Album reviews: St. Vincent, Lana Del Rey, Dinosaur Jr., Marianne Faithfull

Lana Del Rey

Chemtrails Over the Country Club


A decade in, she’s finally cemented herself as the Molly Ringwald of Fiona Apples — the loved, beloved white, suburban sweetheart, who gets the Black or pink gal or guy, hybrid Trans Am in the driveway, and then has breakfast with a bad boy before a hepatitis-free earring exchange

Rich girl.

Quirky, but not too weird.

Country clubber.

But one who’s in touch with who she is, can tap into it, make it relatable to and fit in with a surprisingly large, Hughes-ian, Save Ferris cross-section of hipsters, losers, nerds, punks, rockers, popsters, poseurs, queers, stoners, straights, brainiacs, jocks, Phishheads and drama dorks.

And who she is is an astonishingly well-formed and assured artist, with a set of pipes that provide more powered character in a single breath than many others could muster with an entire career of vocal gymnastics, warbling and over-emoting.

Aided by collaborator/producer Jack Antonoff, Chem Trails picks up where 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! left off: musically, a mix of ambient folk and heartworn chamber pop to accompany the confessionals; and lyrically, it offers Del Rey at her most casually, comfortably, unapologetically her, that lipstick trick or bento box she’s too half-past caring to be shamed to share.

After kicking off with the two of the breathiest, loveliest tracks you’ll hear this year, ones that seem to give away more than they’re letting on — the, if-I-knew-then, late-night piano purr of White Dress and a title track that plays out like a novel, where the heroine, nostalgic but not navel-gazing, is smarter than any suitor, anyone she encounters — the rest of the record, is just sweetness; breezy sweetness that’s well seasoned and seems steeped in remembrances of what was before all of this. It’s a fond yet bittersweet, even tormented, look back at how far she’s come — Wild At Heart is a wonder, Wanderlust is a soothing strummer, Breaking Up Slowly is Lissie-like, Laurel Canyon-y and the name-checking Dance Til We Die offers a sense of loneliness and melancholy that’s almost Cohen-esque in prose and sonic scope before the singer slips her way into a sumptuous cover of Joni Mitchell’s For Free.

It’s a whole lot of some kind of wonderful.

— Mike Bell

St. Vincent

Daddy’s Home 

Loma Vista Recordings

“Like the heroines of Cassavetes, I’m under the influence daily,” purrs Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) on her sixth album of new material (out May 14). This reference to the film-maker’s 1974 masterpiece A Woman Under the Influence hints at the cinematic ambitions she’s embracing on this followup to her widely revered Masseduction. That 2017 release was full of personal thoughts and confessions that could have been ripped from her diary. Not surprising from an artist with shapeshifting ways, Daddy’s Home is something quite different. The new songs are short-form character studies of women who are down but not out; dishevelled but not without dignity. Clark has said these songs were inspired by her father’s release following a nine-year prison sentence for white collar crime at the end of 2019, which the title track addresses most directly (“I signed autographs in the visitation room/ Yeah, you did some time/ Well, I did some time too.”) Overall, though, you get the sense Clark is inhabiting fictionalized versions of herself in a series of gritty mini-movies influenced by the New Hollywood movement of the late-’60s to early-’80s and the music of that era. It’s quite the trip.

Clark and her Masseduction co-producer/co-writer Jack Antonoff are on top of their game. If lyrics are scripts, then they pen riveting opening scenes. “You’ve hit me one time/ Imagine my surprise/ You hit me two times/ You got yourself a fight,” Clark seethes to start revenge drama Down. Or this one, from Laughing Man: “I can hear the angels sweeping so why do I feel like sleeping?/ Little birds chirp chirp chirp/ Singing like the day is perfect but, to me, they sound psychotic.” Although most tracks on Daddy’s Home clock in at under four minutes, the concision of the lyric writing ensures each song presents fascinating, fleshed-out characters in compelling situations.

The “soundtracks” are just as inspired. The record starts with ragtimey piano, perhaps drawing parallels between the Great Depression and the tales of hardship to follow, before the squelchy synths of first single Pay Your Way in Pain pound out an intro that recalls Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) — ironically, one suspects, as there are few sweet dreams to follow. The album is full of other musical and lyrical winks. The wafting and woozy Live in the Dream sounds like Pink Floyd’s Breathe complete with a David Gilmour-esque guitar solo; it’s followed by The Melting of the Sun, a Bobby Gentry-ish country-soul smoothie that references the “dark side of the moon.” There’s a morning train in the slow-burning, retro-soul number Down and Out Downtown; nine tracks later, My Baby Wants a Baby is built from the chorus of Sheena Easton’s 9 to 5 (Morning Train) and could be a sequel to the 1981 pop hit, with the woman who wanted to “play all night” with her hard-working man now recoiling from his desire to have kids and settle down. “But I want to play/ Make all my meals in microwaves,” she counters. 

And that’s the essence of Daddy’s Home. Dig beneath the album’s musical and filmic influences and you’ll find a cast of heat-strengthened women fighting hard — sometimes literally — to hold onto the freedom to live their lives their way, the expectations of others be damned. And in these outstanding new St. Vincent songs, and in the desperation of these pandemic times, Clark reminds us that freedom really is just another word for nothing left to lose.

— David Veitch

Dinosaur Jr. 

Sweep It Into Space


Sweep It Into Space adds yet another shining star to Dinosaur Jr.’s expanding solar system, with their 12th release now in orbit. 

What makes it so dazzling? The soloing for a start. Since the early ‘90s, Mascis has loomed large, very large, as a gonzo guitar whiz who doesn’t just spill out flurries of notes to fill the space. Rather, it’s the equivalent of getting strapped into a crazy rollercoaster that’s going to run wild through its short course then spit you out. Everytime Mascis records something new, he rebuilds the ride, you don’t know exactly what to expect other than a blast of sonic chaos that soars up, down, around then straight back on track. 

While Mascis never veers too far off course with his brand of big noisy rock, there are subtle changes to the texture, tones and feel he’s going for. When the band first went into the studio in 2019, Kurt Vile (a great production fit) was behind the board helping out. Vile’s magic seeps through and lends a robust electric sheen that’s both crisp and atmospheric. The energy is buzzing and vibrant: sometimes the tonality caresses, sometimes it sizzles with Murph’s hard hitting drums coming up the middle – a strong, steady, downbeat force.   

Most notable is Mascis’s continuous drift towards more and more melody. Once mopey and down-in-the-dumps (which made for some pretty great mopey down-in-the-dumps sprawling epics), he’s now roaming through happyland. Whether touching on power-pop, country or metal that he playfully weaves in and out on this selection of songs, there’s an upbeat buoyancy that almost always takes off in flight. And, of course, there’s that voice – the Mascis’ whine and moan – which has (dare I say) a soothing, seductive, personal pull that’s become even stronger fused with his newfound positive energy. 

Lastly, a Dinosaur Jr. is never without its experiments and surprises. Lou Barlow’s two contributions on the record at first seem largely out of place and just an obligatory add-on as part of the peace, love and understanding reunion (now 16 years strong) between Lou and J. Barlow not only breaks up the fuzzmaker’s delight with his quiet(er) introspection, he also reveals an authentic, deep inward dive trying to make sense of the fucked up universe we’ve been stumbling through. Together, with Mascis sending out good vibrations, these two make quite a pair. 

— B. Simm

Marianne Faithfull /with Warren Ellis

She Walks in Beauty


Singer and author Marianne Faithfull’s love of romantic poets is no secret to those who’ve followed her over the years. Even from her days as a 1960s pop star, while enmeshed in the early legend of The Rolling Stones, Faithfull seemed a gazelle among crocodiles, one too finely bred to be darkened by such mud. She has spoken of her regrets about leaving her cherished Mrs. Simpson’s English class to tour, but took the books with her and never stopped reading.

Now at the far end of her career as a singer, Faithfull recorded most of the vocals for these 11 tracks before she fell into a coma last spring as a result of COVD-19. Her collaborator and member of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, Warren Ellis, worked on the music during that time at her manager’s request. The hospital wrote “palliative care only” on her chart. Ever the survivor, Faithfull awoke and finished the album. (The aforementioned Cave adds piano to several tracks, and there are also appearances by Brian Eno, cellist Vincent Ségal and production work from Head.)

The result is a stroll through Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth and more, with Faithfull using her life-stained voice as an instrument that adds an unlikely mix of world-weariness and enthusiasm to poems like The Lady of Shalott, Prelude: Book One Introduction, Ode to a Nightingale, and the title track, all supported by airy panoramas of sound explored like an English garden.

There is a clarity here, a prettiness, like that garden, but, as with many gardens, the wild stuff has been culled. Faithfull brings nothing new to the poems, themselves, and the tracks never go as deep as hearing people like Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith or Sylvia Plath read their own material. But, then again, with the exception of Tennyson, read here by Faithfull despite not being a romantic poet (but having been heavily influenced by them), none of these writers were alive in the era of recording. The album begs for Blake, one of the earliest and most impactful romantics, to be read with the same scrappy ease with which Faithfull recited part of Tyger Tyger on her 1981 album, Dangerous Acquaintances.

Nonetheless, fans of Faithfull and of poetry will find a few gems among the mud here.