By Bruce 46 Comments
I didn’t know much about the Chromatics before the Drive (2011) soundtrack. I actually assumed that their instrumental contribution to the film, “Tick of the Clock” (from 2007’s Night Drive), was part of Cliff Martinez’s score. Although I had listened to Night Drive years ago, the only thing I really took away from it was the uninspired (played note-for-note, but without the fury of the original) cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”. Mostly it (Night Drive) was lonely synth songs coupled with lonelier instrumentals. Far too many instrumentals. (They dragged on FOREVER, too. The album version of “Tick of the Clock” is fifteen minutes long!) While “Tick of the Clock” (Chromatics’ stylistic blueprint) fit within the tense loneliness of Drive’s nighttime streets, it’s not all that interesting when the latter is absent. The Chromatics’ latest record Kill for Love is an improvement over Night Drive, but there are still too many instrumentals distracting from what the band does exceptionally well: dark, atmospheric synth pop. The gimmicky, low-pass aesthetic was occasionally intriguing on Night Drive, but here it dominates what few songs there actually are amidst the sixteen tracks.
“The Eleventh Hour”, for example, is a gorgeous piece of isolation until it blends into “Tick of the Clock” all over again. And “Broken Mirrors” does the same thing…but for seven minutes. “There’s a Light Out On the Horizon” is similarly dull, save for the endearing voicemail in the middle; other than that, it’s a static keyboard riff that never intensifies.
I did, however, enjoy the pair of pitch-adjusted ballads, “These Streets Will Never Look the Same” and “Running from the Sun”. The former is bombastically electronic (oddly the most alive song on the record), whereas the latter sibling is calmer and as emotive as a robot vocal (other than Daft Punk’s “Something About Us”) can be.
“Kill for Love” is stunning pop that rivals College’s “A Real Hero”, and I love the lyrics, too: “I drank the water and I felt alright. I took a pill almost every night. In my mind I was waiting for change / while the world just stayed the same.”
“It’s better to burn out, than to fade away,” sings Ruth Radelet on “Into the Black”, a Disintegration (1989) inspired memento for past rock ‘n’ roll heroes; one that uses Johnny Rotten’s career as an effective metaphor for beating the obscurity that comes with age.
Ironically, the pleasant “Birds of Paradise” leads to a series of tracks that can – at best – be described as self-indulgent filler. (“A Matter of Time” somehow manages to make ethereal vocals feel abrasive.) More of that same drum machine pattern, those same airy keyboards and distant post-punk riffs, and that same low-pass feel. Album closer “The River” is particularly discouraging, since it – once again – relies on the base of “Tick of the Clock” and the aforementioned formula. It’s a shame, too, because there are great songs on Kill for Love; they’re just buried by musicians better suited for condensed pop than drawn out pieces. But saying an album would be better if half of its songs were scrapped, well, it’s not exactly the best compliment in the world.
P.S. Guys: I have a video blog series on my main blog. Check it out if you're at all interested in watching me ramble for ten to fifteen minutes at a time.
The Velvet Underground produced four classic albums between 1967 and 1970; but they were all commercial failures. Even Loaded (1970), Lou Reed’s upmost attempt at commercialism, bombed, failing to produce even a modest hit single: a paradox for an album that was practically made for radio. Reed would go without a hit until 1972, when “Walk on the Wild Side” glamorized the gutter life of New York City and its superstars, and those colored girls went, “doo do doo, doo do doo, doo do doo.” The album that shortly followed, Transformer, is a personal favorite of mine (and my father’s all-time favorite album). Although Reed would soon return to making “difficult” music that took decades to fully appreciate (Berlin), his 1972 repackaging, with David Bowie and Mick Ronson at the production helm of Transformer, arguably saved his career. And if the change worked for Reed at thirty, it could certainly work for twenty-five year old Lizzy Grant, no?
Pardon me; her name is Lana now, Lana Del Rey. And her attempt at Transformer is Born to Die, a collection of white trash songstress filler with no business being associated with its otherwise excellent singles: “Video Games”, “Blue Jeans”, and the emphatic title track, “Born to Die”.
“Off to the Races” is a tonal mess, a motif on this record; Del Rey’s high pitched, skank vocal (the latter of her two primary registers, the other being not so difficult to sit through) shrieks some of the most self-indulgent gangsta nonsense you’ve heard uttered since Scarface. It’s hard to believe that “Video Games” was written by the same person who playfully sings, “Be a good baby, do what I want. Light of my life, fire of my loins. Gimme them gold coins.” And it doesn’t get much better. “National Anthem” isn’t up to the standard of the Katy Perry mega-hit that it pathetically masquerades as. “Diet Mountain Dew”, one of Lana's better unreleased songs, gets reworked here, with ill-fitting drums, more of those stupid yelping vocal samples, and even more wholesale orchestral swelling in place of substance.
“Dark Paradise” is tolerable, save for some embarrassing lyrics and a dull drum machine churning away in the background. “Million Dollar Man” I actually like, though; I mean, if Lana is going to consistently take this skanky, almost neon light-filled approach to songwriting, she might as well go all the way with it. I could easily picture her singing this one in Vegas, albeit not in front of as big a house as she probably thinks.
“This is What Makes Us Girls” blatantly shoots for the teen tragedies of Mary Weiss and the Shangri-Las, but it fails. Lana spends the entire record, with the exception of “Video Games” (an obvious outlier at this point), glorifying the leather laden bad boys with more and more lover’s rock; but the final song is a retrospective critique on that lifestyle. . . the obvious foolishness of be-all-end-all runaway love? Are you kidding? Any strong willed girl would have a field day with this song, but I’ll say this: “Video Games” was a masterful depiction of emotional dependency, whereas “This is What Makes Us Girls” is both cheap and demeaning. Not only does it imply an inherent weakness prevalent amongst all women, but it doesn’t work as a song. The narrative doesn’t flow, “that’s where the beginning of the end begun,” and just as she always does when cornered, Lana relies on quick tonal shifts that do fuck all to compensate for the poor instrumental structure.
By becoming Lana Del Rey, Lizzy Grant emulates an astounding company of past rock ‘n roll gimmicks—all of which were necessary to the artist’s success. David Bowie became Ziggy Stardust; Lou Reed became, well, a prettier Lou Reed; and the New York Dolls dressed up like a bunch of prostitutes. But unlike her forefathers (and sisters, in the Dolls’ case) she hasn’t made a great record, at least not yet. Born to Die is certainly no Transformer, and a true pop music “character” (and metamorphosis) simply isn't warranted by three good songs.
One of the best pop duos of all time.
10. "East Harlem" by Beirut, from the album The Rip Tide.
The Rip Tide’s greatest achievement is “East Harlem”, which finds cultured vagabond Zach Condon crooning a story of commuter blues: Two lovers separated by this lovely, unrelenting Subway system of ours here in New York City. Being a lifelong New Yorker, I was thrilled to finally hear Condon’s interpretation of this often chaotic metropolis. I love the imagery of roses wilting, the brass horns in the instrumental break, and even the subtle humor of lines like, “Uptown / Downtown, a thousand miles between us. She’s waiting for the night to fall; let it fall, I’ll never make it in time.”
9. "Novacane" by Frank Ocean, from the mixtape nostalgia, Ultra
The video for my favorite song of 2010 – and subsequently my favorite song period – features Eric Berglund appearing out of a veil of white smoke wearing one of those Venetian masks from Eyes Wide Shut, playing a guitar solo on a white Gibson Les Paul. Frank Ocean’s “Novacane” refers to that same Eyes Wide Shut eroticism, albeit more directly, using it as a metaphor for a night of stoned debauchery with a girl who gets Ocean wasted off of stolen dental anesthesia. It’s an inventive narrative, but it’s also the most promising piece of music to come out of the consistently disappointing Odd Future collective (ASIDE ALERT: who probably won’t be relevant within another year). The demanding beat pulses alongside Ocean, whose vocal style here recalls the best of 90s New Jack Swing. Ocean spends the aforementioned high looking for some sort of emotional release, but the realization is that he probably won’t remember anything in the morning, and worst of all, the drugs are preventing any feeling during the high itself: “I can’t feel a thing,” Ocean sings, topping off what actually ends up being a sad piece of existentialism.
8. "A Real Hero" by College (feat. Electric Youth), from Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Okay, I cheated. Technically, College’s “A Real Hero” came out in 2009. But it came to prominence from its inclusion in Drive, both in the very last scene of the film and the accompanying soundtrack. And since I can’t hear the song without picturing Ryan Gosling in that white scorpion jacket, it gets a spot on this list (Kavinsky's "Nightcall" is also noteworthy); and even when you listen to it, it sounds strikingly like a song written for the film as opposed to an obscure synth pop number picked for the soundtrack. Cliff Martinez deserves a lot of the credit for setting the tone of Drive (and an Oscar), but Ryan Gosling (second Oscar nomination forthcoming, since he was foolishly overlooked for Blue Valentine) blinking his eyes just wouldn’t have had the same effect if it weren’t for “A Real Hero” promptly reminding us that catharsis doesn’t always have to be so plainly obvious.
7. "Kaputt" by Destroyer, from the album Kaputt
Dan Bejar had been making eccentric rock records for years as Destroyer, but it wasn’t until Kaputt that I took notice. Kaputt is immaculately polished, carefully borrowing from some of rock’s forgotten heroes: Like the saxophone driven pretention of Bryan Ferry’s timeless art rock band, Roxy Music. Kaputt’s title track is rock excess personified. What begins as a yearning for an article in virtually any respected music journal (Smash Hits, Melody Maker, and NME) soon turns to nightly cocaine highs and chasing women “through the backrooms of the world.” The handy commentary on America and our nasty habit of worshipping these strung out rock stars is present in spades, but it’s the rhythm section that makes it special. Kaputt comes off as wise, not condescending; it’s the sort of record that only a rock veteran with eight prior albums could dare to even write, let alone pull off with skill and class.
6. "The Morning" by the Weeknd, from the mixtape House of Balloons
The Weeknd released “What You Need” and immediately we all wanted to know more about this enigmatic R&B project from Toronto. The aesthetic was definitely intriguing, to say the least: Black and white photos of women in the shortest black skirts possible (or no clothes at all), gothic, almost post-punk sonics (with a contemporary R&B vibe), and depictions of partying on a level you wouldn’t even dream of—even if you had time off from work. The mystery of the Weeknd has since been expelled (Thanks, Drake! Ugh), but that doesn’t make House of Balloons any less valuable; in fact, it’s both reassuring and terrifying at the same time that these songs indeed come from a real person. His name is Abel Tesfaye, and I sure as hell hope that House of Balloons isn’t autobiographical. “The Morning”, the slickest track on the mixtape, is the thesis statement of House of Balloons. This is live fast, die young to the extreme: Massive amounts of drugs, loose women, going to sleep, waking up in the morning (hopefully), and doing it all over again. It’s the verse, chorus, verse equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah, and with how good it sounds, it’s damn persuasive: "Downtown lovin', when the moon comin', only place to find base heads and hot women!"
5. "No Widows" by the Antlers, from the album Burst Apart
Before its release, The Antlers announced that Burst Apart would be a more “electro” oriented record, but also that it wouldn’t be the same “emotionally heavy experience” as Hospice. Thank G-d. While I’m certain that Peter Silberman is capable of writing another narrative as beautifully tragic as Hospice, I don’t think that he wants to, nor should he. With that in mind, Burst Apart is quite literal: It’s the final separation and closure from Hospice, from the “sad town” of the patient and her unnamed male caregiver, her failed marriage, implied child abuse, and a pregnancy that foreshadowed the end rather than the beginning. While there aren’t any overly “happy” Antlers songs, it’s an aesthetic choice this time around for Burst Apart rather than actual sulking depression. The industrial churning of “No Widows” pauses as Silberman sings, “If I never get back home, there’s no garden overgrown,” and then retreats to the background beat. As Silberman’s ghostly falsetto reaches its peak, the grandiose bursts of emotion from Hospice return but without the lingering shadow of its narrative. I can’t think of many vocals this year that contained the power of Silberman’s delivery, especially the finale: “When they shake, say the wings won’t break.”
4. "Demons" by A$AP Rocky, from the mixtape LIVELOVEA$AP
A$AP Rocky has true respect for rap music, and the knowledge he gained through constant observation culminated in a debut record that is by no means amateur; LIVELOVEA$AP is the work of a true perfectionist, with even its promotional videos (partially directed by Rocky himself) showcasing an artist clearly above his actual experience. “Demons” is one of many standouts on LIVELOVEA$AP, and it’s also a perfect coupling of rapper and producer. Rocky understands production, and more importantly, he gets songwriting. “Demons” only has one standard verse; meanwhile, the remainder of the song drifts on a laidback hook that compliments the ethereal soundscape courtesy of Clams Casino. Rocky knows exactly how each part of the puzzle fits, as “Demons” lasts for only three minutes yet feels entirely complete. While “I be that pretty motherfucker!” are certainly words to live by (“Peso” is an outstanding song in its own right), it’s good to know that Rocky can be a little deeper when he wants.
3. "Glass Jar" by Gang Gang Dance, from the album Eye Contact
Gang Gang Dance inexplicitly tours with a Japanese vagabond, Taka Imamura. The band’s spiritual guide (or “vibes manager,” as he prefers to be called) doesn’t play a single instrument on Eye Contact. He doesn’t sing, nor did he produce or engineer any of the songs. However, despite his seemingly arbitrary and bizarre presence, waving flags at live shows that he pieced together from garbage (a true homeless Manhattanite), Imamura effortlessly prologues Eye Contact, clearly stating, “I can hear everything; it’s everything time.”
It’s a paradoxical statement, as its clarity and definitiveness describes the oncoming slow build-up of “Glass Jar” whilst also representing the only isolated sound heard on the entire album (Imamura’s voice). As Imamura truthfully states, Eye Contact is “everything”, which makes his brief contribution that much more profound. Every song is woven with a ridiculously eclectic variety of musical styles and samples, clashing against one another until the individual sources are completely obscured. “Glass Jar” climbs to its peak patiently, with a spiritual – courtesy of Imamura’s odd musings – foundation that explodes into a vibrant collage of keyboards, circling percussion, and singer Lizzi Bougatsos’ unintelligible vocal delivery. Those with patience will find great reward in the eleven minutes and some seconds of “Glass Jar”, and those without it will miss out not on a song, but an experience.
2. "Midnight City" by M83, from the album Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
A disappointing album, but an incredible lead single. Sound familiar? Does “Kim and Jessie” ring a bell? I’m well aware that many find M83’s albums to be both worthwhile and complete. I, however, don’t; my issue is that Anthony Gonzalez doesn’t seem to know whether or not he wants to make computerized ambient records, or pop records that recall just about every John Hughes film ever made (the end result come across as disjointed). The latter is what I prefer from M83, and while Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming certainly had more singing than it did ambitious, albeit meandering, instrumentals, I didn’t think that the songs were very good. Of course, with every M83 album there is always that one outlier that makes me believe in Gonzalez all over again despite my better judgment. This time around it was “Midnight City”. Hell, I even tried to get tickets to see the band live at the Music Hall of Williamsburg!
“Midnight City” is as close to flawless as you can get in the realm of pop music. The abstract keyboard riff creates frenzy, juxtaposing Gonzalez’s soft and gorgeous personification of an inescapable neon utopia—a place that only a true dreamer and chronic escapist could conceive of. Unlike the other songs on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Gonzalez gearing up toward a more violent vocal is appropriate (“This city is my church”), as it introduces the blaring saxophone solo that – much like in the excellent video – has enough force to set the sun.
1. "Video Games" by Lana Del Rey, from the album Born to Die
I really don’t concern myself with Lana Del Rey’s gimmick, mostly because I recognize it as just that, a gimmick. Maybe it’s just me, but I really don’t see entertainers as being held to the same standards as average people. In fact, what would be so entertaining about them if nothing were exaggerated? You can criticize Lana’s look, and the obvious work she’s had done on her face to accompany a rather ridiculous femme-fatale aesthetic, but “Video Games” is the heartfelt accomplishment of a true singer; no matter how contrived her image is, it’s hard to deny her that.
Lana calling herself the “Gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” her botched Botox, millions upon millions of hits on YouTube, a rather rocky (and nervous) performance on Jools Holland, a major record deal with Interscope, and an inevitable (some feel, unearned and handed) future climb to superstardom . . . for some reason, these aforementioned criticisms have perpetuated disregard to the song that put forth all of this attention in the first place. Prior to “Video Games”, Lana had a few songs that – at best – could score a scene in a pulpy Tarantino film. But “Blue Jeans” and the recently released “Born to Die” point to “Video Games” being more than just a happenstance fluke by a so-called manufactured pop star.
And it’s not just an era-specific thing either. The swelling, orchestral piano balladry of “Video Games” sounds old, and yes, songstresses such as Nancy Sinatra recorded similarly emotional songs in the much-too-often drooled over fifties and sixties—most of which were written for them. But it’s the contemporary spin that Lana puts on it, the way she describes the dependency of love, which left me in awe: “He holds me in his big arms, drunk and I am seeing stars, this is all I think of.” Lana delivers these lines beautifully, but there’s a tragic underlying portrait as to what this girl is willing to give up in return for this all-too-clichéd ideal—essentially, her life: “They say that the world was built for two, only worth living if somebody is loving you.” There is implied doubt as to whether or not it's even the life she even wants, “watching all our friends fall, in and out of old Paul’s, this is my idea of fun,” making the whole of the lyrics portray a bleak mental prison of devotion. Lana Del Rey may have a 'fake' appearance (and a character that she chooses to portray), but both “Video Games” and her talent are entirely real. “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you.”
and bad other times.
Some people aren't happy that Lana's becoming increasingly mainstream, and this high budget video certainly doesn't help, neither does her Interscope deal, but this her third single to knock it out of the park. I really like this kind of balladry, and I hope her debut is worth it.
Use your keyboard!
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