idyll espoused in Little Shop of Horrors‘ “Somewhere That’s Green,” which feminist-minded pop stars like Paula Cole critiqued in “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” I’m of the mind that Chap is doing similar work here, as the minor key and stately pace suggest compromised expectations. However, much like I felt with “Cowboys,” it’s hard for me to not hear this song as being condescending to its subject. I also cringe when I hear “Ze Paris Song,” a song about a tourist trying to fit in with her surroundings while eating baguettes and brie as she reflects on the tragic men who love her and eschews the Eiffel Tower. That Chap delivers it in a put-on accent doesn’t help matters. Much like “House,” I believe Chap is being critical here. The results just rub me the wrong way.
Yet despite those minor grievances, I’d still recommend Oompa! Give it a spin on the ol’ Victrola.
This post is really two posts. The first section preoccupies itself with why album covers matter culturally, so as to set up a discussion of a particularly interesting album cover, in this case Kate Bush’s 1982 release, The Dreaming, which I focus on in the second section. I intend to discuss more album covers throughout the duration of this blog’s livelihood. If you would like to throw out suggestions or contribute a piece, feel free. Contact me at email@example.com.
One thing that I fear is leaving our popular consciousness in the digital age is the album cover. I don’t consider myself a technophobe and hardly think music videos (once on TV, now on the Web) contributed to the downfall of album packaging (I actually think that’s the fault of record labels who keep raising their retail prices). Yet I do worry what we’ll lose if we stop caring about album covers. Growing up, Madonna had some of the most interesting album covers ever. So imagine how bummed I was when I saw her slapped-together, clumsily Photoshopped cover for Hard Candy. Sigh.
Now I know that avering my love for album covers may cast me as a bit of a commodity fetishist (which I kinda am, despite how problematic it is). And I get why album covers don’t take priority. For one, market imperative — covers cost money and the more elaborate they are, the more expensive they can become (just ask the folks at Factory Records; for every sold copy of New Order’s “Blue Monday” — lavishly designed by Peter Saville to look like a floppy disc — the label lost money, though was more concerned in releasing a well-made, lovingly-crafted piece of popular art than in turning a profit). Also, the reliance of plastic for packaging can be less than environmentally friendly (though kudos to many musical acts, artists, and record labels for realizing this and phasing it out with more paper printing).
But album covers reveal so much — who the artist is, what the music is going to sound like, what the theme or concept behind the album might be, who made the cover art, the evolution of print technology, the history of album packaging, indeed how valuable packaging may have been to the people and companies responsible for release. And obviously, in terms of representational politics, album covers can tell stories, share folklore, provide commentary, project alternate realities, or rebel. Bottom line: they’re texts and we shouldn’t overlook them or what they may reveal about the artists, the markets, and the fan bases. If interested, I highly recommend Steve Jones and Martin Sorger’s essay “Covering Music: A Brief History and Analysis of Album Cover Design.”
Treatise endeth. New treatise begineth.
One such album cover I’d like to look at is Kate Bush’s The Dreaming. Now, I’m a bit new to her, but not exactly. I have kind of a greatest hits awareness of her. As a girl, I made up dance routines in my room to “Rubberband Girl” and “Running Up That Hill” when they (rarely) got played on the radio. I know she was discovered by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour at an early age and recorded her first album, The Kick Inside, as a teenager. I know that she produces her own material. I know that she’s a trained interpretive dancer and worked with Lindsay Kemp, David Bowie’s choreographer. I know that she directed and starred in a short film called The Line, the Cross, & the Curve co-starring Miranda Richardson based on songs from her 1993 album The Red Shoes. I know she’s done some bugged-out music videos. For example:
And then I know what other people think of her. I know a lot of negative things. Characters in books like Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity hate on her music. Likewise, people like to throw around rumors that, due to her perfectionism in the studio and her penchance for writing songs about female suffering and neuroses, mythological women, and the paranormal, she is crazy. It’s all crazy sexist. On that tip, I was friends with a girl who said of Bush, “Ugh, Lilith Fair.”
And then the positives. I know that a lot of people mention her when they talk about Tori Amos (and now, St. Vincent and Bat for Lashes). I’ve read some academic work (specifically Debi Withers’s piece on queer subjectivity in her second album, 1978’s Lionheart, and Holly Kruse’s “In Praise of Kate Bush,” which considers Bush’s authorial status, from the anthology On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word). I know that Ann Powers, a rock journalist I idolized growing up, is writing a 33 1/3 book on The Dreaming (expect a future post upon its release next year — I’m way stoked).
And then I know male artists who have sited her as an influence. There’s L.A. outsider art rocker Ariel Pink, who borrows her treble-heavy, lo-fi, avant pop production sensibilities and clearly positions himself as a fan.
Hmmm. Guess I knew more than I thought. Yet, I’d never actually listened to an entire Kate Bush album. So, I thought I’d start with The Dreaming, which is really great. It’s kinda crazy how influential and varied and timeless this music is — I haven’t had a listening experience with so many “aha” and “so this is where ______ came from” moments since I first heard The Velvet Underground’s debut album the summer before college. But that was all happy accident. I picked it because a) it’s widely regarded by music critics as a masterpiece, b) indeed, Powers is writing about it, c) it marks a transition for Bush as producer as well as singer and instrumentalist, and d) the cover.
This cover (made by Kindlight) knocks me out. I’ve stared at so much in the past few weeks — after several years of looking at it in various record stores — and only recently figured out that it’s supposed to be Houdini and his wife (indeed, there is a song called “Houdini” on the album, told from his wife’s perspective). The shackles around him are to be broken using the key, which Bush (as Bess Houdini) has in her mouth. But I always thought she had a wedding ring in her mouth and was internally debating whether or not to put it on (and perhaps be shackled) or swallow it and flee.
I suppose it could work either way. It’s also possible that Bush and Bess Houdini have suddenly become self-conscious about the inherent performativeness of their careers (musicians, like magicians, trade in trickery). There’s also the possibility that the key takes on some sort of sexual, Freudian design as a symbol and that the juxtaposition of the key, the shackles, her tongue, and her lusty proximity to Houdini may be at odds with her Victorian dress, coinciding at once with Houdini’s era, Bush’s origins as a Brit, and Bush’s lyrical preoccupations. All readings are valid, as they peak curiosity and dialogue with the music. Indeed, they are part of the music. Part of this woman’s work.