27/01/2012 19:37 | By Ben Chalk, contributor, MSN Music

Albums of the week: 30/1/2012

Does Lana Del Rey's debut live up to the hype? Plus reviews of new albums by 2 Bears and Leonard Cohen...


Lana Del Rey album (© Universal)

ARTIST: Lana Del Rey
TITLE: Born To Die
RELEASE DATE: January 30
VERDICT: Rarely does a new artist provoke reactions as extreme as Lana Del Rey.

Since the eerily melancholic Video Games started doing the rounds towards the end of last year, she's been alternately lauded as the best thing ever and dismissed as a cynically manufactured fraud who can't even sing.

The truth, as you might expect, is somewhere in between.

The charges of inauthenticity are puzzling. Yes, Lana (real name Elizabeth Grant) comes from a relatively wealthy background but Lady Gaga went to the same private school as Paris Hilton and nobody holds that against her.

Oh, and Lady Gaga isn't her real name either.

As another name-changing master of self-mythology Bob Dylan once said, "You're born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free."

Now that Bob's set us all straight on that one, the only pertinent question is whether the songs are any good, and the answer's an emphatic yes.

Nothing here quite matches the ethereal beauty of Video Games but much of it comes close, particularly the title track which recasts Del Rey as a femme fatale in the grand Hollywood tradition.

Carmen pulls off the same trick, while the extraordinary National Anthem evokes a more innocent America; one in which people believed politicians are honest, good always triumphed over evil, and nobody even thought to question the backstory of impossibly beautiful performers with exotic names like Lana Del Rey.

Musically, things stay within the Twin Peaks-meets-Chris-Isaak parameters set by Video Games, all lush strings, tastefully constructed guitar lines and minimal percussion. Del Rey might not boast a multi-octave voice but her emotional range is extraordinary, capable of shifting from breathless innocent to formidable ice queen in the space of a single line.

Intelligent and accomplished though Born To Die is, it's not quite a masterpiece. It suffers from a lack of variety, which becomes particularly noticeable towards the end where weaker songs like Dark Paradise lurk.

For the most part, however, Born To Die conjures an old-school sense of glamour and escapism which, cynically manufactured or not, is the perfect tonic for these austere times.

What's so great about keeping it real anyway?

RATING: 4/5

2 Bears album cover (© Southern Fried)

ARTIST: 2 Bears
TITLE: Be Strong
RELEASE DATE: January 30
VERDICT: It comes to something when the best dance music is being made by overweight men rapidly approaching their 40th birthday.

2 Bears is the side project of Joe Goddard from Hot Chip and Raf Rundell from Greco-Roman Soundsystem, themselves two outfits flying the flag of '90s club culture like the oldest swingers in town.

Whereas those bands, and kindred spirits like LCD Soundsystem, deal with the onset of middle age and its attendant worries, this album is notable for its uncomplicated joy. So Bear Hug features a sample of a man who sounds disturbingly like Frank Bruno intoning "all you out there on the floor, gonna get you in my paws and give you a bear hug".

Yes, drugs may have been involved.

Be Strong isn't going to change the world but it's a timely reminder of how much fun dance music can and probably should be.

RATING: 4/5

Leonard Cohen album (© Columbia)

ARTIST: Leonard Cohen
TITLE: Old Ideas
RELEASE DATE: January 30
VERDICT: If 2 Bears are pushing the dancefloor envelope in their late 30s, at the age of 77, Leonard Cohen is rewriting the rulebook for popular music.

In truth, this album probably wouldn't exist were it not for Cohen's dastardly manager running off with most of his cash a couple of years ago.

On the evidence of this wonderful record, Leonard's loss was the world's gain.

Not that he ever needed an excuse to be grumpy. His perennial themes of love, lust, loss, regret and suffering are all here but this time with the unsettling knowledge that "I've got no future, I know my days are few".

It's not all bleak though. Like someone who rarely swears suddenly letting rip with a torrent of four-letter words, when he allows himself to embrace hope and sentimentality on Crazy To Love You, the effect is devastating.

RATING: 5/5

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