Having coined Fagen’s First Law of Live Rock Performance, which states that any concert without people wearing Ramones paraphernalia in the audience is a concert barely worth attending, I tested my theory out at the Pitchfork Music Festival last weekend in Chicago’s Union Park, where Kendrick Lamar’s arena-rap and especially Schoolboy Q’s explosive crunk-hop really got the party going. There were Ramones fans there, of course; there always are. But more common by far were those baggy, hideous Yeezus tour jerseys and, to my surprise, a number of shirts advertising Los Pollos Hermanos. Viva el Fring!

Lana Del Rey: Ultraviolence

(Interscope, 2014) [BUY]

Owner of the most pretentious pseudonym in the world, Lizzie Grant/Lana Del Rey has heretofore inspired controversy by playing the classic sad-little-rich girl act over pricey, shallow electrobeats, with special emphasis given to the rich part. Here, she smoothes out the music, focuses more on the songwriting, goes crazy on the vocals, and takes her act to a magical, erotic, irresistible place.

While I enjoy her two 2012 albums more in retrospect, especially “Summertime Sadness” and her “Blue Velvet” cover, both Born to Die and Paradise remain somewhat questionable. Altogether too coy in the way they evoke a ritzy tinseltown world and then declare this world an empty, fatalistic lie, they go deep enough in neither thematic content nor musical momentum. But I seriously love this album, the way I love The Nightfly, the way I love Goldfinger, maybe even the way I love Blue Velvet. In an incredible show of formal imagination and conceptual command, mixing shameless ‘50s Hollywood nostalgia with the playful melancholy of a natural Bond girl, she would achieve chewy, bittersweet pop magnificence on the passion of her performance alone, and a performance it definitely is. With tempos slowed to a deliberate yet somehow captivating crawl, the swelling keyboard gloss, minimalist guitar playing, and dark atmosphere that define these eleven slinky, flirtatious, poignant, perverse cabaret ballads create a convincing illusion of glamour heightened and dramatized by Grant’s singing. Sighing and moaning, shrieking and giggling, juxtaposing verses sung in her moody contralto with choruses squealed in her high soprano when she’s not seamlessly tripping between both modes, she really lets her voice loose. And because her themes this time around are more sexual than fiscal, she gets to bask in wicked hedonism, in euphoric and absolute submission to physical pleasure, in breathless, unabashed femininity.

Those who demand a redeeming message from their art or insist on a certain level of integrity will find this record too candid and too ironic all at once. But anyone with ears for the subtle hook and the brash statement will hear a remarkably unified aesthetic vision. Her redeeming message, for what it’s worth, is that artifice is beautiful.

Sam Smith: In the Lonely Hour

(Capitol, 2014) [BUY]

Having become a star by guesting on other artists’ singles, London R&B hero Sam Smith makes his big debut statement with an album consisting entirely of narcissistic unrequited-love laments. He has his touching moments, and sometimes sounds so heartbroken even I want to give him a hug, but for the most part his songwriting remains somewhat generic.

In 2013, Smith scored his breakthrough hit as the guest singer on fellow English techno duo Disclosure’s “Latch.” The song was rather brilliant, a neurotic bundle of mechanized drum machines and mellow yet hyperactive keyboard crackle. As with many Disclosure songs, the idea was that it deconstructed its subject, with the detached electrobeats poking fun at Smith’s voice. The lyrics, too, were intentionally creepy, as a way of subverting his sensitive guy persona. You got the sense that the Lawrence brothers were having a laugh at Smith’s expense when they made the song, and by extension at the expense of every white-soul poseur ever to make such a melodramatic show of their emotions. Well, Smith obviously didn’t pick up on the irony, because this album is exactly the sort of grotesquerie that “Latch” was mocking. The smoky, gospel-tinted falsetto he became famous for contains mannerism after insufferable mannerism, especially when he makes the back of his throat quiver a little bit in the middle of a word to make it sound like he might suddenly burst into tears. The precious, intricate acoustic guitar/electric piano arrangements match his style of dejected sorrow, as do the thick overlays of Mantovani strings.

“I had a dream I was mugged outside your house/I had a dream in a panic you came running out/For a moment you were sure I’d die on you/For a moment I believed you loved me too,” he sniffles. Perhaps he should rethink his methods of seduction.

Indian Ocean: Tandanu

(Times, 2014) [BUY]

This long-running Indian crossover band specializes in marathon improvisatory sessions that speak directly to musos obsessed with instrumental dexterity, but they’re also rather friendly to casual listeners. However skeptical one might be of their aspirations toward technical finesse, their inclusive and unaffected tone opens up their groove for anyone to enjoy.

Musically, this earns the term fusion like few other rock-inflected jazz bands; it’s genuinely syncretic. Over light, hammered percussion, including both a drum kit and a rapidly tapped tabla set, liquid basslines and spiky guitar licks weave in between more traditional Indian elements, sarangi and various woodwinds and rippling waves of drone. Like a lot of Indian music, it means to be hypnotic, saturated with a warm, sunny glow, yet it also drives forward on a straightahead Western rock beat where Indian classical follows the swoops and turns of a solo virtuoso. Although the players are hardly above kitschy smooth-jazz orchestration, mostly they aim for mellow peace, everywhere finding little pockets of calm in their constant rhythmic pulse. Oddly, the result is milder than one would expect, reduced to bland, satisfying background music unless fully concentrated on. But it’s the kind of bland, satisfying background music that invites concentration, commanding a panoply of fascinating aural details that flow and drift.

Since this album’s pleasures require more focus than most people have in them, you likely won’t play it very often. With repeated exposure, however, it conjures up a sustained, relaxed, engaging mood. It turns therapeutic.

Kitten: Kitten

(Elektra, 2014) [BUY]

Bouncing in from nowhere like a barrel of monkeys, these Los Angeles romantics seem to blend in fairly unobtrusively at first with the national alternarock scene. In fact, they’ve crafted a rather amazing bubblegum debut, defining their own tasty, unique style. Equally beholden to synthpop and power pop, they’re destined to dominate college radio.

The strong personality that drives this record belongs to frontwoman wunderkind Chloe Chaidez, who at nineteen commands a powerful yet still girlish screech with which she roars every arena-scale anthem here. As dynamic as her voice is, though, the basic band sound is even more exciting. If it weren’t for their insistent, youthful energy, the album could easily pass for a retrospective 1984 period piece, complete with big, banging drums, high, clear keyboards, glittering electronic arpeggios, sharp funk-derived rhythm guitar, that sour, bell-like jangle nobody can pin down as either a guitar or a synthesizer, and even a saxophone solo on “Cathedral.” Then they plaster the whole package with fuzzy, glowing distortion, achieving a chaotic density that simultaneously amplifies and undercuts their interlocking pop technique. My only regret is that they didn’t hire Elliot Easton to play lead guitar.

“I’ll Be Your Girl” could warm the heart of any nostalgic new waver, “Kill the Light” brings everything over the top like the giant climax it is, and “Like a Stranger” might be the most confident single I’ve heard all year. Since when is a great new pop band also a great new guitar band? Since when do these bands write such upbeat, bracingly catchy relationship songs?

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Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...

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