Aphoristic Album Reviews takes a look at three new releases from women this week. Ingoma, from South African teenager Azana, is a record from July 2020, while Cassandra Jenkin’s An Overview on Phenomenal Nature and Lana Del Rey’s Chemtrails Over The Country Club are both from the past few months. Enjoy!
If you haven’t been paying attention, you might have missed the fertile South African house music scene. It’s known in South Africa by the name amapiano, Zulu for “the pianos”, and originated in South African townships like Soweto. Amapiano is now in the mainstream, blending house sounds with soul and pop. One of the leading figures in the house scene is producer Sun-El Musician, who enjoyed a prolific 2020, producing acclaimed albums from Mthunzi and Simmy as well as releasing the epically long three-hour album To the World & Beyond under his own name. Perhaps the most notable record from the SunElWorld stable in 2020, however, was Ingoma, a record by 19-year-old newcomer Azana.
Ingoma sits in the intersection of soul, pop, and house, and it’s lovely. Azana describes her vocals as “my voice is Rich and soothing. It sounds like Royalty.” It starts gently – ‘Okhokho’ functions like an opening prayer, evoking Azana’s Zulu heritage. The more upbeat material is on the second half – ‘Ngize Ngifike’ and ‘Umoqondana’ emphasise the house beats. The highlight, though, is the lovely ‘Your Love’, built around a shimmering keyboard riff. It’s simply a terrific pop song, with a great verse melody, memorable chorus, and wordless hook, delivered with Azana’s creamy vocals.
Ingoma is a gorgeous debut, and ‘Your Love’ is my favourite song of 2020.
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
I’d never heard of Brooklyn’s Cassandra Jenkins before her sophomore album, but she’s well-credentialed. She was set to tour with Purple Mountains before David Berman’s suicide and has also worked with The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and The Fiery Furnace’s Eleanor Friedberger. Berman is referenced on ‘New Bikini’ – “After David passed away/My friends put me up for a few days/”
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature sounds dubious on paper, an indie-folk record that celebrates nature, adds monologues about how men have lost touch, and incorporates the kind of new-age textures you’d expect on a 1980s Van Morrison record. But it’s lovely in practice, pretty and warm. Jenkins’ voice is intimate and she’s a good enough lyricist to keep things interesting, casually dropping the word “panoply” into ‘Crosshairs’ and titling a song ‘Ambiguous Norway’.
Jenkins’ main collaborator is producer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman. Kaufman’s a member of Bonny Light Horsemen and who has worked with The National, Taylor Swift, and Josh Ritter. The arrangements are often key with lovely woodwind parts, while the dual lead guitar parts on ‘Ambiguous Norway’ are gorgeous.
The minimalist, meditative ‘Hailey’ is lovely. Lengthy closer ‘The Ramble’ brings the Van Morrison 1980s textures to the fore – with the saxophone and the exploratory atmosphere, it could have come from Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature has gained a larger-than-expected following – collectors have found it difficult to locate a physical copy – and it’s surprisingly endearing and effective.
Lana Del Rey
Chemtrails Over The Country Club
Lana Del Rey has been one of the most successful and influential artists of the last decade, without ever making a great album. Her brooding ballads, dipped in faded Hollywood glamour, have helped to shift the landscape of modern popular music – it’s difficult to imagine Taylor Swift’s 2020 albums or Lorde without Del Rey paving the way.
None of her individual records, however, have sustained interest for their entire running time. Chemtrails Over The Country Club follows 2019’s well-received Norman F***ing Rockwell, a record that stands as Del Rey’s best despite its sprawling length. Again produced by Jack Antonoff, Chemtrails Over The Country Club is a more concise record. It’s more low-key than Del Rey’s previous work, abandoning her usual cinematic feel for acoustic arrangements. It’s often vintage in feel, recalling the singer-songwriter era of the early 1970s. The connection is accentuated by the closing song, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song ‘For Free’, a meditation on art vs commerce that encapsulates a lot of the themes that Del Rey explores on the record.
Del Rey’s falsetto is more prominent than ever before – originally she made an impression with her deep register on her initial hit ‘Video Games’, but here she’s often using her head voice. It’s excellent on the opener ‘White Dress’, as she whispers about a “Men in Music Business Conference” that occurred when she was 19. The opening of ‘Let Me Love You Like A Woman’ – “I come from a small town, how about you?” – is one of my favourite Del Rey lyrics. Del Rey’s haunting and inscrutable on ‘Tulsa Jesus Freak’, the record’s standout song.
It’s understated but Chemtrails Over The Country Club is often sneaky good, one of Del Rey’s stronger records to date.