I was initially puzzled by the accusations of inauthenticity that were hurled with such vehemence and frequency at Lana Del Rey (née Elizabeth Grant) in the wake of her meteoric rise to It Girl status last year. Yes, her self-styled “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” persona doesn’t exactly jibe with reports that her career was bankrolled by Daddy Del Rey. And I guess we’re supposed to lament the fact that, unlike Amy Winehouse, she doesn’t appear to have a predilection for dope or booze to back up her supposed bad-girl bona fides. But since when exactly has “authenticity” ever been a criterion in pop music?
More legitimately damning were the interviews and live performances that began to emerge in the weeks and months following the singer’s inevitable courtship with the majors. Del Rey isn’t completely ineloquent, but she displays a lack of understanding of her source material, functioning almost entirely on the surface of a persona that could have been concocted in one of David Lynch’s wet dreams. The generous interpretation is that her creative choices are instinctual; the more popular, cynical point of view is that her aesthetics are purely superficial. Her speaking voice is high-pitched and girly, making her vie to be taken seriously by singing in a lower, sultrier range feel all the more contrived when she struggles to hit those notes in a live setting, as she infamously did on Saturday Night Live earlier this month, her enunciation twisted into an unintentional parody of Marlene Dietrich.
The enormous hype, to which Slant has unapologetically contributed, was bound to unfairly result in a backlash. To wit, her much-buzzed-about but abruptly postponed showcase in New York last fall pointed to a studio creation who might not be ready for primetime. But it seems unjust to hold an artist like Del Rey to a higher standard than, say, Britney Spears, who outsources everything including her own dancing, or Katy Perry, who even mimes her flute diddling, by sheer virtue of the fact that she makes pop music that’s “serious”—or at least greater than that of the lowest common denominator.
Stacked with the singles “Video Games,” “Blue Jeans,” and the title track, the first half of Del Rey’s Born to Die alone practically guarantees it a spot among the year’s best, and it’s only January. Del Rey’s vocal performances are at turns haunting and vampy: She uses her impressive range to dazzling effect on “Blue Jeans,” comparing her delinquent lover to both cancer and her favorite sweater in what seems like one swooning breath, and the album’s tour de force, “Off to the Races,” a theme song for the gold-digging coquette of some imaginary hip-hop film noir that juxtaposes a full orchestra and machine-gun barks straight out of the Portishead songbook.
It’s easy to hear why Del Rey started singing in a lower register. Early, radio-friendly versions of songs like “National Anthem” and the unexpectedly insightful and poignant “This Is What Makes Us Girls” were so lightweight that Del Rey’s Kewpie-doll performances barely kept them from floating away. The new versions, including a punched-up rendition of the formerly more chill “Diet Mtn Dew,” are given the same lush-strings-meet-hard-beats treatment. Ironically, the album’s sole weakness is the strength of its immaculate production, which can be a bit overwhelming over the course of 12 tracks (15 on the deluxe edition). The little flourishes that made “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” feel so special are diluted by sheer repetition. A distorted, ghostly whine reprised from previous tracks distracts from “Million Dollar Man,” an otherwise solid, bluesy ballad reminiscent of Fiona Apple, but most of the songs are strong enough to withstand such excess, and in many cases are accentuated by it.
The repetition of those elements in marriage with recurring themes of chasing paper (“Money is the reason we exist/Everybody knows it/It’s a fact,” Del Rey cheekily declares on “National Anthem”) and escaping the fuzz is what makes Born to Die one of the more cohesive pop albums in recent memory. “Radio” is the kind of self-referential, hard-knocks track that will only further bait Del Rey’s critics, and she fares much better when she sings in (or about) characters, as she does on “Carmen.” A “Coney Island Queen” with a fondness for slipping in and out of red dresses is referenced on both that track and the first-person “Off to the Races,” suggesting Del Rey isn’t trying to pass herself off as something she’s not, but rather, doing what the finest singer-songwriters have always done: “blurring the lines between real and the fake,” as she says on “National Anthem.” Pop music is all about artifice and escape, and “Lana Del Rey” is indeed an act.
In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, an insufferably pedantic academic played by Michael Sheen diagnoses Allen proxy Owen Wilson with nostalgia syndrome, a common neurosis that condemns the afflicted to a lifetime of pining for a rose-tinted version of the past that probably never existed. Del Rey may be the pop-star equivalent of a teenage girl naïvely playing dress up in her grandmother’s vintage clothing and singing into a hairbrush that conveniently looks like an old-fashioned microphone, but that doesn’t make Born to Die any less close to pop perfection.
Label: Interscope Release Date: January 31, 2012 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon