Tag Archives: Lana Del Rey

Review: Lana Del Rey, "Born to Die"

Lana Del Rey didn’t have a chance, but at least she’s aware of this fact. Titling her album Born to Die, the former Lizzy Grant is certainly in on the joke – even if her multitudes of humorless haters aren’t. Forget the authenticity questions and the bitter backlash, the greatest downside of Internet age musicians isn’t half-baked live performance – it’s the rush to capitalize on the first crest of celebrity.

In that sense, Born to Die is a typical album. It starts strong, including the two singles that fans first fell in love with, “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans.” But about halfway through, Del Rey is out of material. Nearly all the songs include orchestral swells, hip-pop beats, and a stable of of distorted vocal samples. Snares rattle and linger, strings weep. Considering the year that the spacey producers behind The Weeknd, Balam Acab, and Clams Casino had, it’s no surprise, but the sound can’t be sustained over a pop album.

Yes, the lyrics are immature, telling tales of teen girl fantasy. The imagery is heavy on the “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” qualifiers – bikinis, red nail polish, every liquor consumed in rap videos and strip clubs. But it’s all very intentional, and well suited for the intended audience. One of the more maligned lyrics, the breathlessly dropped “Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice” on “This is What Makes Us Girls,” is not to be taken at face value: it’s exactly the kind of drink that teen girls, dabbling in debauchery, would find palatable and popular. Just listen to the rest of the lyrics: “Sweet sixteen and we had arrived / Baby’s table dancin’ at the local dive… Drinkin’ cherry schnapps in the velvet night… A freshmen generation of degenerate beauty queens.” Pop music is chiefly for teenagers; nothing has changed since Please Please Me. Lana Del Rey’s lyrics will resonate with her audience, even if they don’t do anything for music critics.

The title track kicks off with an orchestral swell out of a Disney soundtrack, and then it’s “Off to the Races” (pun intended), on which Del Rey squeals and squeaks like the Lolita the song depicts. As expected, “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” are the tightest, most nuanced pop songs on the record, but “Diet Mountain Dew’s” piano melody and upbeat drumming make it a contender, as well. Del Rey’s pouty spoken word lyrics on “National Anthem” are just that, describing the celebs-and-cash world in which her persona exists. An undercurrent of bass and strings reminiscent of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” distract from the fact that “tell me I’m your national anthem” is a bit silly for a rallying cry.

Here’s where the album loses itself. The music becomes repetitive and Del Rey’s lyrics and melodies aren’t enough to rescue it. “Dark Paradise” is a recast “Born to Die;” “Summertime Sadness” nearly shares a melody with “National Anthem.” With a verse like a Nicole Atkins b-side, “Radio” is promising, but its (literally) saccharine chorus loses the script. On “Carmen,” Del Rey muses about a girl “only seventeen, but she walks the streets so mean;” this is territory well-worn by contemporaries Marina and the Diamonds and Sky Ferreira. The outlier here is the simple “Million Dollar Man,” a jazz lounge number evocative of Fiona Apple which is surprisingly warm despite the unnecessary inclusion of digital noise.

These days, Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes have been reduced to 15 seconds, and albums are released before an album’s worth of material is ready. Worse yet, albums present an incomplete portrait of an artist. Where is the playful femme fatale of “Kinda Outta Luck?” Why omit the pitch-perfect bonus track “Lolita,” when it’s Sleigh Bells-meets-cheerleader cheer would be a welcome change of pace? On Born to Die, streamlining Lana Del Rey compresses her into an overproduced version of herself. Not coincidentally, Lana Del Rey’s lyrical fascination with the dark side of Hollywood (the starlet / harlot dichotomy, youth consumed and flames extinguished) is as applicable to today’s pop music world as ever.

The truth about Lana Del Rey

Brooklyn singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey seemingly appeared out of nowhere with lead single “Video Games.” The mournful love song, and the self-compiled clip for it, concisely capture a singular experience. With her 60s-style blowout and impossibly thick lips, she pouts and vamps like a YouTube cam girl (the clips of a drunken Paz de la Huerta are appropriate). Intercut is footage of the dichotomous aesthetic she’s so carefully aiming for: Los Angeles, past and present. 8mm clips of Golden Age Hollywood nostalgia, mashed with skateboarders and live-and-die-in-LA escapades, under the song’s swaying piano, twinkling harp, and funeral march drum rolls. All of that, and the most compelling aspect is Del Rey’s raspy Stevie Nicks meets Cat Power voice.

The B-side to “Video Games,” “Blue Jeans,” is the next logical step in her look and sound. Sonically, “Blue Jeans” is built on the tremolo guitar of Chris Isaak circa “Wicked Game,” while Del Rey’s lyrics dabble in urban vernacular: “you so fresh to death and sick as cancer / You were sorta punk rock, I grew up on hip hop… I told you that no matter what you did / I’d be by your side / Cause imma ride or die…” Yet in this video, Del Rey is impeccably styled, whether wearing bling and an off the shoulder sweater or throwback shades and a floral skirt.

On the strength of these two songs, Lana Del Rey seemed poised to reach Next Big Thing status in a hurry. Describing herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” and her music as “Hollywood pop” and “sad core,” she was doing half the work for bloggers and journalists everywhere. Is Lana Del Rey, indie Youtube sensation, too good to be true?

According to the indie blogosphere, yes. It turns out that Lana Del Rey (or Lizzy Grant, her real name) has major record label backing and has undergone major changes since her self-released (and no longer available) debut album dropped last year. Hipster Runoff satirically documented the evidence and predictable blogosphere backlash. In short, Lana Del Rey was branded and marketed with a receptive audience in mind, and the audience didn’t appreciate the charade. The record industry, not transparent? An artist undergoing physical enhancement to be more marketable? Color me shocked!

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/09-Pawn-Shop-Blues.mp3″ text=”Lana Del Rey – Pawn Shop Blues” dl=0]

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/02-Queen-of-the-Gas-Station.mp3″ text=”Lana Del Rey – Queen of the Gas Station” dl=0]

And while Lana and her label might want her early album to disappear, it’s not for the nefarious reasons the blogosphere assumes. This is a simple case of supply-and-demand; building buzz by trickling out singles and videos is Music Business 101. The album actually shares many of the touchstones of Del Rey’s new material. “Pawn Shop Blues” and “Yayo” are crafted in the same moody pop style, if not with the same finesse, and apart from a few synth-pop missteps, even the more generic songs don’t stray too much from her sound: “Queen of the Gas Station” and “Gramma” would work for most Hotel Cafe singers. For what it’s worth, the video for “Kill Kill” is the same type of Youtube collage she still employs. It appears that all her “secret industry support” has done is tighten her image and sound for a mainstream audience – exactly what the music industry has done for each and every pop act for the last sixty years.

Lizzy Grant – Kill Kill by wiredset

While Lana Del Rey might not have been “born bad” as the swagged-out surf pop of “Kinda Outta Luck” posits, some of the less-murderous lyrics ring true: “You never cared what I did at all / Motel singer at a silver ball / I did what I had to do.” Lana Del Rey is a singer-songwriter in 2011, and we should forgive a little system-gaming if it results in songs like “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans.” Blogosphere haters, upset with being complicit in record label machinations, should take heed of the chorus of the song: “Is it wrong that I think it’s kinda fun / When I hit you in the back of the head with a gun?