Lana Del Rey, ‘Ultraviolence’
The feigned public image adapted by Lizzy Grant (better known as Lana Del Rey) extends to the singer’s latest album, “Ultraviolence,” where her divisive commentaries on greed, danger and dying complement her made-up mystique. To like Lana’s music is to like Lana, which is especially true when it comes to her languid, third full-length released under the “Lana Del Rey” moniker. Fleshing out the persona introduced on 2012’s “Born to Die” (and then later on her EP, where we learned she has a carbonated vagina, or something), Rey’s follow-up feels like a hallucinatory acid trip – it could levitate you to the sky on its feathery sound pillows. Lulling you are bittersweet, nostalgic songs like “Old Money” and “Pretty When You Cry,” where Rey, resembling a sad, woozy bird, sings over guitar. In keeping with the dangerously-in-love muse she’s been drawing from, “Ultraviolence” reels in the sonic boom of the less-cohesive “Born to Die”; its intent, even more so than its predecessor, seems to be to conjure a linear mood, and it does this by illustrating, quite brazenly, the tragic effigy of disillusioned women ruined emotionally, and even physically, by men. From the title track’s abusive retelling (“He hit me and it felt like a kiss”) to Nina Simone’s wistful “The Other Woman,” Rey goes darker than she did on “Born to Die,” making “Ultraviolence” not just fascinating, complex and uncomfortable, but also bold and beautifully tragic. Grade: B+
Sam Smith, ‘In the Lonely Hour’
On “Stay with Me,” British song-slayer Sam Smith politely asks a prospective boyfriend to do just that. It’s suitably vulnerable and full of feels, the case throughout his chart-topping debut, but staying – at least through his first album – is easier said than done. And it’s obviously not his sweet tenor – that particular tone is capable of expressing emotions previously unknown to man. The promise of that passionately resonant croon goes unfulfilled on “In the Lonely Hour,” where the blandness of the music and even the writing – it’s all a little too black and white – can’t quite live up to his brilliant voice. Taken in full, the lethargic, ballad-bloated production on Smith’s first venture keeps his heart-on-sleeve outpourings from making the impression they should. The gospel-powered “Stay with Me” is, by far, the album’s standout – a tour de force, even. Smith has revealed that “In the Lonely Hour” is a reflection of unrequited love, and here, particularly, you sense that. It’s real; it’s wrenching. And the choir coming in at the chorus? It’s the kind of lift the rest of this sonic snooze needs. Opening with the refreshingly spry “Money on the Mind,” the sameness of the album’s minimalism falls into a monotonous loop of lovelorn misery, where every contemplative moment hardly differs from the one preceding it. By the time Smith gets to “Lay Me Down,” you’re longing for something as much as he is – in this case, a better album. Grade: C+
Jennifer Lopez, ‘A.K.A.’
The best that can be said of Jennifer Lopez’s 10th outing – besides the surprisingly not-awful ballad “Let It Be Me” – is how it achieves a level of inadequacy all its own. Indeed, you’d have to try really hard to be this bad. “Jenny from the Block” is in street-slang mode on “I Luh Ya Papi” – not “love” (get it right) – and then there’s the Pit Bull-assisted “Booty,” a thundering Middle Eastern-inspired throw-down with hilariously cringe-worthy rump references (“I wanna take that big ol’ booty shopping at the mall / I wanna pick it up and put that booty in my car”). But “TENS,” a Gaga wannabe, is the song bound to live on in gay infamy. When it’s all said and done – and you’ll be glad when it is – “A.K.A.” is the “Gigli” of music.
Birdy, ‘Fire Within’
It’s hard to imagine a version of “Skinny Love” that grazes the brilliance of Bon Iver’s woodsy original, but on just piano, Birdy pulls it off. Turning her debut single into a blatant ballad, its emotional underbelly is still heavy – maybe even heavier. Along with “People Help the People,” the song is a carry-over from her 2011 debut, presumably in light of newfound notoriety thanks to her ubiquitous “Fault in Our Stars” single. That said, the 18-year-old English songstress’ sophomore disc doesn’t exactly break any new ground. But, particularly with “Wings,” it suggests Birdy may one day really take flight.