Monthly Archives: January 2012
Lana Del Rey – Born To Die
She may have released some underground material under her given name, Lizzy Grant, but for all intents and purposes, Born To Die is Lana Del Rey’s debut record. And it arrives with an unfair amount of pressure. After all, Del Rey received little to no attention before 2011, releasing “Video Games” on the Internet just as she would any of her earlier work, in no way assuming it would catapult her to stardom. However, this particular song caught the attention of both the press and the public, spawning a startling, deafening amount of hype and buzz. It’s not hard to see why: “Video Games” is a stirring song, emotional, well-written and smartly produced, never going for obvious catharsis. A good song, sure, but the indie blog circuit put it on something of a pedestal, and suddenly every move that Del Rey made was treated as a genuine news event. Thing is, all this attention took Del Rey by surprise, and she seemed unprepared to deal with her surprise success—success that culminated in a gig on Saturday Night Live, a rare feat for someone who had only a few songs to her name. And it’s that same unpreparedness that makes Born To Die feel like an underdeveloped mess.
Whether or not you bought into Del Rey’s hype will determine how much this album will disappoint you, but it is a disappointment, no matter how you slice it. “Video Games” is still the best thing on the record, and previously released songs like the dramatic title track and the sultry, cool “Blue Jeans” are nearly as successful. But what about the new material? Well, unfortunately, this is where the album flounders. Instead of offering different sides to her personality, Born To Die largely offers retreads of “Video Games” that fail more often than they succeed. Each of these songs are mainly variations on the same theme—the theme of course being her fantasies about men and fancy, booze-fueled parties. If cleverly written, this wouldn’t be a problem (after all, much of pop music history revolves around similar concerns), but her lyrics are hit or miss, and when they miss, they just seem ham-fisted (Take “I’m your national anthem/God, you’re so handsome” from “National Anthem”). Musically, the record has a woozily attractive sound—grandly theatrical strings and pianos meet menacing R&B rhythms—but it’s played out on nearly every track and begins to wear quickly, even if there are some fetching tunes here and there. Also, other than her occasional awkward stabs at rapping and whispered asides, Del Rey’s smoky vocal performances sound appealing but lack the personality or energy to truly sell her sensuality. The largest issue with Born To Die, though, is the songs themselves. Aside from those three aforementioned singles, not much here really works. Sure, it’s always listenable but many of the songs meander about, leaving little impact before settling on a rather weak hook and fading out. Surprisingly, only the nostalgic closer “This Is What Makes Us Girls” injects some life into the album, and not coincidentally, it’s one of the few tracks to mix things up a bit. Even if the hype following the release of her early singles was excessive, it was fair to expect that the songs on this album would measure up at least halfway to the glory of those tracks. For anyone else, Born To Die would just be another decent, if unremarkable, debut, one that would hopefully lay the foundation for a more successful sophomore album. That could still be the case, but for Lana Del Rey, it’s bound to be seen as a letdown.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
In the early 1990s, few would have pictured Trent Reznor winning an Academy Award for Best Original Score. Whether he was splattered with mud at Lollapalooza 1991 or making FCC-baiting music videos, Reznor seemed too confrontational to ever settle into scoring something like a big-budget picture, let alone having a knack for it. But a decade later, as time turned him from a punk into a veteran, Reznor and his longtime collaborator Atticus Ross scored David Fincher’s 2010 film, The Social Network, and they did it on their own terms. It was a moody, pensive record, weaving electronic and organic instruments together, with equal parts melody and atmosphere. It was unconventional for a major film score, but it was just that breath of fresh air that many (including the Academy) revered, and Fincher signed Reznor and Ross to score his next project: an adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s crime novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
On the surface, the score from Dragon Tattoo isn’t too different from that of The Social Network: it’s still a shape-shifting, textured record with just as many piano chords as bursts of feedback. That being said, aside from the presence of computer hackers, the story of Facebook’s origin is much different than a murder mystery involving rape, incest and Nazism, and there’s an appropriate shift in tone here. This is dark and often unsettling music, often made up of nothing more than drones, buzz, metallic clatter, sparse music-box melodies and a thick layer of melancholy or dread, depending on what the scene called for. In other words, it’s not something you put on for a shot of energy, and with its stressful atmospherics, it may not be suitable background noise for a late-night stroll, unless panic attacks are your thing. But the neat trick here, and a testament to Reznor and Ross’ musicality, is that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo isn’t a particularly difficult listen. No matter how claustrophobic it gets, the duo exercises great control throughout, building tension and fear rapidly but pulling away before things get too out of hand. Plus, even though individual tracks aren’t important in a record all about shifting dynamics, the two covers that bookend the album act as points of entry for the uninitiated. Opening with Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” Reznor proves that the years haven’t dulled his blade, surrounding guest vocalist Karen O’s voice in a flurry of ferocious noise and industrial drums. Meanwhile, the cover of Bryan Ferry’s touching “Is Your Love Strong Enough?,” which features Reznor’s wife (and How To Destroy Angels bandmate) Mariqueen Maandig, is easily the most pop-oriented thing on the record.
The only real, major complaint about the score is its length. At nearly 3 hours (!) and 39 tracks (!!), it actually runs a bit longer than the film itself (!!!). So while Dragon Tattoo succeeds as a film score, it doesn’t seem designed to be listened to as a standalone record, especially since there isn’t much variation from track to track. This isn’t to say that it’s boring or repetitive—Reznor and Ross are skilled enough to keep things interesting, bringing in the tearful “What If We Could?” and the aggressive “Infiltrator” at just the right moments—but the album doesn’t justify its gargantuan run time, considering a pick of any handful of songs is likely to give the listener the same effect. All 39 tracks are filled with quality music, evoking the suspense and tension of the film, and for fans of Reznor and the film, there is much to delight in. Yet, there simply isn’t enough here to compel you to listen through to the end every time, and it’s hard to imagine many listeners returning to this record in anything other than small batches.
of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks
With thecontrollersphere EP, Kevin Barnes seemingly put an end to his sex freak persona, Georgie Fruit, whose tales of late-night conquests and later-night depression he’d been exploring since the tail end of 2007’s masterful Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? If Fruit was a way for Barnes to escape into his imagination and fantasy, Paralytic Stalks finds Barnes returning to dealing with his problems and emotions directly. This isn’t a return to the sugary pop of his past, though: Fruit may be gone, but his spirit still lingers. Under the Fruit guise, Barnes was free to dabble in all manner of experimental R&B, fragmented song structures and playful, verbose lyrics. All of these remain on Paralytic Stalks, but R&B and soul don’t provide the foundation for the music anymore, even if they flavor the tracks here and there. Instead, the album explores the extremes of of Montreal’s sound, featuring Barnes at his most difficult and accessible, gentle and furious. In interviews leading up to the record’s release, he frequently name-checked Sufjan Stevens’ The Age Of Adz, inspired by its artistic ambition. It should not come as a surprise, then, that there’s no obvious single here, and many songs reach into the 7+ minute mark. “Gelid Ascent” mainly serves as an extended intro—all swirling noise, echo and clashing percussion—but the record really picks up with “Spiteful Intervention” and “Dour Percentage,” two tracks that perfectly merge Barnes’ supreme melodic ability and his restless sonic tinkering. The former is all barely contained resentment (“I made the one I love start crying tonight, and it felt good!” he screams), while the latter dresses relationship woes in vocal harmonies and woodwind orchestrations so lovely, it’s easy to overlook the torment underneath, something Barnes does best. The reflective “Wintered Debts” also manages to effectively balance its bitter verses with its funereal coda. Yet Paralytic Stalks is often a record that seems at odds with itself, alternating between brilliance and madness. The two chaotic jams “We Will Commit Wolf Murder” and “Ye, Renew The Plaintiff” start off great but begin to meander a little as they race to the finish. Even more curious is “Exorcismic Breeding Knife,” a swirling sound collage that borders on musique concrète for its entire 8 minute sprawl, and the marathon closer “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission,” whose sprightly beginning and introspective ending are separated by eerie drones. Some of the experimental sections in these songs are striking, but they are nearly always upstaged by their more conventional counterparts, not to mention the breezy respite “Malefic Dowery,” which helps to serve as a reset button among the album’s denser tracks. Considering Barnes took inspiration from The Age Of Adz, it’s fitting that Paralytic suffers the same flaw as that album: the record is meant to be both emotionally direct and sonically adventurous, but the experiments and indulgences sometimes obscure the emotion rather than bring it into sharper relief. Paralytic Stalks is still a fine effort with many fantastic moments, but given the strength of the more structured songs here, it’s hard not to wish Barnes would quit mucking around and get back to what he does best.
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Whereas 2007’s White Chalk featured Polly Jean Harvey quietly ruminating on a set of haunting, piano-based ballads, 2011’s Let England Shake is an impassioned rallying cry, bursting forth with ideas and a sense of purpose. Similar to Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, this record is directly inspired by a place—England, if you haven’t figured by the title—but as you might have expected, this isn’t some Cool Britannia-era celebration of queen and country. Harvey may describe England as beautiful on “The Last Living Rose,” but when she follows it up with “Let me walk through the stinking alleys to the music of drunken beatings,” her motives become a bit less clear. Most of all, though, she uses her homeland’s rich military history (often from World War I) to tell stories of death and war. “What is the glorious fruit of our land?” Harvey asks on the call-and-response rally “The Glorious Land.” “The fruit is deformed children,” she hears back. Let England Shake isn’t a fiery anti-war polemic, though. Instead, it addresses its subject in equal parts poem and matter-of-fact narrative, recognizing the sacrifices of soldiers without glamorizing the battles in which they fought. Take for instance “The Colour Of The Earth,” which describes the death of a soldier from a friend’s point of view. It’s so simple and true, that it sounds like an old standard.
It’s grim stuff, to be sure, but the record avoids easy doom-and-gloom, going for a sound that’s as nuanced and diverse as the words. Bouncing xylophones score Harvey’s tale of swimming in the “fountain of death” on the title track; wartime bugles call out on “The Glorious Land,” and even a sample of reggae giant Niney the Observer haunts “Written On The Forehead.” Harvey doesn’t completely betray the tough simplicity of her older work, though: “In The Dark Places” and especially the rough-and-tumble “Bitter Branches” provide some contrast from the album’s softer moments. But even at the record’s fiercest and most eclectic, there’s always a dreary, battle-worn murk that unites the album and give the songs the proper tone. Perhaps just as important, Harvey still sings in the atypically high register she did on White Chalk, and it serves the music well, allowing for some charming duet and chants with male vocalists on songs like “The Colour Of The Earth” and the gorgeous ballad “Hanging In The Wire.” Incredibly well-crafted and executed, Let England Shake stands as one of the best records of 2011 and a peak in PJ Harvey’s distinguished career.