Because Songs Matter

LANA DEL REY — BORN TO DIE

It’s confession time.

I’m a sucker for a torch singer.

Put me in a dark, smokey lounge, sitting in a high back chair, whiskey in hand, with a lovely chanteuse on stage, and I’m practically in Heaven. There aren’t enough singers keeping this style alive these days.

Neko Case single-highhandedly carried the mantle for awhile, belting her way through Furnace Room Lullabies and Blacklisted, but then she transitioned to a more middle-of-the-road comfort zone.

Adele technically qualifies, but she’s too popular these days.

Kimbra, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Duffy and Caitlin Rose have great potential, and have offered some wonderful songs on their recent discs. Kimbra, in particular, seems poised to breakout, especially with her vocals on Gotye’s “Somebody I Used To Know” catching fire.

About five months ago, I stumbled across a video on YouTube for “Kinda Outta Luck” by Lana Del Rey. The song immediately struck me with its retro-lounge, Nancy Sinatra-esque vibe, but more, it felt fresh and contemporary.

Instead of merely aping a style, the song stood on its own, and the lyrics were kitschy, but infinitely cool:

femme fatale/always on the run/diamonds on my wrist/whiskey on my tongue

It didn’t hurt that Del Rey had pinup looks, a head full of cascading blonde curls, mischievous eyes and pouty, bee-stung lips.

I quickly began searching for her album, only to find myself running into walls. A handful of songs were available online, including the haunting “Video Games” and coy “Blue Jeans,” but as for an album, no dice.

It didn’t dawn on me at the time that Lana Del Rey could be more marketing foil than femme fatale, a digital age coquette, devoid of talent.

Months later, we all know the story: Elizabeth Grant, aka Lizzy Grant, aka Lana Del Rey, was an aspiring singer/model with a wealthy family who bankrolled her early musical exploits who, as Lizzy Grant, released an album in 2010 that went nowhere. That album apparently, now rumored to be in turnaround for re-release, included many of the songs long-since available online, but not “Kinda Outta Luck.”

When the first stab didn’t take, Grant went in for the kill. She signed with¬†Interscope Records and reinvented herself as the sex-kitten cabaret singer, Lana Del Rey.

Grant is not the first entertainer to use a fake name. You couldn’t swing a dead cat at the Grammy’s without hitting dozens of people being called by something other than their birth name. People shouldn’t blame her for that, and if they do, they’re no longer allowed to scream “I love you Bono and The Edge” at the next U2 world tour.

At least she picked a pretty cool name.

Before her second debut album, Born To Die, arrived in late January, Lana Del Rey fever was spreading faster than the bat-pig flu in “Contagion.” As is often the case with round-the-clock attention, fatigue set in and critics and skeptics began sharpening their knives, waiting for the first, best opportunity to carve her into pieces.

Anyone not named Courtney Stodden would have been shitting bricks because that first, best opportunity just happened to be performing on Saturday Night Live. And Lana Del Rey wilted on the biggest stage she had yet to play.

She didn’t just wilt, she flamed out in spectacular fashion. Her vocals wandered, her presence waned. She had a bad night, but the backlash, wow, the backlash came from all corners. Even NBC news anchor Brian Williams weighed in, calling her the worst performer ever to play SNL.

That’s pretty harsh considering some of the acts that have been showcased on the long-running sketch comedy show. Apparently Williams never saw Ashley Simpson do a chicken dance after her vocal track playback cut out and she was exposed as a lip-synching fool.

Here’s the thing, though. I don’t really care if Lizzy Grant/Lana Del Rey can put on a show. I’m not interested in sitting inside a packed arena, waiting for some kind of Lady Gaga performance spectacle. I just love her voice, and on Born To Die, her voice commands attention.

The best songs aren’t even the ones that likely will receive airplay.

“National Anthem” is a cooing, rich girl manifesto with operatic flourishes.

I’m your national anthem/God, you’re so handsome/Take me to the Hamptons/Bugatti Veyron/He loves to romance them/Reckless abandon/Holdin’ me for ransom/upper echelon

“Radio” is a swirling tease, rich with annunciation that skirts the border of saccharine cute, but manages to stay on the right side of good and not come off as cliched.

Now my life is sweet like cinnamon/like a fucking dream I’m living in/Baby love me cause I’m playing on the radio/Pick me up and take me like a vit-a-min/’cause my body’s sweet like sugar venom

As evidenced by these snippets, Del Rey is not trying to reinvent the wheel with her lyrics. But she does offer some clever phrasings, and she sneaks in a few observations that take hold and linger.

“This Is What Makes Us Girls” is near as close to depth as the album offers, a slow-building ballad that considers how women are often perceived, and not necessarily how they really feel.

This is what makes us girls/We all look for heaven and we put our love first/Somethin’ that we’d die for, it’s our curse/Don’t cry about it, don’t cry about it/This is what makes us girls

The bottom line, for me, anyway, is that Born to Die is an immensely listenable album, rich with songs that stick in your ear and catchy choruses that trip easily off the tongue.

Who knows if Lana Del Rey is the real deal, an artist who will continue to evolve and carve her own place in music history, or if she is just the latest fad, destined to be a Trivial Pursuit question years from now. Whatever the future holds, I’m content just to have these few songs to play and enjoy. And for that, I consider this Essential Listening.

Lana Del Rey - Radio     

Lana Del Rey - National Anthem     

Lana Del Rey - This Is What Makes Us Girls     

Lana Del Rey’s Official Site, Lana Del Rey on Facebook, Lana Del Rey on Spotify, Buy Born To Die

13 Comments

  1. Mike Ostrov Mike Ostrov
    March 9, 2012    

    that Caitlin Rose album is tops

    • March 10, 2012    

      Caitlin’s album is tops but her live show leaves quite a bit to be desired. Zero stage presence.

  2. Donnie Donnie
    March 9, 2012    

    April Fool’s Day isn’t for another three weeks.

  3. showtime showtime
    March 9, 2012    

    Lana Del Rey??? Seriously?? Essential Listening on 9b?? Chris Knight’s floating down the river behind John Allman’s shack right now to make sure he doesn’t post anymore, what a joke.

    • March 10, 2012    

      I thought the review was well thought out, well written and his argument valid. I’m gonna keep Chris camped out behind Rick Scott’s cabin for now.

  4. March 11, 2012    

    I was over Lana last year. 9b, you’re way too late to this party.

    • Mike Ostrov Mike Ostrov
      March 11, 2012    

      I didn’t get into Harry Nilsson until about one year ago. About 8 years too late. Fashionably late.

  5. 307 307
    March 11, 2012    

    Excellent review, I’ve been keeping this album in rotation since it came out.

  6. March 11, 2012    

    Wonderfully written review, and I couldn’t agree with you more… Whether a fad or not, Lana Del Rey’s songs are smooth as velvet, certainly worth listening to. Thanks so much for sharing!

  7. Nick Nick
    March 13, 2012    

    Great review and very well written. I completely disagree with it and still read the entire thing.

    • March 14, 2012    

      Hell I write for the site and couldn’t agree more with you Nick. I don’t like Lana or her style but damn it if John didn’t keep me reading!

  8. Colinski Colinski
    March 15, 2012    

    Is it just me or are 90% of the album reviews on 9b now tagged “Essential Listening”?

  9. March 15, 2012    

    The frequency of the tag has certainly increased.

    The reason is pretty straight forward though; I added all the other writers to (a) lighten my work load especially now that my dad is sick and I spend so much time at his house and (b) to expand the site beyond my ever narrowing musical vein. So, naturally, having 5 different people covering music is gonna increase the appearance of the tag cause all of out taste, while in the same pasture, are pretty distinct.

    There is also the point that when the site was just me and RSV, sometimes I just had to pick something I was “meh” on and band something out on it. Now, there are bidding wars at times for albums. Not quite so much just grabbing something we’re lukewarm on and shooting something out…..I can do more of those if you wish…..matter a fact, I’ve got a few of those on tap in the coming weeks like The First Aid Kit.

    So, that’s a very longwinded way of saying it’s a natural by-product of adding writers. Your job, I suppose, is to find the writers that best align with your taste and pay attention to them. It’s pretty easy to just oull up their archives alone.

    Any thoughts on this issue are more than welcome so long as it doesn’t devolve into another internet pissing contest.

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