Well, sure, I’m most jazzed that there’s shiny-new music by Pistol Annies and She & Him, not only because I’m a fan of women who sing about natural fibers (both Miranda Lambert and Zooey Deschanel have recorded “The Fabric of Our Lives” songs in praise of cotton), but because as new-retro-classic moves go, I vote for honky tonk spunk and sunshine pop breeziness, and because those bands are grounded in the kind of song-values I respect, but I live in the world, and how can I not be aware that with the sun finally shining, here come Beyonce, Mariah, Ms Hill and other women from the golden age of whatever (they were all on Columbia Records when I worked there, not that that has anything to do with anything, but just a coincidental sidebar for people looking for some thematic unity) to reclaim our hearts and rule our summer.
I don’t want to be left out, an exile from the mainstream of what’s being discussed in that other music world. so I went on an expedition and checked out Mariah’s “#Beautiful” (a duet with R&B guy Miguel), Beyonce’s “Back To Black” (with Andre 3000, from the soundtrack of The Great Gatsby), and “Neurotic Society (Compulsory Mix)” by Ms Lauryn Hill (you have to call her that, I was told when I was one of a cavalcade of A&R people sent unarmed into battle to try and get some music from her, and became another casualty of her withering scorn and unresponsiveness). Back to the future! To those days when Sony Music was selling skillions of albums by these artists, and someday I’ll get around to telling some stories about the executives who insisted — this I swear — that “Crazy In Love,” “Honey” and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” were not hit records, not even close, and that anyone who argued otherwise was deluded. Just in case you think that all, or even most, record company people know something about music.
But I digress, and not accidentally, because each of these new singles (we still call them singles, right? or just “new tracks”?) is in its own way mystifying to me. I don’t even mean that I don’t like them, although I don’t, but that I literally don’t understand them. I can’t figure out what’s going on, or what’s supposed to be going on. There are fragments of melodies involved (not so much in Ms Hill’s case), and words sung or spoken in English, but they’re not songs exactly, they’re ideas sketched out but not developed. “Neurotic Society” comes with its own warning label from the artist, saying that in a more perfect universe where her income taxes were paid and she wasn’t facing prison time, this recording probably wouldn’t be released (hence the “Compulsory Mix” subtitle), and the caveats are in order: she’s saying a lot of stuff about how messed up the world is, and I caught a line about “Mack The Knife” and James Dean, but it’s a defiantly unmusical thing. She’s angry, and is fond of the word “paradigm,” this much I know.
Not, however, as fond as Mariah is of the word “beautiful.” For the first minute or so Miguel is out there singing the verses on his own over a sexy old-school guitar lick, and then enter Mimi, and it all flattens out into a repetitive groove that isn’t uncatchy. but feels like an improvised “top-line” built around the word “beautiful” rather than a worked-out song (“top-line” – sometimes with a dash, sometimes not — is new industry-speak for what used to be called “lyrics and melody,” except the track has already been produced, which is backwards, I think, but that’s how things are done). Mariah is a presence on the track, certainly, but she isn’t doing a lot of singing. As for Beyonce and Andre 3000’s version of “Back To Black,” I don’t know: I’m sort of with Amy Winehouse’s dad on this one; it feels unnecessary, although maybe it works better in Baz Luhrmann’s movie. On its own, it’s sort of lifeless. Not only is Winehouse’s better, so is Ronnie Spector’s, frayed voice and all. Beyonce’s is simply a throwaway soundtrack cover, and if the movie fizzles, it’ll be quickly forgotten.
But you know what? In my quest to keep up on what’s new and happening, I found another track from The Great Gatsby soundtrack that I’ve had on repeat: Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful.” It’s a languorous mood piece, with Del Rey’s customary Kim Novak-in-Vertigo trance-vocals, and surprise, it may be the best thing she’s done since “Video Games” made her a sort-of-star. She’s always referenced Nancy Sinatra as a template, and here’s where that makes sense: there’s a (modernized) touch of Billy Strange and Lee Hazlewood in the production, and an actual hook, and it all works. It may not win any summer-single sweepstakes — it’s far too drugged-out and woozy for that — but if this is where Del Rey is headed, I’m in.