In all fairness, Armadale probably isn’t where you want to be if you’re an aspiring pop prodigy. I mean, there’s a really cool replica Elizabethan Village, which might work out OK for you if you’re repping some Joanna Newsom-type schtick and chasing a weekly spot at its ye olde taverne. Armadale is also the home of Perth’s annual Kilt Run and Highland Gathering which… nah, I’ve got nothing. You get the idea. Not the ideal base camp for synth-gilded world domination. I’m not full bottle on CHELA’s backstory, so I can’t say for sure that she had disco stardom in her sights when she left the foot of the Darling Scarp for Melbourne’s greener, grimier pastures. But given her fairly swift ascent to success, one would presume ambition played into things. In any case, the prodigal daughter has returned to Perth for a couple of shows before cartwheeling onto whatever fluorescent horizon beckons next.
We skirt down an alley and into a bar where we pay for one cocktail, and get another (improvised) cocktail for free. The drink is bright red, ridiculous, but ice-cold and well-balanced. Down below, William Street hums with a soft Sunday-evening energy. We continue through the Bird door-frame and are submerged in the mellow but energizing vibes transmitted by quality discmongers Jack Doepel, Troy Mutton and Roulade/Roland the Realest.
Before we know it, we’re treated to the dream team of LEON OSBORN and NORA ZION. With Osborn’s top-tier beatcraft and Zion’s nonchalant diva intonations this was bound to be a sweet pairing, but the extent to which the collaboration works is a testament to each artist’s perceptiveness. Osborn knows how to pare back his usually dense and full compositions to let Zion’s voice stand out; Zion, similarly, finds and tastefully occupies the space available in the tracks, neither hiding nor dominating. She seems to be a chameleon of sorts, able to blend almost instinctively into whatever environment she finds herself; seeing her perform with the altogether different Mudlark is a case-in-point. Yet despite this adaptability, her voice retains a distinctive, grounded quality that is unmistakable. The set goes down smooth and effortless, though its easy-on-the-ears vibe stops short of wallpaper status. Every shuffling bar is imbued with interest, and there are plenty of dynamic shifts, plenty of close-your-eyes-and-sway-heavily moments. You’ve got to hope that this is a gonna be a frequently recurring partnership.
We hear more from Roland the Releast on the boogie plates. It’s all satisfying yet restrained varieties of thump, squelch and snap: tracks like Tavares’ ‘Got To Find My Way Back To You,’ and September’s ‘Are You Free Tonight.’ Yep, these selections are perfect. Roland has nailed it.
Over to CHELA, who emerges in characteristically fashionable, bold apparel: a choker, styled as an industrial chain, framed by ruby-red hair; a tie-dyed singlet emblazoned with black and lime-green lettering; synthetic shorts and chunky kicks. I wouldn’t normally offer an inventory of an artist’s garments, but with Chela it seems like part and parcel. The fashion, the dancing, the laser light show, the songs are package deal; to remove a part would undercut the logic of the whole. Your brain might be asking: is that a thinly-veiled criticism, suggesting Chela’s music doesn’t stand up on its own? It could be, but it’s not – in fact, the ensuing set is dense with musical substance, just not the stuffy sort of “substance” that demands an ascetic abstinence from theatrics and glamour.
From the get-go it’s juicy, pulsating synths and medium-quick disco rhythms. The first tune puts ’90s-style house piano stabs front and centre, though that genre rarely rears its head so vividly thereafter. Chela’s joined by two hairy dudes wearing beads, playing keys and electro-acoustic drum kit respectively. The three of them form a fiendishly hip, uncommonly polished triangle of mellifluous intensity. So far, so good.
CHELA’s voice is pitch-perfect, clear and strong – but ultimately unremarkable. Your average Australian Idol Top 10’er could match her in terms of timbre and tune. So despite boasting a great voice, what makes Chela so uncommonly excellent really is her presence – contagious grins and irreverent banter, relentless commitment to nailing every line, genuinely incredible moves (she’s either had some serious dance lessons or she’s a freak of nature. Maybe both. She does cite Michael Jackson as a crucial influence).
As for the songwriting: well, the sounds shaking the speakers fit pretty snugly into established indie-synth/disco-pop blueprints. But the point here isn’t, I presume, to push envelopes. Chela and her various collaborators have crafted radio-friendly songs that are actually really, really good. And like any “hit” worth the tape it’s comitted to, they’re both immediate (I find myself humming along, unconciously, on impact) and memorable (two nights later, these choruses will continue to swirl around my skull). Steel drums and marimbas richochet over driving kicks, plump toothy bass, emphatic snares and scurrying offbeat hats. The blend of hip-hop/trap style production, woody percussion, shameless singalong hooks and lush synthesizers is heady, intoxicating, indulgent. It’s great.
The best song of the set is the second tune, but I can’t find it anywhere so I’ll tell about the second-best: a single called ‘Zero.’ Its persistent quaver bass and overlaid syncopations, where melodies and motifs parry and weave, is the stuff of pop genius. I dunno if it’s mere proximity that brings the comparison to mind, but I’m reminded of 80s synthpop star Nik Kershaw here (I saw him a few weeks back, see… the thick, intermittent guitar lines help too). The song is cleverer than it lets on. As a slice of electro-disco retro-futurism, It’s as good as anything on the most recent Daft Punk album – and better than about half of it.
The set closes out with yatch-tinged Kitsune single “Romanticize” which, like it not, will get inside your tympanic membrane, cling to it (“Chela” means “Claw” in latin) and stay there for weeks. Despite being a pretty mellow and moderately paced song, Chela and co inject it with sufficient vim to make it feel explosive. The smallish crowd, reserved for most of the night, howls in appreciation. It’s been a flawless set, knowing its limits and ambitions and playing to them perfectly. No, Chela’s music probably won’t change your life or the course of modern music, but within its specific scope it’s fantastic. I wish more bands were like this: skilful but unpretentious, fun but hardworking, playful but soulful… down-to-earth, but over-the-top. Chela, come back to the west coast any time you like.