By BRUCE DENNILL
Lana Del Rey: Ultraviolence 5
Beatenberg: The Hanging Gardens Of Beatenberg 7
Abelardo Barroso: Cha Cha Cha 6
Death Cab For Cutie: Kintsugi 7.5
To some, it will feel like “Ultra-hyped” would have been a more fitting for this collection, with Lana Del Rey being the darling of everyone from late night talk shows (where she gives easily as good as she gets) to fashion platforms where the pretty singer-songwriter can show off her svelte curves.
What she does well on Ultraviolence (and off it, for that matter) is cultivate an old Hollywood-style mystique that not many performers her age are able to pull off. Her voice is the aural equivalent of a gorgeous woman in a ballgown, leaning against a lamppost in the middle of the night, high heels in hand and long-stemmed cigarette holder on her lips. That a song of hers has already been considered for a Bond theme is unsurprising; that one has not yet been chosen for that purpose is bizarre. However, style doesn’t always triumph over substance, and Del Rey’s come-hither tone is only really compelling in small doses: it can make so-so songs sound better, but it would make great songs sound sublime. Opener Cruel World, which offers more space in its arrangement than some of the other songs in the tracklist, is a bar-setter, but it’s a standard not often reached later in the album. Most of the compositions are long and meandering, and the production that gives Del Rey’s songs their epic sound – loads of reverb on everything, lush strings, ringing large-body guitars – also makes the whole album sound like one continuous soundtrack. The willingness to add the occasional burst of fruity language will thrill those who like their tunes to have a touch of notoriety, but otherwise, Ultraviolence is more about panache than it is about significance and as such, it may only suit certain moods, or struggle to cut through outside of particular contexts.
Having been in operation for a number of years and made a name for themselves as a very fine acoustic pop and folk band, it’s ironic that Cape Town outfit Beatenberg’s breakthrough has come with The Hanging Gardens Of Beatenberg, an album peppered with electronic touches. The best material still bears the influences of Afro-pop success stories such as Bright Blue (as well as international acts who have taken their lead from the same source material, including Brooklyn’s Vampire Weekend) and Beauty Like A Tightened Bow would do both of those acts proud. Chelsea Blakemore, though scarcely less catchy, is built of many more synthesised sounds and the song that brought the band back to notable prominence, Pluto, is a gentle club number, all repetitive patterns rather than any standout hooks. Southern Suburbs suggests an unlikely alliance between the muses of the Beach Boys and Brenda Fassie (and is the only song in which you’ll ever hear the line, “suspended like an epiphyte”); Scorpionfish combines all the best bits of the other songs, but gently; and Facebook Apologia is a laid-back lounge take on a generally aggravating theme. There is enough of the early acoustic heart of Beatenberg to ensure that those who loved that sound will love this as much at least, and the sustained excellence of the songwriting (bar a low-level uniformity in melody ideas) means it’s an enjoyable listen all the way to the end.
The production, arrangements and performance style on Cha Cha Cha all suggest an approach favouring style at least as much as substance, but in an aspirational way. Indeed, Cuban singer Abelardo Barroso, whose highly regarded work with the wonderfully named Havana-based Orquesta Sensacion in the Fifties is showcased here, more than once recalls Frank Sinatra, sharing a suave insouciance with regard to phrasing. He lacks the American’s tone, having a much more nasal singing voice, but it’s impossible to not see him being supremely comfortable in a tuxedo, working a room packed with moneyed patrons swooning under his charm offensive. En Guantanamo recalls a time when that location was not a byword for sinister politicking and El Panquelero and El Huerfanito, among others, lift the listener with the cheerful rhythms of the rumba. If there is a shortfall in the collection, it’s that those rhythms pervade every track, which may not be exciting enough for the modern listener, who buys music track by favoured track and would think the notion of revering an artist for his skill in only one area rather strange. For those more inclined to celebrate craft, the energy captured in the live performances is tremendous, with the horns in Bruca Manigua being perhaps the high point of the album in that regard. Cha Cha Cha is a fine tribute to The Way Things Were, and that mainstream artists such as Michael Buble still soar to the top of the charts performing sophisticated versions of old standards confirms that a taste for such artistry still remains.
Death Cab For Cutie singer Ben Gibbard still sounds like he’s around 12, so even for long-term fans, it can still come as a bit of a surprise when his band tackles dark or mature themes. Get used to the notion, though, as this collection’s title refers to a type of Japanese art that involves using the cracks and faults in pottery to speak to its history, rather than seeing them as faults. That such a theme was chosen for an album during the recording of which founding member Chris Walla quit the band can be seen as meaningful. Gibbard is too smart a lyricist for there to be any sense in reading anything into the titles of tracks like No Room In Frame and Good Help (Is So Hard To Find) – by all accounts, Walla’s leaving was an amicable affair. But there being an emotional edge does help to to give the songs an immediate currency that, when combined with accessible melodies and great hooks, means Kintsugi is, on the whole, a candidate for heavy playlisting for listeners. Opener No In Frame adds a head-nodding rhythm to lines like “You can’t outrun a ghost”, while first single Black Sun is as good as anything the band’s ever released, showing off their trademark alternative rock plus a touch of electronica formula with a lyric line featuring just enough menace to add a thrill. The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive, on the other hand, is not as dark as the title might lead you to expect, with Depeche Mode-ish verses balanced by a poppy chorus. There’s a great deal of consistency in this collection – everything is good – but the band do ensure that laurels don’t get sat on as they mix in a number of different dynamic options, with You’ve Haunted Me All My Life being a relatively empty arrangement and the Hold No Guns being a simple, beautiful musical conversation featuring only Gibbard’s voice an an acoustic guitar. Later, Everything’s A Ceiling and Good Help (Is So Hard To Find) will fill a Killers-shaped hole for some listeners. Chris Walla is gone and Death Cab For Cutie will not be the same band. As his swansong, it’s a fine testament. Hopefully it will prove a similarly positive precursor for what is to come next.