Imagines a theme park full of miniature supermarkets where this music will be piped in.
The German-based cassette label Strategic Tape Reserve is nothing if not ambitious. The cheeky concept to this 90-minute compilation (just like the days of C90 mixtapes) imagines a theme park full of miniature supermarkets where this music will be piped in (as in the days when mall public address systems were fueled on muzak programs instead of pop hits). The invented backstory includes a proposal to the Horizon 2020 Fund (a real EU R&D initiative) that will include a copy of the tape and a request for 60 million Euros. That whimsical dream and bright pink cassette case aside, ShopLand World: Music for a Discovery Park of Miniature Supermarkets is a dense and frequently unsettling anthology that refuses to stay in the background.
The set opens with the melancholy fragment “Prelude One” by Nicholas Langley; its glassy, rippling keyboard figures suggest exotica, the very kind of background music that once provided the soundtrack to grocery stores and shopping malls, but the minor-key melody is haunting, not exactly conducive to squeezing the Charmin. The soothing timbres soon turn eerie with Elizabeth Joan Kelly’s “What Penumbras,” with glitchy synths (not for the last time on this set) shifting into a chorus of electronically-altered voices muttering unintelligibly. This isn’t a trip to the dazzling cornucopia of the modern grocery store, but a descent into a commercial hellscape, with a quick succession of shimmering blips suggesting a nightmarish aural vision of the checkout aisle.
There’s a lot to parse here, and it goes far beyond the label’s enticing, benign run-up to the release on Twitter, where the cassette was cheerfully placed among various prepackaged foodstuffs. While the musical tone may have little in common with your typical trip to Costco, there is an element in common: surprise, with the initial onslaught of electronics, after a few plays, sorting itself out into different school cafeteria tables. Fire-Toolz’s “μακάρων νῆσοι「Fortunate Isles」 (MindSpring Memories – Boat Float remix)” opens up this world-building with more expansive synth washes that suggest looking upon the vast worlds within the miniature supermarket of the STR dream.
While a theme park of commerce (is there any other kind?) might suggest utopia for the optimistic, ShopLand more often than not reflects dystopia. The very title of Phirnis’ “Stockpiling,” a noisier, more industrial track than most here, suggests preparation for the apocalypse. Whetman Chelmets seems to evoke something more tranquil with the title “Wait Line for the Bossa Nova Aisle,” but this too sounds like something out of a bad science-fiction dream, dark melodies and a mournful, down-pitched voice playing like a metallic dirge.
Still, this isn’t without playfulness. Three pleasing fragments from qualchan. sound much like vintage muzak. Robert Macbeth’s “Study into the Effects of Background Music on In-store Shopping Behaviour (See R. E. Milliman, 1982)” invokes academia in its title, launching with a reboot sound effect and shifting into a chipmunk-voiced chorus reading a shopping list. There’s mischief in these parts too: The signal of Heejin Jang’s “Orgel” breaks up so much that you may repeatedly check your Bluetooth connection to make sure it’s all in order, but that choppiness is by design. And note that moduS ponY’s “Big Yellow Taxi” is not a Joni Mitchell cover.
On the other hand, ShopLand is less successful when it takes its concept too literally. The slightly distorted “K-Mart shoppers” announcements in Third Witness’ “PSA” are mere blunt objects on a tape that for the most part, much like the commerce it satirizes, is far more subtle and insidious.
Then again, the dirge-like tone can be too much to take over 90 minutes, and the B-side is harder to digest. Yet the album’s most endearing melody is buried here: Suko Pyramid’s delightful instrumental “Look Mother (My Own Tiny Supermarket)” makes groceries fun again. Recalling theme-park horror rides more often than the Happiest Place on Earth, ShopLand is a largely intelligent and complex, if not entirely pleasant, shopping experience.