Basically an Erasure redux. But this sounds like a musical business card signaling that Lekman is a sensitive, tolerant, middle-class, “metrosexual” urbanite — in a pandering, subservient kind of way — with somewhat undercooked production.
A Kind of Hush was a bit of a lesser album from The Carpenters after a string of impressive ones in the early 1970s. Of course, Karen still sings beautifully, and there are some good songs here (“Can’t Smile Without You,” “I Need to Be in Love”). But the brother-sister duo seems to struggle to find enough suitable songs to fill the album, and Richard as the producer / arranger drifts into rigid formula, not living up to his best work. He later admitted that this was a disappointing album, noting the poor song selection, and blamed it on his addition to sleeping pills at the time. Celebrity was definitely beginning to take its toll. For their next album, they tried to seek a different producer but had difficulty finding someone “major” willing, at which point Richard produced but made an effort to move out of his comfort zone. Anyway, with all seriousness, the producer (or co-producer) that the duo should have used was Tiny Tim — think about it, this makes perfect sense when The Carpenters were recording pop songs from bygone eras like “Goofus” but also in that Tiny Tim would have added a sense of modern irony that would have reinvigorated The Carpenters’ sound at a time when their old approach maybe seemed less relevant.
“In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: ‘Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it’s true; if it’s written in red ink, it’s false.’ After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: ‘Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair — the only thing you can’t get is red ink.’ ***
At their best, The Carpenters were able to articulate the claustrophobic unfreedom of the (white) “American Dream” in the post-WWI “Golden Age”, presenting songs in “red” ink” or pointing out a lack of “red ink”. There is only a trace of that ability on A Kind of Hush. At a time when punk was making overt attacks on society, disco was celebrating individual hedonism and even hip-hop was rising from the underground, The Carpenters seemed somewhat out of touch, merely responding to conditions that many people already relegated to the past. Oh, and the album cover is indeed one of the strangest and creepiest on a major commercial release at the time. The duo’s next album Passage would be a small improvement, flirting with disco and showtunes a bit, though still prone to a few (easily avoidable) missteps.
How did you feel about Christmas in the Heart? If you loved it, then you are in luck! Here is a triple album of secular songs using a similar approach. If you hated it, well, sorry, but here is a triple album in a similar style. Although nominally a “triple” album, the content could have fit very comfortably on two discs. Anyway, this is just as self-indulgent as Patti Smith‘s Twelve and Dylan’s pal Johnny Cash‘s The Gospel Road. But I like to image that Dylan commissioned an academic study to determine what music best suits his ravages rasp of a voice these days. He then read the graph upside down and went with the music least suited to his present vocal abilities. Seriously, there are like good singers who have recorded this kind of music before, and those recordings are still available. This music would have been better as instrumentals, frankly.
Madonna has had an interesting career. Her self-titled debut album is a classic of early 1980s dance floor electro-pop. After that, though, she focused on the sensational aspects of her public persona. This often meant a hyper-sexualized one. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it often seemed to pander, or at least resort to pandering and filler at album length — she could still knock out great singles. But by the mid-1990s it seemed almost like she was stuck churning out slightly eroticized pop ballads, and she had taken that about as far as she could. So Ray of Light was a somewhat daring turn toward electronica, pairing her with producer William Orbit. The album draws a bit from the down-tempo trip hop scene, but retains a kind of mainstreamed rave dance floor appeal. This turns out to be one of her best album-length statements. Nearly twenty years after release, it still sounds good. Madonna comes to terms with middle age here, in a way. Maybe it avoids some of the exuberance and daring of her early hits, with more brooding and introspective qualities in their place. But at a certain point Neil Hamburger had a point with his joke: “What do you call senior citizens who rub feces on their genitals? Madonna!” Countless musicians have tried to make a mid-career update, to seem more “with it” and adept with current fads. The thing is, Madonna pulls off that feat better than just about anybody here. Nothing about Ray of Light seems like faddish pandering. And she sings as good as ever here — her vocals are much stronger and extend to a much wider array of techniques than back on her debut. Too bad all pop albums aren’t this good!
Del Rey’s second full-length album made strides over her debut Born to Die (and the Paradise EP) in terms of being a bit more consistent, especially from a production standpoint. This is more rock-oriented than her debut. However, the songwriting sometimes falters, or just comes up short, which still makes this seem like a good EP padded out to album length. The best songs are “West Coast” and “Brooklyn Baby.” Lou Reed was supposed to provide guest vocals on the latter, but he passed away before he could record them. A year earlier, she released the song “Young and Beautiful” on the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby, which is more in line with the style of most of her best songs.
The Brazilian musician Tuca (born Valeniza Zagni da Silva) was an enigmatic figure, these days relatively unknown. If at all, she is recognized for her collaborative work writing songs for and playing guitar on Françoise Hardy‘s La question and playing guitar on Nara Leão‘s Dez anos depois (both from 1971). There is little biographical information about her readily available in English. However, Françoise Hardy’s memoir Le désespoir des singes et autres bagatelles recalls how Tuca lived in France in the early 1970s, then, after returning to Brazil, died at age 34 due to complications from an aggressive weight-loss program. Hardy also noted that Tuca (a lesbian) was infatuated with the Italian actress Lea Massari, who was heterosexual and not interested. Tuca also had some type of physical ailment that caused body odor (trimethylaminuria? fistula? diabetes? an overactive thyroid?), leading to self-consciousness. These currents of personal ambition, hope, self-doubt and disappointment contextualize what Tuca’s music was about on Drácula I Love You, her third and final full-length album.
The album was recorded outside Paris at the iconic Château d’Hérouville studio, where a host of well-known Western pop/rock artists made recordings in the early 1970s. The music is pop, in a way. Yet it does not fit neatly into any genre categories though. It draws from the mainstream to more skewed avante-garde rock, melding aspects of Brazilian music — Erasmo Carlos‘ Carlos, Erasmo… and Rita Lee‘s Build Up make somewhat decent reference points — to French chanson and prog rock. The album’s personnel included co-producer Mario de Castro, plus François Cahen (of Magma) on horn arrangements and Christian Chevallier on string arrangements. It oddly relies on a lot of acoustic guitar, with sequencing that shifts between spare acoustic passages and elaborately orchestrated ones. There are occasional electronic effects. Tuca’s vocals are very androgynous. She often sings in a lower register than most female singers.
The tone of the album is often despairing and melancholic — recalling La question and Dez anos depois. But, equally, this has glitzy horns like much Brazilian pop music of the the time. This is also weird personal stuff, the sort of thing found on lo-fi “bedroom” recordings. And there are some strange parallels to The Rocky Horror Show (which was on stage in London the prior year) too, especially the way the album cover shows Tuca in what one review described as “Hammer horror-movie glam[.]” Dracula was apparently “in” for 1974. Even Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr were exploring that theme in music and film that year too.
The strange, incongruous juxtapositions of elements and styles hint at what this album really captures so well — the struggle to balance the public and the private, the introverted and the extroverted. The album’s personality emerges in the way it can’t find any direct expression to capture what it wants to say. So, instead, there is an oscillation between coordinates that kind of surround its center, its core. Also, much like Jim O’Rourke‘s “pop” albums from decades later (Simple Songs, The Visitor, etc.), there is a kind of catharsis in the way the music comes together in spite of a conflicted, ambivalent attitude toward conventional commercial success. Tuca sings and plays guitar with a kind of punky edge, never completely at ease with the grand orchestrations that rise up again and again, persistently returning to raw, truncated guitar strumming and warbled, dispirited vocals. There are up-tempo songs with celebratory rhythms. Tuca seems unable to enjoy them. So she creates her own twisted, downer take on them. Not speaking Portuguese, the lyrics are a mystery, but the music alone conveys a lot.
A strange album that still sounds ahead of its time.
While expanding upon the palette of the first two albums, and adding slightly more propulsive rhythms, this still retains the essential prettiness. Many die-hard Belle and Sebastian fans insist this is better than If You’re Feeling Sinister. I’ve long felt that it lacks the poignancy and context of its predecessor, replacing the layered production with punctuation by odd instrumentation of that prior album with a more organically woven sonic fabric. Rotating vocals among band members is sort of ineffective. Still a good one.
The Paradise EP, released following Del Rey’s breakthrough album Born to Die (and appended as bonus tracks to it on reissues), eschews the trashy dance pop that padded put most of the debut and instead dabbles in romanticized pop with dramatic vocals akin to Jeff Buckley‘s cult classic Grace. (If that seems like an odd comparison, know that Del Rey has expressed admiration for Buckley and one of the songs here shares the name of his former band). But Del Rey is also following the Madonna playbook. Just like Madonna’s second album, Like A Virgin, took the most scandalous elements of her music (as judged by mainstream tastes) and ran with them, Del Rey similarly tries to capitalize on the sensational. Lyrically, Paradise dwells on the ribald and lascivious. It is an awkward approach, leaning too hard on shock value. Throughout, there is a lot of emphasis on traveling and getting away — just the sorts of Americana mythology that has driven so many other musical recordings. She is clearly trying to make music with some amount of substance. But she only partly succeeds. Best tracks: “Gods and Monsters” and “Body Electric.”
Calling Honeymoon “bubblegum nihilism” hits pretty close to the mark. It calls up a dark, dispirited mood — not far off from old, melodramatic movies like Sunset Boulevard, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? or twisted latter-day recreations from the likes of David Lynch — set against sparse electronic beats dressed with occasional strings and chamber pop instrumentation. Del Rey’s vocal tone, timbre and range are not especially memorable, and the lyrics are so often raw. But those qualities actually suit the music. The tempos are all slow, much slower than the songs seem to call for. The backing as a whole drifts off, a kind of indistinct mass of the vaguely familiar. Her vocals pierce through the music, but in a disinterested way. She conveys a kind of apathetic disgust with everything around her, especially when her surroundings are at their most glamorous. The quality of stepping back from it all is perhaps the most admirable one she advances. There is also hedonism and a kind of electronic new ageism lurking behind much of this. Yet aside from that there is also a clear admiration for certain refined strands of bohemian culture.
“Freak” is one of the best songs. A slow recurring guitar riff recalls a film noir rather than goth/rockabilly version of The Birthday Party‘s “Say a Spell” (from Mutiny!). Playing a guitar chord that way turns the harmonic elements into melodic ones as each note stands almost alone.
“The Blackest Day” is another good one. It characterizes the lyrical approach of the album, with emphasis on cataloging surrounding artifacts and discrete, quantifiable experiences to allow Del Rey to convey melodramatic feeling in her vocals. Thematically, this and other songs still fit what one critic called Del Rey’s penchant for “exploring the internal worlds of numbed female characters posing as arm candy[.]” Though on Honeymoon that is toned down a bit, and more generalized.
The single “High on the Beach” probably epitomizes the entire album’s sound the best. There is a deadpan melancholy that just seeks to withdraw. It practically suggests going catatonic, in a trendy and visible way. Del Rey sings with a breathiness that seems slightly disaffected — a comparison to “Cat Power-does-Chris Isaak” is fair (as is calling herself a “gangster” Nancy Sinatra, for that matter). She seems to do that not to appear as a stereotypical weak and submissive woman but rather more like the way punk singers sang off key on purpose. The lyrics refer to independence and self-sufficiency, though without much in the way of specifics. Her vocal phrasing is informed by what is old and classy, but her vocals are juxtaposed against what is current and disreputable. This conveys a sense of power to handle, in whatever limited way, those disparate, incongruous elements, against the odds. It is an approach employed in similar ways in photographer Robert Mapplethorpe‘s works that mashed up art deco with gay subculture.
In terms of purely musical technique, she seems to draw some obvious inspiration from singers before her. The closer, a cover of Nina Simone‘s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” positions itself somewhere in the realm of Simone’s occasional forays into twisted, orchestrated rock like the title track from I Put a Spell on You. It also orients the listener, placing Del Rey in her desired continuum of pop music history.
There is nothing particularly groundbreaking in the backing instrumentals. All the songs adhere to the structure of conventional pop songs. Even the specifics seem familiar. Take “Religion,” a poppier echo of The Raveonettes‘ hazy, beat-heavy retro rock.
But, frankly, the gloomy noir elements elsewhere, like on the title track, vaguely recall a (much) more mainstream/commercially palatable “Hollywood sadcore” take on the style of Lydia Lunch‘s Queen of Siam (“Gloomy Sunday,” “Spooky,” “Knives in the Drain,” “Lady Scarface,” “A Cruise to the Moon,” etc.), with electronic dance/hip-hop beats and filmic orchestration in place of no-wave punk rock and cabaret jazz. And Del Rey has that bubblegum aspect that Lydia Lunch has, well, none of, just as Del Rey has none of Lunch’s menacing sarcasm. Honeymoon‘s dark electronics with dramatic singing is also close to, say, Carla Bozulich without the pretension and more emphasis on camp, or even a more dejected and straightforward version of some of David Sylvian‘s (ex-Japan) art pop.
So is Del Rey just appropriating and co-opting elements of creative and independent music of prior decades, like a cultural pirate, or is she turning mainstream culture against itself, like a “culture jammer”? Is it even possible to introduce elements of underground music into mainstream commercial culture without betraying those building blocks? Is she a feminist or just an individualist? Is her sincerity merely being sensationalized by the media industry for mass consumption, or is is her public image entirely just a fake persona? Is she really just a full-bore part of the establishment media, and not really a critic of it at all? These are central questions an album like Honeymoon presents.
Of course, it is obligatory to mention the highly stylized persona that Del Rey has used to put across her music. This persona — part femme fatale ingénue, part stoner washout, part vulnerable introvert, part insecure hipster, part deluded mallrat, and part ambitious artiste — is an odd thing. She broke into international recognition largely through an online music video that she directed, edited and partly filmed herself. Whatever one thinks about her persona, good or bad (or some of both), it is one she largely crafted herself. It is wrong to castigate her for creating a persona in the first place. Even the painter Georgia O’Keefe can be said to have done the same in becoming an artistic celebrity. Every personality, public or private, is to a degree a mask over the void of being. Such masks allow for and mediate a social conception of the self. To the extent that Del Rey puts forward a musical vision in which every person is worthy of consideration, even one as flawed as her persona, maybe that is a good thing. There also is a curious aspect of this persona that suggests ordinary people can follow suit in order to take charge of their own lives in some way, at least by taking responsibility for establishing their own desires and giving no ground to acting in conformity with those desires. In this way it might even be said she is merely trying “to be just extreme enough to be an ‘effective extremist.'” In any event it is a far cry from the stance of “mogul” pop.
This album is not entirely successful. The cynicism of Honeymoon ties it to precisely that which it claims to break away from. Is her position against and outside those things — like Céline Dion’s music but for younger, hipper audiences — just a coping mechanism under late capitalism, and therefore a reinforcement of it? And yet, the pleas to be a “freak like me” and Del Rey’s rejection of some typical major label promotional activities (combined with a continuation of others) do suggest an ambiguous relationship with mainstream success. It is an old dilemma. While she has already stepped back, musically, from the element of “having it both ways” (as a victimized yet manipulative femme fatale) evident in her breakthrough hit “Video Games,” Del Rey will have to go further to really be a countercultural force that undermines — or at least minimally overcomes — the media industry from the inside (what the somewhat similarly mall/Hollywood-inspired filmmaker Michel Gondry has largely failed to do since his early music videos gained him notoriety). That especially goes for her music videos. But Honeymoon shows that she might well have both the inclination and talent to do so. This certainly stands above what she has done before at album length. The best songs are the best generally because they introduce a larger stylistic gap between the vocals and the backing, forging ahead in spite of that gap, while the lesser songs tend to come across more like straight genre exercises. There are not any obvious missteps — though the T.S. Eliot recitation “Burnt Norton (Interlude)” is jarring, and some of this just treads water (“24”). And there is much less reliance on guilty pleasure trash pop than on her breakthrough Born to Die. The best songs (“High on the Beach,” “Freak,” “Honeymoon,” “The Blackest Day,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”) are really quite good, maybe even great. But the album could have used a few more great songs to be a great album as such. As it stands, Honeymoon still suffers somewhat from the problem of being a really good EP padded out to album length. Still, even just looking at the singles from the album, it is certainly an achievement to place music this depressing into the pop charts at all, which hasn’t happened much since the “grunge rock” era. On the whole, this might just be a personal turning point when the price of fame has sunk in enough for Del Rey to feel the sting, but also while she still holds enough widespread appeal to become a sort of anti-hero for a disaffected age. Or not.