Lana del Rey – Born to Die
Let’s just get this out of the way first. I have a massive girl crush on Lana Del Rey: that face, that effortless ability, demonstrated in the video for her recent single ‘Born to Die’, to make what is essentially a glorified floral shower cap look unfeasibly glamourous, but most of all, that voice, deployed to heart-breaking effect on last year’s internet sensation ‘Video Games’. So my expectations for her debut were perhaps unfeasibly high, and unsurprisingly, I’m left feeling more than slightly disappointed.
Opener ‘Born to Die’ starts things on a high, starting with a cinematic orchestral flourish and then languidly expanding into the kind of lazy melancholia that Lana seems to excel at. This jarring contrast between the lushness of the backing track, all soaring strings and hiccuping percussion. Her unaffected vocals is perhaps what makes this song, and the lovely ‘Video Games’, so haunting. Four songs in, however, after the lovely hat trick of ‘Born to Die’, ‘Blue Jeans’ and ‘Video Games’ (the less said about the awkward semi-rapping on second track ‘Off To The Races’ the better) things just seem to become downright boring. Each song is a variation on the same theme: a cliché ridden evocation of how materialistic and fame hungry we all are. This is hardly the most original point of reference, and somewhat ironic coming from someone who has apparently crafted an artificial persona, changing her name from the slightly less exotic Lizzie Grant, as a means of selling records. And whilst the backing tracks and the melodies may often have a hypnotic, absorbing quality, (the understated ‘Dark Paradise’ is perhaps an album highlight) this cannot make up for the total banality of the lyrics, which move from forgivably cheesy to painfully tedious. Del Rey’s repertoire seems to extend only to lines apparently grabbed from really bad chick lit, or cringey faux-gangsta references to ‘sipping on Black Cristal.’ Lana, you are not from the ghetto. Please stop.
The singer’s vocals are perfectly functional throughout, but on songs such as ‘Diet Mountain Dew’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’, they sound almost completely devoid of emotion: it’s almost as if she’s bored of her own songs. It is difficult to reconcile the emotional depth of the album’s more successful moments with the superficiality and absolute tedium of the rest. This makes Born to Die a disconcertingly incoherent listen, which frustratingly just can’t live up to the promise of ‘Video Games’.
By Kate Rosseinsky
Destroyer – Kaputt
No one could be blamed for being a bit baffled by Kaputt on the first listen. It seems a bit incongruous that an album awash with so many 80s sonic touchstones could have been released last year. The mix is full of jazz horns, big drums, dreamy synths and even a flute solo. It brings to mind classic albums like Roxy Music’s Avalon. However, this album definitely doesn’t stand alone in the independent music scene. 80s revivalism has been quite a recent trend, you only have to look at most Chillwave albums or even Bon Iver’s latest album (Beth/Rest specifically). The difference with Kaputt is that Destroyer go for it one hundred percent, and I think produce something spectacular.
Destroyer is the brainchild of Daniel Bejar, who also records with the New Pornographers and Swan Lake. His usual obtuse lyrics and laid-back delivery are present on Kaputt, but here I think they suit the music better than ever before. Most of the lyrics don’t have any concrete interpretation as in most Destroyer albums, although many songs sound like reminiscences. One of the most interesting songs is ‘Suicide Demo for Kara Walker’ in which Bejar sets music to words sent to him by the American artist Kara Walker. Most of Walker’s work deals with race and sexuality; by giving the words new context Bejar creates a different perspective from which to view the content. Lines like “Harmless little Negress/You got to say yes/To another excess” end up taking on a haunting quality. The album played totally straight though; some of the lyrics are quite funny. The music video for the title track is evidence is prime evidence for this; it opens with a 13 year old boy wearing ridiculously large glasses emerging from a crowd of beautiful women before wiping his nose. This is all set to the lyrics “Wasting your days/Chasing some girls alright/Chasing cocaine/Through the backrooms of the world all night”.
Something that struck me about the album is how fun it is to listen to. It’s a really hazy, mellow album and a lot of the playing by the instrumentalists is top class. The jazz flute solo in ‘Suicide Demo for Kara Walker’ deserves special mention as a really atmospheric performance. While I’m not suggesting modern music returns exactly to this sort of style, it gives the album a really distinct feeling in the current musical climate. Anyone who checks this out is in for an illuminating experience. I think the chorus of the title track best sums up the whole feeling of the album: “Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME/All sounds like a dream to me”.
By Michael Vasmer
The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
The Civil Wars are a duo comprised of singer-songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White, who first gained general recognition when one of their songs was featured on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, before going on to be nominated for two Grammys in November 2011. The Civil Wars’ music is undeniably cool, folk music with a dark, modern twist; and with hushed voices and stripped-back accompaniment, it is safe to say that the music lays a heavy focus on their lyrical abilities.
Admittedly, the album opens with something of a whimper. Although “20 Years” is a brilliant song, it lacks the punch really needed to open an album. The second song “I’ve Got This Friend”, however, is upbeat, quirky and cute with charming lyrics and impressive harmonies, making it a much more memorable track. Opening with a loud, almost mournful cry, the eponymous track Barton Hollow comes exactly half way through the album and contrasts starkly with the quieter tracks on the album. The song really reveals their folk/country origins, and the powerful rawness of the accompaniment and their voices ensures that Barton Hollow successfully avoids the lull that can often be found at the midway point of an album.
Whilst their original material is brilliant, it is the two bonus covers at the end of the album that really shine. Their cover of The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” adds real depth to a song that is usually quite fluffy and lacking in heart, and the harmony of Williams and White’s voices is particularly striking in this song. Their second cover, however, is my favourite. It is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End of Love” and, although it does not particularly vary from the original, it is rendered more beautiful by the haunting contrast of White’s throatiness and the sweetness of Williams’ voice.
Overall, Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars is a fantastic first offering, with few dud songs and more than a couple of memorable tracks. It is impossible to dislike their soulful, sensual sound, and The Civil Wars look set for great success.
By Rachel White
Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
Callahan begins his work with the words “the real people went away”. Then the guitar chords kick in as we enter his world. He spends pensive songs creating scenarios of cattle droving, watching TV and saying goodbye as mediums for deep reflection. Indeed the album itself runs like a season of episodes, describing a man’s journey and return into the wilderness. The opener “Drover” is the pilot the grips you in its driving intensity and the blood-tingling chorus of “One thing about this wild, wild country…” and allows way for slower songs such as “Baby’s Breath” and “Free’s”. The album’s high point is “Riding For the Feeling”, which describes a speaker’s pain and consolation of farewells. It is the fix that Callahan admirers need: that endless repetition of one line, in this case the song title, which encapsulates an emotion and embeds itself in your head. Then comes the long finale of “One Fine Morning”, describing a story finishing, as he sings “No more drovering”, but also full of expectation as the speaker rides out to a new adventure.
The album marks a significant change from his previous work Sometimes I Wish We were an Eagle, which, though consoling, was weighed with recent grief. In fact, Apocalypse seems to mark that moment when all the grief is past and a sense of freedom ensues. Indeed this is no better expressed than in Callahan’s cheery whistling and the tooting of the jazz flute of his song “Free’s”. Then why such a bleak album name as Apocalypse? Perhaps it relates to the revitalized energy that Callahan releases after 21 years in the music business. The backing instrumentation equally support this with pockets of explosive guitar noises and weeping violins. Indeed the songs possess a conviction that may come at the brink of an apocalyptic final judgement. There is no hesitation in the hero of the songs. He is aware of his imperfection yet sure of his ideals. Besides who would have the confidence to write a song entitled “America!” (exclamation mark included) and then conscript their musical heroes “Captain Kristofferson…Sergeant Cash”, not to mention putting Kris Kristofferson at a higher rank than Johnny Cash.
Perhaps Apocalypse relates to Callahan coming to terms with his ageing. It must affect most forty year olds that the mid-life crisis is near or even happening, and it may seem like the end of the world. However, Callahan appears to have weathered this storm and come out with a new youthful vitality as well as the wisdom of experience. So when he says “My apocalypse” in the closing song, Callahan sounds like he is cherishing it, as if it were something tamed but also achieved. And one can only assume that his last words on the album are “Chicago for 5–0” means that he’s looking ahead to a new city, a new age, and hopefully some new music as well.
By Oliver White