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Column: 'Gangsta Nancy Sinatra' Del Rey lights up on 'Born To Die'

The controversial singer delivers on her much-hyped release.

Published Feb. 10, 2012

For the average pop culture follower, the words “musical performance” and “Saturday Night Live” generally don’t mix well when put in the same sentence together. From Frank Zappa self-consciously reading cue cards to Sinéad O’Connor ripping up the Pope to Ashlee Simpson lip-syncing, many a career has been marred by appearing on the program. The same appeared to be the case for newcomer Lana Del Rey, who boldly performed without her wide-release album officially on sale. Blasted by blogs, reviewers and even Brian Williams as the worst SNL performance ever, the event was really the Del Rey hype machine coming to a head, with singles and the blogosphere buzz fueling the fire for months. The singer is at risk of being eclipsed by her own buildup before her LP, Born to Die, fully sinks into the general consciousness. It’s a shame too, because it’s a promising debut full of musical innovation and a sense of raw talent.

The uniqueness is present in Del Rey’s voice especially, reminding one of Jessica Rabbit. It’s sultry, slow and gives off a sense of gauzy sexuality, but it can also hit surprisingly high notes and blend into the background at a moment's notice. It’s a refreshing alternative to the Mark Rosnon-headed 60’s neo-soul movement, with singers like Adele, Duffy and the late Amy Winehouse shooting their brassy pipes over cheery retro backing. Del Rey is in the same decade, but goes a shade darker, patenting herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra.” The similarities are noticeable, with her distinct voice going for something a bit slower and less accessible, and demanding an equally standout production to match.

That much is clear in the lead single “Video Games.” Doomy piano, swooping strings and orchestrations that would not seem out of place in a Lee Hazlewood track sigh and swell to complement Del Rey’s vocals. This approach is effective and deployed on essentially every one of Die’s 12 tracks, with subtle shifts in melodic focus and instrumental textures throughout. “Radio” is a gorgeous ballad replete with synthetic horns, “Off To the Races” has barely-there but propulsive guitar licks and the title track gets its extra punch from some metallic-tinted percussion work.

What makes Born to Die a much more important production piece, however, is that it goes beyond the basic Back to Black sonic trappings of '60s soul and adds some 21st century flavor with synths and electronic samples, and it is this marriage of ideas where the album really shines. Producer Emile Haynie has a hip-hop background, and it really benefits the tunes when his skills come to the fore. The snappy drum loops and tinkling piano runs on “Diet Mountain Dew” and the isolated-sounding, noir-tinged guitar chug in “Blue Jeans” add refreshing hints of modernism to the proceedings and grab the material form the verge of camp. Best of all is “Dark Paradise,” which combines Bollywood strings, vaguely tribal beats and a synthetic sheen to create a truly unique track somewhere delightfully between pastiche and postmodern mash-up.

It’s a small miracle Del Rey and Haynie can keep up the vibe as long as they do; it’s a great sound, but neither the songwriting nor the melodies are able to quite fuel an entire album of material. Die’s tail end graphically runs out of steam and inspiration, with tracks like “Summertime Sadness” and “Carmen” recycling tones and sounds better used earlier on, without any songwriting initiative to refresh them.

For the most part, though, it’s a surprisingly engaging listen. More about a sound and personality than songwriting, Born to Die reveals an artist ambitious and unique in her stylistic preferences. Like her career and public image, it is slightly underdeveloped but consciously innovative and bold, and for that reason, Del Rey’s debut is an exceptional display of personality and distinction forcing the public to listen and let a possible new sound to emerge.

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