A few weeks back, Sabrina Chap (born Chapadjiev) 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 handwritten 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 The 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 Ménage 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 possesses the sort of musical precision that allows it 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.