When talking about the self-titled debut album from POP ETC, it’s almost essential to forget what you know and think you know about The Morning Benders. The storyline plays out as follows: upon learning that their band name was being used as a homophobic slur in the UK, The Morning Benders made the executive decision to change their name to POP ETC. With the name change came a lineup tweak and a move from San Francisco to Brooklyn. It’s close to the musical equivalent of gender reassignment or witness protection, and such radical adjustments also provide the opportunity to reinvent yourself however you like. The old Morning Benders liked guitars and indie pop. They wrote a super catchy song like “Excuses” that found placement in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial and on “Best of” lists back in 2010. They corralled their musician friends from San Francisco like John Vanderslice and members of Girls into a small studio to play a song or two for fun.
By contrast, POP ETC like synths and commercial pop music. They use AutoTune liberally and even apply it to a cover of Bjork’s “Unravel”. They release mixtapes titled “New Influences Weekend Mix” and “1986 Weekend Mix” full of artists like Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Tears for Fears and Boys II Men. The moving parts might be the same, but this is an entirely new model and should be regarded as such. Those still in denial need only listen to the appropriately titled opening track “New Life” on POP ETC’s new album to best understand the group’s aim. Synths warble next to drum machines, and singer Chris Chu mourns the death of a relationship through R&B flavored sentiments and AutoTune. Somewhere, the 808s & Heartbreak version of Kanye West can relate. Top 40 and Urban radio stations should be licking their chops over the sparkling Drake-like bounce of “Back to Your Heart,” if only the lyrics weren’t so cringe-worthy. “She said, ‘Why do we bother?’/and I said, ‘I’m not your father,'” is just one moment in the song that might make you wince. First single “Keep It For Your Own” is perhaps the best four minutes of pure pop on the entire album, where light bits of acoustic guitar, bass and piano actually support the verses, the hook in the chorus is strong, and all the vocals/harmonies haven’t been modulated. It’s the only track on the record produced by Danger Mouse, and considering how well it works, they might want to have him do the entire thing next time.
So much of the rest of the album feels like a blatant attempt at mainstream pop it can be almost disturbing at times. “R.Y.B.” stands for rock your body, and not only did Justin Timberlake do a song about that very topic that was a whole lot better, but it’s easy to get the impression that ‘NSYNC would probably pass on it too. That and closing track “Yoyo” are both obnoxiously loud too, as if the synths have been turned up to 11 to distract you from how utterly mediocre they are. The faux R&B seductions of “Live It Up” and “I Wanna Be Your Man” have decent melodies and even some impressive harmonies in them, but stumble and fall from downright painful lyrics. “I ain’t never disrespect no woman/never called a girl a ho,” Chu AutoTunes on “Live It Up,” a song about sleeping with groupies while on tour. The chorus of “I Wanna Be Your Man” is the song title repeated over and over and over again ad nauseum, to the point where if you play this song for a girl you’re trying to woo she’ll likely say yes by the halfway point so the begging doesn’t have to go on any longer. You could say POP ETC are trying as hard as they can to develop a relationship with as many people as possible on this album, beating you over the head with a sonic lead pipe until you finally come around to the idea that they’re a good band.
They’d fare far better with a touch of moderation, as songs like “Halfway to Heaven” and “Everything Is Gone” display. Unfortunately such moments are too few and far between to make much of a difference. One thing that does make a difference is how and where you listen to the album. Like a blockbuster action film, sometimes you need a good popcorn record to mindlessly enjoy for awhile. If you’re out on a deck with a cold beverage and a good book or are at a party with your friends, a little POP ETC can be quite nice. Don’t be too surprised if the band starts to pick up some mainstream success from this album either. I mean it IS better than Ke$ha. That last sentence probably tells you all you need to know. In an ideal world, the transition from The Morning Benders to POP ETC would have gone a lot smoother. Chris Chu has proven he can write smart and addictive pop songs with guitars, and it stands to reason he could do the same without them. Let’s hope that next time the band returns they learn from this misstep and come up with some music that’s truly worthy of their new name.
Sleigh Bells have an expiration date. That expiration date is sooner rather than later. Quite simply, their sustainability factor is very low. They are in many ways the equivalent of a ribbon of magnesium set aflame – igniting quickly, burning white hot for a few seconds and then going dark. The reason why they’re working on such a limited time frame has less to do with the hype cycle and more to do with the niche they’ve carved out for themselves. Their heavy metal riffage and schoolgirl innocent vocals are unique to a fault, because as exciting and headbangingly good as the songs on their debut album Treats were, they failed to expand beyond that realm. There’s only so much that can be done with the tools the duo is currently using, meaning that unless they get truly inventive, they’re liable to go stale at any minute. Enter their sophmore record Reign of Terror. For those that thought Treats was a wild experiment in volume and excess, it appears that was just the tip of the iceberg. Now the band is looking to take down the unsinkable Titanic.
Reign of Terror opens to the sound of crowd noise and singer Alexis Krauss shouting from a distance, “What the fuck is up? Come on!” If you’ve ever seen Sleigh Bells’ intense and fun live show, you know that intro is pretty true to life. Fists in the air and devil horns held high, the band wants you to know that this record is more than just a collection of songs – it’s an Event with a capital E. After a solid minute of shouting slogans behind some riffs to pump people up, “True Shred Guitar” actually kicks into full stereo mode sans crowd. “Push it, push it, push it,” Krauss insists beneath a healthy layer of vocal fuzz. That seems to be the band’s mantra for the entire album as they attempt to go bigger and bolder than ever before. If the guitars were cranked up to 11 last time, they’re now at 12, buzzing hotter than a nest filled with angry hornets. Yet in spite of the much more heavy metal nature of the songs courtesy of Derek Miller, the vocals are decidedly more stable and pop-oriented than they were on the previous record.
For much of Treats, Krauss resorted to cheerleader-like shouting that often wound up being obscured by an already crowded and red-level mix. Listen to “Infinity Guitars” or “Crown on the Ground” or “A/B Machines” and you’ll find they have more in common vocally with straight hip hop verses than they do pop songs. That record’s best moment came via “Rill Rill”, where acoustic guitars calmed the noise level and Krauss delivered a sugary sweet schoolgirl vocal. They seemed to take that song as the vocal model for most of Reign of Terror, which as a result makes it sound that much deeper and more balanced on the whole. It helps that Krauss is much more up-front and unobscured in the mix, sharing equal weight with the supremely heavy guitars. The best example of how the two opposing forces meet in the middle comes via the album’s first single “Comeback Kid”, which is bouncy and poppy without losing its harsh edge. One of the record’s quietest and most ballad-infused moments comes on “End of the Line”, where Krauss is given enough room to whisper parts of her vocal while Miller puts the power chords on the shelf and settles for some snaking 80s-esque guitar solos. “Road to Hell” holds a remarkably similar constitution to it, only the execution is a little choppier and less catchy on the whole.
Those craving something more in line with earlier Sleigh Bells material will find a couple moments to take in some fist-pumping nostalgia. “Crush” feels like it should have a music video that’s thematically similar to Nirvana’s classic “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which is to say the band should be performing with cheerleaders at a high school pep rally inside a smoky gymnasium. And “Demons” works exceptionally well when paired with the delusional, drug-induced visions that Beavis and Butt-Head experience while lost in the desert in “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America”. Considering the main riff in the song was ripped almost directly from that TV series, the comparison makes even more sense. As the record winds to a close, the band chooses to try a few different things that work well thematically but turn in mixed results. “You Lost Me” is about suicide, but plays up a sympathetic angle to it that results in the most beautiful track Sleigh Bells have ever composed. From there it only gets darker and less distinctive. “Never Say Die” is unable to stave off death, and “D.O.A.” takes what little signs of life it has and sends it spiraling downwards. Both bear the marks of 80s metal ballads, but fail to be inspiring or memorable.
In so many ways, Reign of Terror is a better record than Treats was. Sleigh Bells show promising advancements in their sound and the way they structure their songs that would seem to suggest they’ve got a real chance at surviving far longer than anybody might think. Perhaps the best thing about the changes they’ve made on this new album is how purely subtle they are, remaining close enough to what they did on their debut to satisfy those fans while making it easier to court new ones. But for as smart as the album is, it’s also more limiting than the last one. The band has entrenched themselves further into the metal-meets-pop dynamic than ever before, and it could come back to bite them in time. Also, while built upon a stronger foundation, the songs on Reign of Terror are less immediate and memorable than the in-your-face nature of Treats. In the longer term though the new album grows on you and its charms become that much more evident. Sometimes those are the real treats.
Lana Del Rey is a magnet. People are drawn to her, and to her music, and everyone that hears her or knows about her has an opinion. Four or five months ago, you probably heard far kinder things being said about her compared to today, where the inevitable backlash has reared its ugly head and nearly swallowed her whole. All this before her major label debut album Born to Die even sees release. To be fair, the build up and press surrounding Del Rey has been huge – she is signed to a major label and the sky high hopes of executives are that she’ll eventually join the ranks of a Lady Gaga or a Beyonce in the realm of pop superstardom. That’s a very real possibility no matter how much crap she puts out there, so long as it sells. This is coming from the same world in which Ke$ha has a lucrative career despite being one of the more reviled pop stars in recent memory. But what is it about Del Rey that has drawn such ire from people? There’s a laundry list of things, so let’s try and break it down.
Lana Del Rey’s real name is Lizzy Grant. She had a privileged upbringing in New York that eventually resulted in a trip to boarding school and a stint at Fordham University. She dropped out of school to pursue a music career, and built a relatively respectable reputation as a Nancy Sinatra-esque, classically inspired crooner. Doors were opened for her, but not exactly the right ones or the ones she was looking for. As such, she invented her own persona and drastically changed her look to go along with it. Gone was the plain Jane Lizzy Grant, and in her place was the glamorous, full-lipped Lana Del Rey. Under the new name and style she quickly flourished, and though her 2010 debut A.K.A. Lizzy Grant went largely unnoticed, last summer she released the single song “Video Games” and the internet grabbed hold of it with a fierce intensity. It was a matter of months before Interscope Records came calling on the wings of yet another new and excellent song, “Blue Jeans”. It seemed that Grant was getting everything she wanted via the transition into Lana Del Rey. But was it too much success, too soon?
Early Del Rey detractors started by citing her fake persona. She couldn’t make it with her real name and real style, so she had to invent a character instead? How disingenuous of her! Not only that, but her character of Lana Del Rey is this pretty, platinum blonde with pinup style that appears to sell her sex. Listen to the lyrics of “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” as well and you’ll notice she’s singing about needing a big, strong man to keep her safe and warm, and how she’ll stick with him and essentially live to serve him while he goes off and plays video games. She’s playing up antiquated notions of women, that they’re supposed to slave in the kitchen all day, stay home with the kids, and generally accept whatever their husbands want. It’s a far cry from today’s women, fiercely independent and proving they’re equal with men on every level, even as the pay scales still don’t entirely reflect that. So yes, the controversy surrounding Del Rey is understandable. Many have undoubtedly been rooting for her to fail, and their wish is swiftly being Grant-ed. A few weeks ago she turned in a disastrous performance on Saturday Night Live, one that sent the internet abuzz yet again, this time with far more jeers than cheers. As NBC News anchor Brian Williams said, it was foolish of the show to put Del Rey on when her album hadn’t been released and her only notable accomplishments were having two songs popular with the online community. Very few people have gotten so far by doing so little. We’ve finally reached the apex though, the moment that will truly make or break Lana Del Rey – the release of her much-anticipated album Born to Die.
From start to finish, Born to Die feels like a statement. It seeks, as a whole, to try and be the official definition of what and who Lana Del Rey is. The two tracks that made her a rising star, “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” both show up early on in the record, and right next to one another. They are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the grandiosity and melodrama in place here, yet they also provide ample evidence that perhaps she doesn’t have much going for her otherwise. The opening title track signals its arrival with a rush of orchestration and sweeping majesty, quickly paired with a very basic electronic beat that holds steady for the duration. From the very start Del Rey is in a sad emotional state, wandering the streets in her heels, hoping that when she arrives at her man’s house he’ll open the gate and let her in. That theme of neediness and essentially pleading for acceptance extends through much of the album and is also a mirror to real life, in which the pop singer tries everything she can to ingratiate herself to a less than adoring public. Things change in a remarkably interesting way on “Off to the Races”, wherein Del Rey seems to want some street cred. She tells of how her “old man” is an evil gangster, involved in everything from drugs and maybe even murder, but she doesn’t care about that because he holds her hand and loves her with every beat of his “cocaine heart”. He sips Cristal while she swims around topless in the pool for his enjoyment. But she also says that she’s crazy and demands money and gold so she can go to the races and spend money all over town. The coup de gras in all this comes in a few lines in the chorus in which she says, “I need you to come here and save me/I’m your little scarlet starlet singing in the garden/kiss me on my open mouth”. Sure, it’s bad enough just to read it, but the WAY she sings it, in the most innocent, high-pitched baby voice a la Betty Boop, feels like an affront to women everywhere. Yet thinking about it from a different perspective, perhaps it’s just the opposite. A ruthless and tough girlfriend of a gangster one minute and an innocent young girl in need of saving the next, it appears she’s playing the latter role with her man to obtain money and access. Again, we’re dealing with parallels to real life.
Lizzy Grant is playing the role of Lana Del Rey. She must know the stereotypes she’s portraying and is either comfortable with lowering herself to obtain success, or is doing it to be ironic. In a perfect world it’d be the latter, but at the moment it appears to be the former, or at most a little from column A and column B. If she gave a little wink or even a smirk now and then, it’d be easier to say she was faking it to get people talking about gender issues and to work that much harder to change how success is obtained. Instead, everything about her, from her videos to her interviews to her live performances and the songs on Born to Die, smacks of overwrought sincerity. Yet it’s difficult to think a person would purposely sell their entire gender short just to earn money and popularity. Maybe Lizzy Grant really does have more in common with Lana Del Rey than one would reasonably think. Maybe she’s not a good person in the least. Or maybe she simply needs an outlet through which she can channel a life and emotional state built upon sadness, allowing the character to live and work through the situations she herself has trouble dealing with. What we’re searching for is clarity. Something to help us truly understand how Lana Del Rey came to be, and where she might go in the future. The record doesn’t provide any answers, or at least appears not to. What you get instead are a mixture of heavy ballads and tracks that take closer cues from hip hop and R&B, each one like the layer of an onion peeling back to try and explain or re-explain this persona Lizzy Grant has created.
After a moderately strong first 5 tracks, which include the aforementioned singles and most likely future singles “Diet Mountain Dew” and “Off to the Races”, Born to Die slowly descends into bland and boring ballads that are overlong and similarly styled to what came before them. They reiterate many of the same lyrical points as well, only with less emotion and less compelling melodies. The second half of the record is a chore to listen to in many ways, and the 3 bonus tracks on the deluxe edition only make it worse. Somehow 60 minutes with this thing feels nearly twice as long. Perhaps it’s the lack of briskly paced, faster tempo pop songs that are the main source of the drag. In an alternate universe somewhere there’s a 10 track, 35 minute version of Born to Die that is nearly perfect. The reality is we don’t need songs like “Dark Paradise” or “Million Dollar Man” as they feel more like padding than legitimate attempts to write smart or engaging songs. That’s a talent we know Del Rey has, because in spite of all the bitching, “Video Games” still completely devastates with every listen. It’s the high watermark she will continue to try and return to for the rest of her career, however long it may last. And though almost all of Born to Die doesn’t live up to the stratospheric expectations that were established for it by months of hype, you have to admire the risks it takes to even make a record like this. For a major label release of course there’s a couple of blatantly commercial elements to it, but between the dominance of 50’s-style melodramatic ballads and the brazen commitment to a purely fictional character, it’s got more of a story to tell and is more sonically adventurous than a whole lot of other big name artists. At least Lizzy Grant is trying something unorthodox, whether it’s for the right reasons or the wrong ones. Will it all work out for her in the end, or will she end up like one of her lesser songs – sad, pathetic and antiquated? That’s for you and your wallet to decide.