Key Tracks: “Cheek to Cheek” “I Can’t Dance”
I left my heart in an interdimensional meat planet.
So let’s just get it out of the way that a small part of me hoped this album would fail, so I could write “I Left My Heart in San FranciscNO.” Okay? Moving on.
This is a strange collaboration, and it might seem like a flash in the pan for two singers who are struggling to stay relevant – but it makes a lot of sense. The younger, Lady Gaga, has a history of professional jazz singing, and getting to try her hand at some jazz standards is a branch she could never explore solo. This isn’t Lady Gaga, this is Stefani Germanotta singing. She’s exercising a side to her music that Lady Gaga won’t allow for, and she’s coming back from a relatively terrible album. And the former is a singer who was forced to reinvent himself for a younger generation in the 90’s, and has managed to stay in the public light since then – despite always performing almost entirely covers. What better way to stay relevant than to record with Lady Gaga? The biggest recording artist of ~2009-~2011, trying to stay relevant herself.
So, reasoning aside. Does this album work? Yes, pretty much throughout. The standard version of the album is 11 tight songs, not quite hitting 35 minutes. It’s quick, melodic, and fun. All eleven tracks are jazz standards, a plus since it results in two relaxed musicians having fun in the studio. A majority of the songs are quick hoppers, so the album never drags at all. The album’s best quality is that Bennett and Gaga, products of two very different generations, are clearly enjoying working on standards older than both of them.
Gaga’s and Bennett’s harmonies don’t always work on the album, sometimes they’re just two singers singing at the same time. On standards like “Cheek to Cheek” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” though, their interplay resembles that of a jazz club in the 40’s, singing through some energetic, fun, early dance songs. Each singer gets one solo song, too – Bennett handles “Sophisticated Lady” while Gaga nails the incredibly difficult “Lush Life,” a song that’s plagued jazz singers for generations. It’s worth noting that, in many of the harmonies, Gaga takes the lower registers. When given their moments, both singers shine as much as you’d expect them too. And even when their interplay isn’t at it’s strongest, the tracks are still fun.
One notable surprise is some strong music in the background. The duo step aside for a lengthy sax solo on “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and the band is allowed to flourish throughout the album. Jazz is about the music, and Bennett and Gaga give the musicians their due space, not taking up all of the light themselves. The band sounds tight, adding a briskness to the songs that’s sometimes missing from them.
Tony Bennett’s entrance into professional music is cited as being in 1949, six years before Lady Gaga’s mother was even born. But the beauty of these jazz standards is that they never get old. Any singer can put their mark on a jazz standard. A song like “I Can’t Dance” can sound as fresh in 2014 as it did when Sinatra did it in 1957. These eleven songs are inter-generational, and hearing two extraordinarily different singers tackle them together is a pretty unique listen. Bennett isn’t really stepping out of his normal territory, but Gaga really is – and it’s refreshing to hear, especially after the questionably re-tread routes of her last album. “Cheek to Cheek” may not be ‘great’ per se, but it’s a fun, upbeat and surprisingly successful collaboration – essentially, if you’re a fan of any part of this machine, you’ll find something to enjoy.
-By Andrew McNally