Born to Die contains nothing nearly so narcotically seductive as the sublimely bored "Video Games." Careful parsing does reveal a few hidden gems, such as the typically David Lynch-ian heartbreak ballad "Million Dollar Man." It stands as a second-tier highlight, one of several songs that feature the stormy-night strings of ace Philadelphia arranger Larry Gold. But on the whole, the album largely sticks to the mid-tempo moodiness to which Del Rey is best suited, but which grows numbing over the long haul.
Every now and again, Born to Die is flat-out awful, as with "National Anthem," which is neither a cover of "The Star Spangled Banner" nor, sadly, the Radiohead song of the same name. "Money is the anthem" and "God, you're so handsome" are rhymed with "Take me to the Hamptons." The song includes a cringe-inducing rap and rehashes the lyric "take a body downtown," which also turns up in "Video Games" - a surefire sign that Del Rey unwisely overreaches, trying to stretch a shortage of ideas into a 15-song (including bonus tracks), strangely overlong package.
Does all that mean that Born to Die amounts to an unrelenting, execrable embarrassment? Hardly. It has its satisfying moments, including the grandiose title track, the dreamy "Dark Paradise," and the sweeping "Summertime Sadness." But while those songs and "Video Games" manipulate B-movie cliches with knowing world-weariness, most of the rest of Born to Die languorously evokes that same atmospheric milieu without taking it to a freshly compelling place.
Nobody seems to be beating up Leonard Cohen about having an artistic persona that's different from his true self. But the 77-year-old song-poet introduces the concept right at the start of Old Ideas, in which he slyly sing-speaks, "I'd love to speak to Leonard, he's a sportsman and a shepherd / He's a lazy bastard, living in a suit."
Actually, Cohen doesn't come off as the slightest bit lazy on Old Ideas, his first studio album in more than seven years and his best in 20. Cohen's creative juices were clearly renewed by the magnificent career-spanning tour that played the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in 2010. Produced with various helpers, including his paramour, singer Anjani Thomas, and Ed Sanders of the Fugs, Old Ideas was recorded with his Unified Heart tour band and is filled with bruised romantic songs - Cohen coyly sings that his ambition is to create "a manual for living with defeat" in the opening "Going Home."
As its title implies, Old Ideas makes no effort to reinvent the Cohen sound, essentially reprising the approach he developed on such formidable efforts as I'm Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992) - a gravelly, baritone Euro-cabaret sound backed by a femme chorus. The album has more of an elegantly elegiac feel to it, however, as the work of a distinguished-though-still-frisky elder statesman with less time ahead of him than he had in his illustrious past. Has any pop-music artist ever made a stronger - or, dare I say, sexier - album of original material at such an advanced age? No one comes to mind.
Golden Gate Groove: The Sound of Philadelphia, Live in San Francisco 1973
(Philadelphia International Records / Legacy ***)
Here's a time capsule for you. In June of 1973, a plane full of talent from Philadelphia International Records, including founders Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, songwriter Thom Bell, 35 studio musicians from the backing ensemble MFSB, and the O'Jays, Three Degrees, Billy Paul, and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, flew to San Francisco to perform for CBS Records executives at the company's convention.
Recorded by Sigma Sound Studios owner Joe Tarsia, the tapes of the evening, emceed by Soul Train host Don Cornelius, sat in a vault until 2009 and are being released for the first time here. It captures PIR as it was first flexing its muscles through its then-new relationship with major-label powerhouse CBS, and it represents a rare gathering of nearly all the key players on the roster.
It's not perfect: The Three Degrees' set doesn't include the female vocal trio's not-yet-released signature hit "When Will I See You Again," and Paul's 20-minute, two-song set is marred by the excesses of the era. The O'Jays fairly tear it up, however. And the show really belongs to Melvin & the Blue Notes, the first marquee act up on stage, with nice-and-rough live versions of the Gamble-and-Huff-penned "If You Don't Know Me By Now," "The Love I Lost," and "I Miss You," all delivered with passion and grit by the rising star Melvin introduces as "Theodore Pendergrass - we like to call him 'Teddy Bear.' "
Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, email@example.com, or @delucadan on Twitter. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.