Tony Stamp lends an ear to new releases by Los Angeles singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey, Christchurch DYI maestros Wurld Series, and a compilation of exploratory sounds from 1980/90s Japan.
Chemtrails Over The Country Club by Lana Del Rey
There’s a great article up on Vulture called ‘Lana Del Rey’s ten year war with the culture’. It goes through her emergence on the scene, and the immediate accusations of inauthenticity that followed. Her lips received an inordinate amount of attention.
Since then her celebration and mythologising of old-fashioned Americana drew accusations of jingoism, to the extent that she stopped performing in front of an American flag four years ago. Recently some of her tweets drew accusations of racial insensitivity, and when asked to comment on the January 6th insurrection at the White House, she wound up accused of supporting it.
A sort of perfect storm always surrounds Del Rey, in the space between her perception of herself and the public’s. Musically she was quickly deemed a sort of pastiche artist in the Quentin Tarantino mold, taking elements of things she loved and elevating them beyond the sum of their parts.
She’s dabbled in modern genres like hip hop plenty of times. But on her seventh album (not counting last year’s spoken word effort), she’s kept the stripped back approach of her previous one Norman Fucking Rockwell, while still trafficking in the amusing, tongue in cheek wordplay that helped build her career.
A song called 'White Dress' is the opener, and it’s a fascinating start. For one thing her voice is pushed up to a plaintive high register; almost a whisper. She sings about working as a waitress aged nineteen, which Del Rey actually did, and reflects that maybe she was better off before she was famous. She name drops not just The White Stripes and Kings of Leon, but cosmic jazz pioneer Sun Ra. The most sardonic line references the ‘men in music business conference’, cramming in too many syllables to highlight its absurdity.
Speaking of absurd, this album is called Chemtrails Over The Country Club, five words which deserve a bit of unpacking. If you haven’t heard of chemtrails, suffice it to say they’re part of a conspiracy theory involving planes. And the country club is precisely the sort of place Lana might be accused of frequenting. Maybe it’s a statement about the various conspiracies that ran rife under the Trump administration (himself an owner of country clubs), and continue to this day.
On the title song she sings about wearing jewels in the pool, painting quite the picture of opulence, which is enhanced by that slightly vintage quality her voice has. I like the sense of drama that builds through the track, down to having the sound of thunder rippling under its closing stretch. Del Rey’s way with melody is undeniable, leaning on simple repetition in the chorus to beautiful effect.
The next track ‘Tulsa Jesus Freak’ includes modern touches like programmed drums and a cheeky bit of Autotune, but those take a back seat to the gorgeous melodies on offer.
The way she multitracks her voice into a childlike choir is so transportive, and perfectly suits the musical stage play feel of the song. Lyrically there’s the comparison of a can of gin to a piece of heaven, and kids in their hoodies, even a reference to ‘Candle In The Wind’; modern touches offsetting the nostalgic vibe.
It’s worth mentioning too that she’s in Arkansas in this song, shifting focus from the Californian preoccupations of prior albums. In fact in the next track she says she’s ready to leave L.A.
Lyrically 'Let Me Love You Like A Woman' falls a bit flat, despite a reference to Prince’s 'Purple Rain'. I might be missing a layer of irony. Following up ‘let me love you like a woman’ with ‘let me hold you like a baby’ does have a sort of oedipal queasiness to it.
In September she told Interview magazine that much of the album pertains to her “stunning girlfriends”, and indeed the album cover shows her beaming out from a group of women. Other female singers Weyes Blood, Zella Day and Nikki Lane join her on subsequent tracks. Having retrograde gender politics is one of the things Del Rey has been accused of in the past - maybe this is a form of damage control. With that lens on it calling a track 'Let Me Love You Like A Woman' almost feels like a provocation.
Midway through the album we get its most modern track with 'Dark But Just A Game', which bounces over a cushion of 808 sub bass, with Del Rey in full torch singer mode.
Later the road trip takes her to Yosemite, on the only song here not produced by Jack Antonoff, the super-producer who’s best known for working with Lorde and Taylor Swift. This one is tasked to Rick Nowels, who’s worked with everyone from Adele to Carlos Santana, and it’s stripped right back, with Nowels playing acoustic over sparse percussion.
Del Rey will sometimes repeat lyrics on different songs, and on that one there’s another reference to 'Candle In The Wind'. On a song called 'Dance Till We Die' she mentions “covering Joni”, then the next track is a Joni Mitchell cover.
That’s just one of the ways this album surprised me with its complexity. Chemtrails Over The Country Club is a collection of clever, catchy songs, with Del Rey’s expansive vocal range on full display. If you haven’t caught up with her story, maybe avoid the controversy for now, and use this album as a good entry point.
What’s Growing by Wurld Series
Pitchfork Media was launched in 1995 by a guy called Ryan Schreiber, while he was still a teenager working in a record store. It started as a blog focusing on indie music, but over 25 years later it covers a much wider range of sounds, and has its home in the One World Trade Centre in New York. It’s owned by Condé Nast.
For its first few decades Pitchfork was key in making or breaking careers, and for local acts trying to reach a wider audience, I’m sure it’s a huge help.
Typing ‘New Zealand’ into the site’s search tab yields reviews over the last year for Marlon Williams, Benee, The Beths, and The Leonard Simpson Duo, and most recently What’s Growing by Christchurch band Wurld Series.
I’m not sure how their album reached the tastemakers at Pitchfork, but I’m sure the band, and the site’s readers, are better off for it.
I was a teenager in the nineties, so a lot of the bands from that era are burned into my subconscious. The second track on the album 'Nap Gate' immediately brought a lot of them to mind, but I’d be lying if I said the main one wasn’t Pavement. There’s just something about that loping, slightly intoxicated lead guitar.
There’s a specificity to the lyrics here though that Pavement weren't too concerned with. 'Nap Gate' seems to be about getting in trouble at your job for catching forty winks. The larger concern seems to be corporate culture in general: “Sleep is for sale” go the lyrics, saying “you’ve got to factor that in”. There’s one that seems to be an admonishment from a boss: “you’ve gotta pull your head in”.
‘Moved In’ is an immediately catchy bit of jangle that finds Wurld Series’ Luke Towart having a go at his own inability to stay healthy. The song is all done and dusted in around ninety seconds, which is the average track length on What’s Growing. It’s an approach that reminded me of the band Guided By Voices, who’ve trafficked in brief bursts of memorable guitar pop since 1983.
I had a list of comparative bands all set to go in this review, but looking at Wurld Series’ Spotify page, I see they beat me to it. They’ve assembled a playlist of songs that inspired the album, featuring Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout of GBV, Steven Malkmus from Pavement, and other nineties stalwarts like Teenage Fanclub, Built To Spill, and local champions Tall Dwarfs and the 3Ds. To my ears there’s a bit of 3Ds in the guitar heroics of 'Distant Business'.
But this album isn’t all fuzzed out slacker pop. Wurld Series primary member is Towart, an ex-Pat Brit with a firm love of kiwi DYI, who says he sees the band as a music-making guild. Who plays on a song depends who’s hanging out at their space in Woolston. The other main presence is producer and drummer Brian Feary, who runs the record label Melted IceCream. They’re looking after this album’s local release, and have supplied some pretty extensive liner notes that specify the influence of pastoral British psych folk on What’s Growing. You can hear it clearly on the song 'Supplication'.
That's a great thing to name a song, and I grappled with its lyrics a bit. It might be about clandestine meetings during company time- another dig at office culture. Its fake strings sound to me like a mellotron, a device made in 1963 in England to emulate real instruments. There’s an effort of this album to be true to a kind of analog aesthetic, so the presence of some vintage gear makes sense.
On ‘I See’ they seem to have gotten their hands on some tablas, setting the stage for its murky psych drone. Although even here there’s plenty of melody poking through the gloom.
Each track on the album feels like it was recorded on a whim - in the best possible way. Environments change from song to song, but it’s sequenced really well, another touch that almost feels like it’s from a bygone era.
On 'Feeling Crushed', Towart says he’s "feeling crushed by the enormity of his success", a line dripping with sarcasm. But after a reasonably glowing review on a tastemaking international website, I think he can start singing it with sincerity.
Heisei No Oto (Japanese Left-Field Pop From The CD Age 89-96)
The last few years have seen a huge resurgence in interest about Japanese City Pop, a genre which flourished in the mid-seventies to eighties, and is now reaching a new generation of western ears thanks in large part to YouTube algorithms. Since 2017 the song 'Plastic Love' by Mariya Takeuchi, recorded in 1984, has racked up 60 million views.
The industrious record label Light In The Attic helped spread the word, releasing two City Pop compilations called Pacific Breeze 1 & 2, and a collection of ambient or 'environmental' music called Kankyo Ongaku, some of which hadn’t been licensed in western countries until then.
Now an Amsterdam label called Music From Memory has tapped into a similar vein of sounds. The subtitle for Heisei No Oto is Japanese Left-field Pop from the CD age 89-96, but that’s only part of the story. It’s certainly a stretch to call much of this music ‘pop’.
The track ‘Phlanged Vortex’ by Neiki Nonaka stretches on for eight sublime minutes, built on a repeating steel drum motif, vaporous synths, and a noodling saxophone. That and the artificial snare are the biggest clues as to what era this was made in.
The album was compiled by two record store owners in Osaka. Eji Taniguchi who owns Revelation Time and Norio Sato who owns Rare Groove. They avoided any J-Pop on the release, and were emboldened by the recent interest in City Pop to hone in on jazz, ambient and exploratory music they felt deserved wider recognition, both inside Japan and without. Up until now it’s only been available on CD.
At its best, this music escapes genre entirely, leaving the pure pleasure of hearing new sound-worlds for the first time. On the track ‘Stop Me’ by Tadahiko Yokogawa, there are era-appropriate signifiers like that fake record scratch effect, but the whole thing is carried along by live percussion to meditative effect.
Halfway through the album we get our first vocal, courtesy of early techno pioneer Poison Girl Friend. She sings over double bass and acoustic guitar, with the metronomic pulse of what sounds like a Roland 909 drum machine.
There are ghostly backing vocals and sinister effects which are quite unnerving. It reminds me a bit of Cibo Matto, the Japanese-American duo who found a bit of fame in the nineties, partly due to their affiliation with The Beastie Boys.
It’s followed up with a track by Dream Dolphin, taken from her 1996 album Atmospheric Healing. It might be the most contemporary sounding thing here, thanks in part to the 808 sub bass, as well as field recording of birds and water, and her own voice.
Later on the album, 'Mermaid' by Dido starts with what sounds like a traditional Japanese choir before we segue into a sort of eerie trip hop track, featuring some unnerving backwards vocals.
The album ends with a song called 'Retro Electric', which feels fitting. Heisei No Oto refers to the sound of the Heisei era, which started in 1989, the year that Japan shifted to primarily using compact discs. The music on this collection can sound dated at times, but it’s so specific to a certain place and time that every track feels fresh. All the musicians featured were incredibly forward-thinking, and this is an immersive, transportive collection. Hopefully the rediscovery of these forgotten pockets of musical history continues for a long time.