CHICAGO — Somehow not one but two obsessive erotomaniacs crept in this month — Leonard Cohen and Lana Del Rey — and they couldn’t be more different from each other. I mean, Cohen chose to be pretentious. A key line on Del Rey’s record was “Baby love me cause I’m playing on the radio”. To which I can only recall the time a couple weeks ago when I was at a Chicago bluegrass festival filled with all sorts of formulaic country-rock bands eventually redeemed by the Drive-By Truckers, and I overheard this wonderful snippet of conversation along the lines of:

“One of the problems with all these bands is they’re all the same, you know, they think they’re special, they get up on the stage and they’re like, ‘Hey everybody, look at me! I’m the one on stage, and I know you’re gonna love it cause it’s ME!’ Oh, come on. Fuck that, I want something more.”

Dr. Dog: Be The Void

Anti, 2012 [BUY]

Given their energy, it makes sense that this long-standing Philly band gets its acclaim based on live shows. The albums are reputed to sound like any number of bands without which we wouldn’t have any rock at all, but they’re more like ‘90’s slacker-rock interpreted as surreal froth. Beach Boys, hell, not even CSNY. These guys split the difference between Guided By Voices and Grizzly Bear. At least on record they do — hard to imagine that particular synthesis in concert.

Yes, they’re joyful and catchy. The occasions when the band really rocks out compensate for the fragmentary songform, which is less irritating if you zone out the lyrics. The patina of organic blandness is okay when they tempo it up. And all of this would be vaguely tolerable if newcomer Dimitri Manos, from quasi-prog-country band Golden Boots, hadn’t put his two cents in: an array of psychedelicized baroque instruments, including what sounds like a trash organ, all of which he plays himself. Plus both singers are cheesy-vanilla even without the harmony.

Only good for getting the crowd worked up, they sound like an ideal opening band, yet they’re not entirely unforgettable. They capture a tone so specific it conjures up some people I know, all of them oddball hipster know-it-alls so socially myopic they mistake camp for fly. C+ 

Mohsen Namjoo: Alaki

Payam, 2012 [BUY]

Nearly every non-anglophone who can write gets called the foreign equivalent of some celebrity or another, but the “Iranian Bob Dylan” sounds more like a master setar player than a singer-songwriter. You can tell on this live recording, with applause restrained and formal enough to make it sound like a classical recital. Then again, I won’t know for sure until I find a translation of Namjoo’s allegedly satirical lyrics.

I wouldn’t call anything this slow and mournful “protest music”, even if his more controversial material has sent him directly to court. But this former theater student sure knows how to put on a show, especially with the sound near studio quality. Though it’s considerably lengthened, his song structure is relatively accessible to Westerners, something that’s gotten him in trouble with aesthetes of Persian classical music as if he were remotely close to the jazz he gets credit for. Yet even the driest downtempo moments, if not the poetry readings, are saved by his jangly setar playing, which contributes to the general air of melancholy while remaining playful and entertaining.

The audience laughs a couple times at whatever he’s saying, and for all I know he’s very funny. But from his hooks to his whistling, what he mainly gets across is despondency. If the Iranian government refused you a license to sell your music, you would feel pretty bad too. B+ 

Rodrigo y Gabriela & C.U.B.A.: Area 52

Ato, 2012 [BUY]

The most successful flamenco duo around met each other playing heavy metal in Mexico City before realizing their true calling and moving on to Dublin, upon which Dave Matthews signed them and they went viral. This should tell you that they’re not just clods, they’re flashy clods, all sexual braggadocio and self-aggrandizement. Worse, without lyrics, it’s meaningless – macho aggression without a target, or a source.

So the addition of what’s advertised as a Cuban orchestra to help them re-perform already established tunes seems disastrous at first, because they zoom straight into the deadly prog trap that catches all too many metalheads. Even if they didn’t, it’s an exercise in groundless vanity. It turns out that this is actually more listenable than previous albums: C.U.B.A., which is practically a big band, adds sonic range to riffs that would otherwise sound seriously dry. Their take on “Santo Domingo” is a huge improvement over the original’s show of virtuosity. But the auxiliary noise also detracts, because with a whole band playing, the straightforward thrashing rhythms are really vulgar. Let me tell you, it’s not getting any subtler.

I guess studio hacks hiring lesser studio hacks can never turn out well. I do like the sitar on “Ixtapa”, though. Now if only Motley Crue had used “Hanuman”’s background horns for the chorus on “Shout At The Devil”. B-

Sia Tolno: My Life

Lusafrica, 2012 [BUY]

However spiritual she gets, don’t mistake this for a “song cycle”. The vast range of languages, which include Kissi, Mendi, Susu, and especially English is calculated. But an album by a Guinean singer nicknamed “Whitney”, featuring legendary producer Francois Bréant, would be showbiz any way you look at it, and who am I to complain if Americans find it accessible?

While Tolno may be as preachy as Bono sometimes, she’s also as uplifting. Her feminist personality strongly channels Wassoulou, and I don’t just mean Oumou Sangare – her circular groove would even fit one of those lean Women of Mali comps. Though she also incorporates horn sections and electric guitars, subtler things drive the most infectious rhythms, like the xylophone or the shakers played by Bréant himself. At the center of the mix is her powerful singing, which justifies even the corniest English lyrics.

She’s definitely too earnest: the lead single asks “When will the blood stop flowing”? Still, that’s more semantically complicated than first appears, and even so, it’s a good question. A-

Lana Del Rey: Born To Die

Interscope, 2012 [BUY]

2012’s answer to Adele is the latest installment in a long-running trend I call James Bond music, successful examples of which include Jay-Z, Dire Straits, Steely Dan, Sinatra and whether you like to admit it or not, Elvis at his most Vegas-oriented. They all conjure up the glamour of a fictional life fans want because they know it doesn’t exist. While it may seem prissy to deny music so accessible, the life Lana Del Rey brings to mind is basically Gossip Girl taking itself seriously.

That said, this album also reminds me of Gaucho in the way it chronicles the seedy underside of extreme luxury. Thanks to her dark contralto, the tunes do sink in, but it takes a while to get to them under the abstract synth textures. What she happens to be singing is harder to take – across glitzy electrobeats and whooshing keyboards, she whines about the alleged emotional torture that comes with being rich. Despite all her sexual drama, this girl’s state of mind hasn’t left high school.

I first assumed it was all image, but the music video to “Video Games” that made her an overnight sensation changed my mind. What with its black-and-white shots of palm trees and billboards, it makes clear she doesn’t evoke Hollywood ironically. Sorry, but I just don’t believe orgasm comes more naturally to the nouveau riche. C+

Clams Casino: Instrumental Mixtape

2012, free download [DOWNLOAD]

New Jersey laptop jockey Mike Volpe’s beats are so chilling that when Lil B raps over them, they’re overkill. But alone as instrumentals, they hold up as striking dub. Released at the turn of the year as a holiday present, this record has already gotten credit from respectable publications like Pitchfork and the Guardian, rare for a mixtape. But it’s also rare for a mixtape to have this kind of flow.

It may seem stagnant at first, but his glowing trancehall sound eventually drifts into action after you let it sink in a few days. And what a sound — ambient buzz slinks over crackling drums, occasionally interrupted by trippy background wails, to achieve a mood that stays engaging even at its most amelodically atmospheric, which isn’t often. In a grand but infrequent tradition first kicked off by Brian Eno himself, Volpe makes that rare thing, texture that truly fascinates. It maintains charm all the way to the end where he makes Janelle Monáe actually sound good.

This album is remarkably calming, what a surprise coming from a guy in training to become a physical therapist. It would also sound great in clubs and elevators. With ACTA on the rise, I suggest downloading it this minute while you still can. A 

Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas

Columbia, 2012 [BUY]

Cohen has been an old man ever since the ‘60’s, so this is hardly his So Beautiful Or So What or even his Time Out Of Mind. Yes, “Going Home” is about his final goodbye, but so is 1988’s “Tower of Song”, or 1968’s “Sisters of Mercy” for that matter. The theme is, as always, being Leonard Cohen, something he’s had years of practice selling to people who will never come close. His tone, one of calm, deadpan self-mockery that touches on God and nudity and everything in between, is consistent from way back.

To cover for his decreased vocal ability, he slows everything down, making a delicate aura of piano beds and acoustic guitar twanging, reducing the synthesizers to background chords. Doubtless it’s all classic Cohen, but his religiosity predominates, my favorite exception being “I’m naked and I’m filthy”. Likewise, his backup singers have been promoted from disco tartlets to choirgirls (“Come healing of the altar/come healing of the name”). But it’s still very funny, and even when it isn’t, Cohen as a Zen monk can pull off earnest spirituality in his sleep.

Complain all you want that his voice is dead, but his sense of significance sure isn’t, and neither is his humanism. Rarely do old men sound just as mannered as they did when they were young precious folkies. A-

Snow Patrol: Fallen Empires

Island, 2012 [BUY]

From U2 to the Verve to Coldplay to Snow Patrol is one of the most unfortunate and predictable instances of pop evolution. Like it or not, these bands have defined the sound of — how do you call it? — British adult contemporary, a great market share if there ever was one. While it may seem unfair to pigeonhole Bono so pejoratively, this is nevertheless the greatest impact his otherwise enjoyable music has made: there are a lot of guys out there with his homiletic attitude and none of his talent.

Despite exaggerations like the band calling this album “techno”, it does indicate a well-justified dissatisfaction with their previous straightforward rock approach, recalling the Cars’ departure on Panorama. While Ric Ocasek got darker and crankier, Gary Lightbody only gets more innocuous. His droning voice isn’t annoying, but the keyboards are applied so clumsily you can tell they’re new to the equipment. Occasionally he does sound genuinely comforting, as in “this is all I ever wanted from life”. But slow, aching burners prevail.

In the end, this fauxtronica fails to accord with Lightbody’s reflexive stabs at spiritual relief. I understand the need to escape from catharsis. But catharsis isn’t just something they unthinkingly picked up from their musical heritage. It is their musical heritage, and they sound empty without it. B

*   *   *

While you’re busy burning Instrumental Mixtape, take a look at Those Darlins’ “Be Your Bro,” a triumph for feminists, comedians and hyperactive drummers everywhere. Or Modeselektor’s “Monkeyflip,” which just goes to show how Eurodisco has spread to every corner of the globe, more specifically Kenya. Or Frank Ocean’s “Novacane,” last year’s best single by far — manic-depressive, melodically perfect, it’s simply a great piece of songwriting. As far as romance goes, not to mention erotomania, smarter than Drake.

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Lucas Fagen

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...