I was first exposed to Lillie West’s Lala Lala project just over a year ago. The Chicago-based group — a three-piece on tour — was opening for Surf Curse at Marble Bar in Detroit, and their set featured visuals that were produced and projected live on a drop-down screen above the band. The image was just “Lala Lala” tiled across the screen with various effects and filters applied — relatively simple stuff — but the display hinted at an enthusiasm and willingness to create and explore different ways of presenting a project. It was technically a “multimedia” performance, I suppose, but it felt counterintuitively raw and unpretentiously DIY.
I later had the privilege of seeing Lala Lala open for Frankie Cosmos, but before then caught one of Lala Lala’s bassist Emily Kempf’s other projects opening for the D.C.-based Flasher. The project, called Dehd, is a collaboration between Kempf and NE-HI guitarist-vocalist Jason Balla. Balla, in turn, releases solo material under the name Accessory, and put out the excellent Blue Tape at the end of this past summer. Seeing Dehd — their raw energy, movement on stage and incredibly hooky guitar riffs — and recognizing Kempf was actually what prompted me to revisit Lala Lala. When I did, I was delightfully surprised and, wanting more, I began my descent down the rabbit hole of this particular nook of the Chicago indie scene. There I discovered the connections between these artists and more: Melkbelly, Whitney, Twin Peaks, Post Animal, Grapetooth — the list goes on. It’s not all that surprising that these people know each other, but the amount of collaboration and support that exists between them is impressive and uniquely heartening.
The Lamb, Lala Lala’s second album and first since West made the decision to go sober, seems in some ways a manifestation of the camaraderie that exists within the scene and between West and other friends. Anxiety and paranoia, to which West says her sobriety has contributed, also perfuse the album. On the record’s penultimate cut, West sings “Keep my friends safe keep my friends close / Keep my friends safe night and day / Keep my friends safe now and always.” Titled “When You Die,” the track functions as a prayer, one in which West has taken the phrase “live every day like it might be your last” to heart. When she’s not around to protect those close to her, she has to make sure someone is.
It’s important to note that West’s paranoia is far from unwarranted. While writing the album, she suffered more than one personal loss, and an intruder broke into her home. “I wish Herc hadn’t died, I wish I hadn’t gotten robbed,” she sings on “I Get Cut.” Compounded by her adjustment to sobriety and the stress inherent in being a young, independent musician, it’s a wonder that she’s still functioning at all.
It’s hard not to view The Lamb as the conclusion to some unwritten bildungsroman, but West has been careful to clarify that things aren’t so clear cut. For now, there may not be a definitive end point in her journey from addiction to sobriety. This sentiment is encapsulated in a single lyric on “Water Over Sex,” the album’s second single, where West delicately croons, “You think I’m good well I want to be gooder.” This is characteristic of her lyrical style, where communication — if sometimes extremely oblique — takes priority over correctness and blunt honesty comes through in both diction and delivery.
Lala Lala’s first release, Sleepyhead (2016), was recorded as a three-piece — guitar, bass and drums. For The Lamb, West and co. break out the synths and the drum machine in a big way. The introduction of “Water Over Sex” feels like something out of Porches’s Pool (2016), and “Dove” shimmers with a warbly, aquatic glow punctuated with harsh, emotive harmonies. Where the guitar tone across Sleepyhead is brilliantly chunky, The Lamb’s is much cleaner and shares more melodic responsibility with the synthesizer.
For all the differences from its predecessor — which, according to a Bandcamp piece on Lala Lala, West “doesn’t even consider … a real album” — The Lamb holds onto the same forward energy that made Sleepyhead a standout debut. West consistently discovers hooky, ostensibly obvious melodies in places you’d think had already been drilled dry. The Lamb also finds West seriously exploring her upper register for the first time. Opener “Destroyer” might be the best example, where she sings “You are the reason my heart broke behind my back” in a downward cascade that starts higher than she ever sang on Sleepyhead and ends in her most comfortable range, talk-singing plainly but forcefully.
On the same day of the album release, Lala Lala put out a video for “Scary Movie,” The Lamb’s ninth track. In it, a couple takes turns flying a kite on the beach as skips and imperfections in the film flash upon the screen. The man and woman in the video are West’s parents, and the film taken before West was born, though she discovered it only recently. Nostalgia flows freely from the video, while West’s troubling lyrics float above: “Spilling blood is ugly / Unless I know it’s mine,” “This knowing leads to horror / There’s hands around my neck.” Captured here is the ultimate conflict of The Lamb, where sweetness, love, protectiveness and a desire to keep getting better are all at war with paranoia, anxiety, violence and fear of abandonment.
When all’s said and done, West doesn’t have any clear answers for us. What she presents is a raw, thoroughly unpretentious reflection on being an imperfect human. One who lies, who sometimes drinks too much, who is hurt and hurts, who wants to be “gooder” but doesn’t always have the energy to do so, or even know how. One who, at the end of the day, still needs to eat. The Lamb is a bold but sure second step for West, and one that points to a bigger and better future no matter what the past may have held.
Catch Lala Lala at the Loving Touch in Ferndale, MI on Friday, Nov. 23rd with WHY? and the Ophelias.