Lana Del Rey’s book/CD release of poems unleashed a torrent of spoken-word and literary recorded works in late 2020. The best of show goes to Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl ensemble, usually noted for exploring jazz frontiers. In Artlessly Falling (Firehouse 12) vocalist Amirtha Kidambi tries her hand at the very precise poem form of sestina, and Robert Wyatt drops by for guest readings. It isn’t just the clarity of lyrics that makes this album special. Halvorson’s guitar and the other players’ special instruments give the poems an otherworldly quality unlike any other recorded effort.

Del Rey herself deserves better reviews for Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass (Polydor) than the dismissals from some quarters as “second-rate Beat poetry.” Her rich use of simile and passionate oral delivery backed with quiet jazz is more reminiscent of 1970s-era free verse poets like Diane Wakoski. Even if a couple tracks like “Salamander” are embarrassingly self-referential, poems like “Sportcruiser” and “The Land of 1,000 Fires” are breathtaking.

Alison Mosshart, of Kills and Dead Weather fame, actually sounds more Beat-era in her poetry album Sound Wheel (Third Man), released in conjunction with the art/poetry book CAR MA. The album uses 47 spoken tracks to analyze car culture and modern death cults. Another mixed-media work to emulate the poetry chapbook comes from Life in a Blender’s Satsuma (Fang Records), where six traditional songs reference modern literature, delivered in a Lou-Reed-meets-cowpunk way, while the accompanying paperback mixes visual art, lyrics and cocktail recipes for a bracing literati party.

Also New & Noteworthy

Drive-By Truckers, The New OK (ATO) – Physical copies of the band’s second album of 2020 dropped just before Christmas. Where The Unraveling was a bitter work on the Trump era, the new album analyzes Black Lives Matter, reactionary fervor, and a year of quarantine. The nine songs have an eerier feel than those of the earlier album, even though songwriter Patterson Hood wants to leave fans with hope. The standout track in an anthemic sense may be “The Perilous Night” with its visions of Charlottesville, but the cryptic “Sarah’s Flame” will haunt listeners for years to come.