About a year ago around this time, Drew and I went out to Portland to visit my friend April & our visit happily coincided with a show featuring The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (who, incidentally, have a great new video out that you can watch here — just take a second and watch it if you haven’t already seen it, it’s so good!) Anyway, Neverever was one of the openers at that show (though they were going by the name The Champagne Socialists back then) and though their set was short and the sound was bad (terrible!), they’ve been in the back of my mind ever since.
I don’t always do the best job of keeping up with new releases, so their debut album crept on up me, but I got my copy in the mail from Slumberland Records the other day & I’ve got to say, it’s a real pleasant surprise for me. Angelic Swells features 11 songs (10 originals and a Plimsouls cover, “Now”) & the majority of them are great! Jaihae Meek has a smooth yet commanding voice (think Mary Weiss in the opening moments of “Walking in the Sand” or “Out in the Streets” or Mari Wilson singing the bridge of “Just What I Always Wanted”) & Neverever’s songs incorporate hand-claps, foot-stomps, call-outs, girls’-rhymes, and a number of things that I find tremendously appealing that help to create this rough-and-tumble-post-bad-girl-group vibe that I am really into.
“Blue Genes” (which was previously released as a Champagne Socialists 7”) is lyrically an unsettling narrative about an incestuous relationship disguised as an innocuous pop tune & “Coconut Shampoo” and “Underwater Ballet” (which just might be my favorite song on the album) are catchy stunners. The one true “oh no” moment on this for me is the song “Cowboys and Indians,” a song that opens with Western-style gunshot sound effects and features Jihae “war whooping.” Not kidding. I kind of can’t even listen to it — the outdated stereotypes of Native Americans that the song depicts make me cringe and whether or not they’re coming from an “ironic” place or a “well-intentioned” place, I kind of just can’t deal. There’s been a lot of discussion on fashion blogs lately about Native American trends in North American (specifically US) fashion/hipster culture (I tend to think of My Culture is Not a Trend as the locus of this dialogue) & I honestly hadn’t expected those conversations to intersect with what I spend the majority of my time writing about here (you know, mail order records and pop music), but this song was a reminder that these discussions reach into all spheres, especially when people are talking about cultural products and the way that identities are constructed and information is disseminated through popular media.
Listening to “Cowboys and Indians” raises a lot of questions for me: who do narratives “belong” to? Whose place is it to temporarily adopt the identity of a culture and speak from that culture’s perspective? What measures need to be taken to make sure that people’s histories and stories are not carelessly appropriated and presented in a racist or otherwise demeaning context? (I see a lot of good discussions about this with regard to literature and writers setting stories in cultures that are not their own, but have seen little criticism about this specific to music. I’ll have to do some looking and reading.) What images/associations do we evoke when we make use of outdated (and, more often than not, inaccurate) cultural signifiers (see the “war whooping” in this song)?
Maybe this is a time to point people toward that great bastion of multicultual education, Sesame Street. If you have 35 seconds, watch this animated clip, colloquially referred to as, “Indians don’t talk like that!”
Anyway, I’ve read little specific criticism/commentary on “Cowboys and Indians” — one review compares it to a Siouxsie Sioux b-side, another says, “The lyrical idiocy continues on “Cowboys and Indians”, a track that makes light of America’s colonial history into a weak metaphorical vehicle intended to convey a lovers’ quarrel.”
So, I’m really at an impasse — there’s a lot that I like about this album sonically — it sounds good. I love Jihae’s vocals, I like the drums, I like the nods to fifties and sixties girl groups and seventies glam rock, but lyrically the album doesn’t do much for me. “Cowboys and Indians” is troubling at best and unlistenable at worst &, honestly, it does cast a long, dark shadow over the album for me.
Angelic Swells is available on LP ($8) and CD ($10). You can order it direct from Slumberland here.
Thoughts I didn’t have the wherewithall to integrate into this: Stylistically speaking, I quite like the look that Jihae and Wallace have cultivated for themselves. This album really is fun to listen to and I didn’t expect to get so heavy in reviewing it, but I think it’s important to turn a critical eye to things — it doesn’t mean you have to disown them, but I really think there’s something to be said for being an active listener and not being afraid to actively interrogate the messages that are encoded into cultural products.