Lana Del Rey
As much as there’s an aesthetic and thematic throughline to Lana Del Rey’s discography, it’s also true that each new Lana album tends to do a different thing — which is the main reason why Blue Banisters is the lesser of her two releases this year. March’s Chemtrails Over the Country Club, while still a step-down from 2019’s career-best Norman Fucking Rockwell, had going for it its (relative) concision (her shortest since 2012’s quasi-EP Paradise, anyway); and more than that, it had an arsenal of formal and stylistic gamuits packed into those 45 minutes. The mesmerizing opener “White Dress” (with its PJ Harvey-esque bated-breath delivery), the glam-rock break of “Dance Til We Die,” and the unabashedly cracking falsetto on “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” all represented a real extension of what was starting to seem like a limited vocal vocabulary. Add to that a focused thematic thrust — solidarity with name-checked women (“Joan” Baez, “Tammy” Wynette) whom Lana sees as occupying a similar space of celebrity — plus some of the catchiest melodies since Lana more overtly courted pop earlier in her career, and you had a more-than-worthy addition to (and marked expansion of) the Del Rey canon.
Critical response to Chemtrails was, in retrospect, somewhat predictable: The moderate shift away from Norman’s autobiographical directness lead some to label the album as “impersonal,” as if only explicit lyrical references to her life — and not, say, the emotional commitment in her vocal performances — could signify investment in her work. Of course, it would be foolish to assume that Lana gives much of a fuck about critics’ opinions of her — or, at least, that she lets those opinions steer the direction of her artistic output — but nonetheless, the quickly materialized Blue Banisters sounds a lot like a capitulation to those calls for a more Norman-esque album. And while returning to that well and updating us seems more than reasonable for Del Rey — especially since she deactivated all her social media in the time since Chemtrails — comparisons to Norman specifically, with some exceptions, aren’t too flattering.
Blue Banisters peaks with its opening triptych, which also marks the most emphatic assertion of Lana’s return to a more autobiographical perspective for this album: Each song almost acts as constituent parts of a single thesis on the Lana Del Rey mythos and its motivations, respectively probing her mind (“Text Book”), heart (“Blue Banisters”), and body (“Arcadia”). The latter is particularly stunning for the way it mediates a kind of distancing device which Lana has employed many times before (“my body is a map of LA”) with a genuine expression of intimacy and vulnerability. “All roads that lead to you as integral to me as arteries / That get the blood flowing straight to the heart of me” goes the refrain, effectively liberating Lana from the trappings of iconography that she would revel in on earlier songs like “Ride” and “National Anthem.” With “Arcadia,” she’s still interested in blurring the line between her own identity and the signifiers of the cultural landscapes that formed it, but the numbness that once imbued her songwriting voice has been replaced with a more mature, and emotionally complex, form of self-reflection.
“Text Book” and “Blue Banisters” add their own colors to the self-portrait, respectively; one articulates the specific psychological (and narratological) conditions behind Lana’s cyclical romantic entanglements with a certain kind of man, while the other mines the emotional depths of the sadness and healing that the ebbing relationships in her life evoke. These three inaugural songs, when taken together, offer such an incisive and insightful read on Lana’s artistic and personal identity that the remaining 12 tracks on this album can feel like more of an afterthought, or an addendum. Lana herself almost seems to recognize the separation, dividing the opening trilogy from the rest of the set with a bizarre, minute-long “interlude” that pairs an Ennio Morricone sample with a raft of trunk-rattling bass drops that call back to her more hip hop-indebted debut album, Born to Die — and that feels completely anachronistic to the rest of Blue Banisters. Instead, the rest of the album sounds a lot like the beginning — delicate, slow, spare ballads — and shares its heady ambitions as well. The problem with that, then, becomes that a full album of songs that play like thesis statements is kind of exhausting.
There are still highlights to be found here, like the shuffling and sexy “If You Lie Down With Me” and the quite moving “Violets for Roses,” which branches out a bit from the self-focused core conceit of Blue Banisters in its expression of empathy for all women who resist external pressure to change themselves. But even these songs are much more familiar melodically, and aesthetically pro forma, than the best cuts off of both Norman Fucking Rockwell and Chemtrails Over the Country Club. Moreover, some of the weakest songs that Lana’s ever released fill out this album’s back-to-standard one-hour runtime, particularly “Dealer,” which marks the first whiff for Lana when it comes to inviting other vocalists into the booth with her (after resolute success stories like her collaborations with The Weeknd and Weyes Blood). The preening, psychedelic-lite chorus from Brit-rock journeyman Miles Kane just fills space that Lana herself would sound better filling, as she proves every time her own caterwauling vocal displaces him.
The stoned dub of “Dealer” is generally an outlier here, thankfully, on an album that at least largely sticks to one direction — which suggests that Lana may have now gotten messy and eclectic releases like 2017’s divisive Lust for Life out of her system (for better and worse). In its scope and sheer lyrical density, Blue Banisters probably does more to shore-up Lana Del Rey’s bona fides as a serious singer-songwriter than Chemtrails Over the Country Club did; on the other hand, if anyone was still questioning that after Norman Fucking Rockwell, then this isn’t likely to be the album that convinces them. Instead, this is the first album from Lana in a while (since Honeymoon to be exact) that, in fact, doesn’t seem to be doing its own thing — that’s more genuinely susceptible to the most hackneyed platitudes of the critics that still imagine Lana Del Rey as the Sad-Eyed Crooner of the Hipsterlands. They’re still not right, of course, but hopefully her next album brings more vigorous reasons to disagree with them.
Writer: Sam C. Mac Section: Pop Rocks
Brandi Carlile wrote the material for In These Silent Days while tucked away at home, at the peak of the COVID-19 lockdown — and like so many artists working under the same conditions, her instinct was to turn inward. If the turmoil of the outside world registers at all in these songs, it’s only indirectly — the album title references a cold war between two lovers, not the eerie hush of quarantine — with most of the album reflecting on domesticity. But introspection doesn’t necessarily mean insularity, and though In These Silent Days was conceived in a bubble, it plays as Carlile’s warmest, most welcoming, most assured album to date, a deeply accomplished work of songwriting and record-making.
Perhaps some of the credit goes to the great Joni Mitchell, whose friendship and songwriting legacy have both been guiding lights for Carlile. (Around the time of the album’s release, Carlile did some live shows performing Mitchell’s classic Blue in its entirety.) You can hear some Joni-isms in Carlile’s phrasing, her graceful folk-rock arrangements, and especially in the bright melody for “You and Me on the Rock,” an irresistible family idyll. There’s also some honor due Shooter Jennings and David Cobb, who produced the album with Carlile, providing a sound that’s at once colorful and svelte, steeped in classicist tropes without ever sounding bogged down by history or imitation. Check the raging guitars in “Broken Horses,” which almost feints toward prog-rock with its operatic intricacies, and to the lavish string arrangements that add drama to “Sinners, Saints and Fools,” the latest in Carlile’s catalog of Tumbleweed Connection homages.
But reserve most of your praise for the artist herself, whose work here proves that craft can be a conduit for emotional acuity, and rewarding unto itself. Song after song is a master class in form and a case study in directness. The piano ballad “Right on Time” takes its place among her greatest and saddest love songs. There’s also “Mama Werewolf,” a big-hearted stomp where Carlile faces her inner demons and deputizes her loved ones in keeping her honest; “Stay Gentle,” a folksy lullaby that teems with worthy maternal advice; and “Throwing Good After Bad,” another piano tune that ends the album on a note of tart regret. Individually, each song packs a punch, but together they add up to Carlile’s richest work to date — a reckoning with the complexities of romance, family, and self, pitched in a familiar language but sounding like no one but Brandi Carlile.
Writer: Josh Hurst Section: Rooted & Restless
Limp Bizkit had been trapped in production purgatory for over a decade when Still Sucks was announced this past August, the band having made publicly available a handful of singles in the years following 2011’s Gold Cobra (a fine enough album best remembered for its sloppy/sleazy album art) while failing to deliver on oft-promised project, Stampede of the Disco Elephants. Seemingly without a real sense of direction throughout this period, Bizkit drifted from Interscope to Cash Money Records (Birdman an admirer, apparently), though this wouldn’t prove terribly fruitful, the partnership resulting in a Wayne collab (“Ready to Go”) and not a whole lot else. The band faced internal strife and lineup changeovers around this time as well, but it seems like this has largely been reset and put behind them in time for Still Sucks (being put out through the resurrected Suretone Records), a savvily timed release that at once allows Limp Bizkit to clear away the baggage they’ve amassed over the years, and nostalgically reassert themselves as progenitors of a currently trendy attitude toward pop music making.
While unclear how much of Disco Elephants may have carried over to Still Sucks, it makes sense that that iteration of the project (well on its way to becoming a Detox-esque white whale for the band) would be deprioritized in favor of the one that saw release. A lean (31 minutes compared to their usual 60/70-minute runtimes), uncomplicated presentation of the band’s particular aesthetic bent, Still Sucks seems to be largely inspired by Durst and co.’s delight over the band’s reemergence into a sort of cultural relevance with current-day rap and hyperpop artists pursuing nu metal stylings and low-culture indulgences with a sense of glee reminiscent of the Bizkit brand. Opener “Out of Style” gestures toward the band’s awareness of their shifting cultural clout, with Durst spitting “It’s time to rock this motherfucker ’cause I’m always out of style / Never change my style ’cause my style is kinda fresh” over squealing Wes Borland guitar. Knowingly stupid yet wholeheartedly ferocious, “Out of Style” is what one would hope to hear in a modern reconception of the classical Limp Bizkit cut, as is single “Dad Vibes,” a victory lap track that lets Durst pause once more to marvel at the prescience of his style and vision over a more hip hop-minded track (production aided by 808 Mafia’s Purps in one-off appearance).
In general, Still Sucks’ first half plays like this — confident throwback updated just enough, with “Dirty Rotten Bizkit” and “Turn It Up, Bitch” there to remind us of the band’s nastier tendencies. But following a winking acoustic cover of INXS’ “Don’t Change,” the material becomes more dicey and less certain of itself, shifting into sludgier compositions and unappealingly defensive lyrical content. “Love the Hate” offers up a sort of Eminemian self-roast (the Detroit rapper is in fact name-checked here), written from the POV of a couple of life-long haters, whereas “Pill Popper” finds Durst lazily lashing out at pharmaceutical culture (“Gimme my medicine / Pills give me a smile / A smile so genuine”). Penultimate song “Snacky Poo” takes Still Sucks to its most tedious nadir, with a skit depicting a fake interview with Borland (confirming Haxan Cloak and Aphex Twin as favorites) dominating a good chunk of the album’s concluding minutes. It’s a dull end to an album that begins with some promise, suggesting that while Limp Bizkit are quite aware of their enduring appeal, they’re still stumped on where to take that next exactly.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux Section: Pop Rocks
Miko Marks & the Resurrectors
After Music Row had silenced her extraordinary voice for years, Miko Marks has spent 2021 making up for lost time. Backed by her ace band, The Resurrectors, Marks had already released one of the year’s finest country albums, Our Country, back in the Spring, and now she’s followed that up just a few months later with an extended play that might be even better. In giving the EP the title Race Records, Marks is speaking to the music industry’s long history of gatekeeping that has reinforced the idea — one that’s been proven countless times over by both quantitative data and individual case studies like Marks’ own — that artists of color are unwelcome in particular spaces. The six-song EP makes a definitive case that “race records” are “country records,” and vice versa, thanks to Marks’ deep understanding of genre idioms and her talent in performing so many styles of country music with conviction.
Her reinvention of the standard, “Tennessee Waltz,” into a rockabilly banger falls perfectly in line with country music’s history of disguising songs of heartbreak as uptempo ditties, and Marks’ nuanced vocal turn conveys the emotional depths of that song’s well-known narrative in a new and effective way. Lead single “Long Journey Home” is a cover of a Monroe Brothers song that debuted all the way back in 1936, and Marks’ and The Resurrectors keep their arrangement rooted in traditional instrumentation and close harmonies, while Marks’ lead vocal turn is the joyful sound of an artist who is grateful that her voice is finally being heard. Other songs that Marks redubs “race records” include perfectly-selected cuts by The Carter Family and Creedence Clearwater Revival: Again, Marks is making an incontrovertible point that she understands exactly how broad “country music” is, and, with Race Records, she’s proving that she performs country music better than anyone else in 2021, and sending a powerful message that she’s opening the gates for other artists of color to stake their own claims, too.
Writer: Jonathan Keefe Section: Rooted & Restless
It must be really, really nice to be a Tech N9ne fan: imagine, if you will, being one of these said devotees (yes, they do exist out there, and in large enough numbers to warrant an enthusiastic following) knowing full well that every 365 days, almost like clockwork at this point, your favorite fast-rapping MC will deliver another hour-plus album of new material. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Listening to these Tech N9ne albums, year after year; what an experience that must be. Tech’s been sticking to this release strategy since 1999 and has yet to throw in the towel, even after recently turning 50 and for some reason still thinking it’s cool to be a horrorcore musician in middle-age; it’s the type of work ethic that most rappers give up after making it big commercially — then again, Tech N9ne has never really “made it” either. Sure, he has notoriety and has some level of industry respect, but he’s only ever felt comfortable within his own independent lane. So instead of doing high-profile features, he’s touring about 360 days of the year; go figure. But this is a badge of honor for Tech, or so he tries to claim on his latest release, ingeniously titled Asin9ne. As he puts it, mainstream artists don’t have as many flows as him (like the agro-robotic, late-period Eminem one he bites heavily on “Knock that Noodle”), that their catalogs aren’t as musically diverse as his, and that they aren’t willing to take risks. He’s at least correct with that last point: few other working rappers with a morsel of fame would have dubstep crossovers on their albums in 2021, especially ones that end on a pedophile joke (“What Rhymes with Threat’ll Kill Ya”) or feature an outro announcing that listeners should skip the next one “if they don’t like sex” (“Zaza”).
In other words, this is an affair removed not only from popular culture writ large, but from reality itself. Asin9ne is a meaty, WWE-styled piece of empty spectacle in that sense — a claim which is only solidified with the inclusion of the first verse of recorded material from one Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a ridiculous moment of many that follow one after the other on the top-heavy first leg of the record. The aforementioned tenets of the project are listed on the opening mission statement “The Hearder,” with operatic church organs pounding away over lame guitar riffs to make a rap-rock track that never really rocks; it’s gothic pump-up music, which feels as forced in execution as that description makes it sound. But boy, does Tech rap; it’s about the only thing he’s technically proficient at (he tries his hand at singing a few times for some ungodly motive, possibly blackmail), and so he keeps going, until a track even gives up at one point. Admittedly, there is some minor joy to be felt whenever he’s ferociously zipping through knotty rhyme schemes like he’s a buzzsaw and the beat is the wood, but those brief slivers of amusement are few and far between. They become lost within a collection of tracks that are simultaneously undercooked and overstuffed, where the appeal of a voice like Tech N9ne in today’s hip hop landscape feels completely unfathomable.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: What Would Meek Do?