Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga – “Cheek to Cheek”

Grade: B+

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

Lady Gaga – “ARTPOP”

(Photo Credit: wallpaperswala)

Grade: D+

Key Tracks: “Venus” “Swine”

There’s a piece in some corner of the MoMA that’s a light, plugged in and emitting a low strobe, on top of a piece of wood and a tire. Some people might call it a true artistic endeavor. Some, including my normally artsy self, will just call it stupid and self-indulgent. That’s what Gaga’s third album intends to be – something to take in on both a superficial and an artistic level. But it’s really only enjoyable at the most superficial basis. Sure, it’s an alright listen, but to try and analyze any merit would just be a waste of time.

Gaga said she was inspired by the word “Artpop,” and felt it reflected what the project is. She also said it’s a “reverse Warhol” formula and a “celebration and poetic musical journey” with “a lack of maturity and responsibility.” I don’t exactly know what “reverse Warhol” is supposed to mean, but this isn’t it. Warhol’s work is full of immaturity. For “Empire,” he filmed the Empire State Building for eight hours, as it did nothing. “ARTPOP” is actually an embracing of everything Warhol was about – fame, loose caricatures, controversy, and a disconnect with the general audience. Except there’s no art here.

The first track, “Aura,” is one of the album’s more interesting songs. It’s about taunting the audience by promising them looks into the artist beyond the work. But it’s an EDM track, simply. Zedd and Infected Mushroom collaborated with her on it, and while they’re great at what they do, there isn’t exactly much artistic merit in it. It’s club beats. The album’s first half is full of this frustration – songs that think they’re experimental but are just club-ready doses of EDM, electronic and pop. Most of the earlier tracks are great listens. They’re booming jams, even bigger than what she’s done previously. Somewhere along the way, the music loses it’s touch. The album’s second half is almost totally forgettable. It’s not as catchy, and although it’s more the faults of the vocals, it’s completely ineffective pop. “Swine” has a spine-tingling keyboard rupture, and R. Kelly duet “Do What U Want” has some sweet R&B. But those aren’t enough to save the album’s dragging second half.

Lyrically, Gaga has fallen under whatever caused Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” to be so irrepressibly bad. There’s a total disconnect to the audience. Gaga’s two previous albums have been so, so good because she created huge club songs while still sounding like someone you could call up to have lunch with. She was easy to relate to. Here, though, she’s not. Two straight songs are called “Donatella” (as in Versace) and “Fashion!” She’s fallen prey to Jay-Z’s ‘If I sing about luxury, people will respect me’ train of thought. Nearly every song is just basic club lyrics. The R. Kelly duet, an intended sexy song, is made creepy by the presence of R. Kelly. Only two songs explore any sort of topic – the decent “G.U.Y.” looks at male submission in sex, and “Mary Jane Holland” is a cliche and trite look at marijuana. “Venus,” the album’s best song, is the only really poetic track. Everything else is just simple rhymes.

I didn’t find anywhere to work this in but I still want to mention it – there’s one track called “Jewels N’ Drugs” that has a few notable rap guest spots. The last is from Twista, and I’m just really glad to see him still popping up in places; I don’t think I’ve seen him on a track in years. He hasn’t lost anything – he still raps at a world record speed.

So “ARTPOP” is really a total misstep. Not artsy, sometimes not even catchy, and unintentionally alienating. This is why I chose the image that I did for the review.  It feels experimental, but there’s nothing artistic about the album, it’s really just Gaga. Any experimentation has no real basis or reason. Some of the songs work, a lot are at least enjoyable, and some are just bland and useless. Diehards will eat it up, those looking for a dance record will be more than pleased, but those looking for the promised experimentation will only find a light on top of a stick and a tire.

-By Andrew McNally

The Lonely Island – “The Wack Album”

Photo Credit: Pitchfork

Photo Credit: Pitchfork

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “I F****d My Aunt,” “The Compliments”

“The Wack Album” is more of an amalgamate of ideas. The band throws a lot of ideas at the wall,and as soon as one starts to get stale, they move on to the next. Not everything works, but some stick very well. Only two tracks from this album were viral sensations from “SNL,” a show which none of the three members are a part of anymore. This has allowed them to expand into some new territories, with mixed results.

Comedy troupes that spoof hip-hop are certainly not a new thing. It is a very tired route for comedians to take, thanks to the Internet. The Lonely Island were by no means one of the first groups to do it, but they were among the first of the Internet era (remember “Lazy Sunday”? The song aired on “SNL” eight years ago). The Lonely Island have come under the ironic problem of having to sidestep the generic hip-hop parodies that they helped spawn. “The Wack Album,” their third full-length, has its hits and misses. The guest list on the album is as expansive as anyone could possible ask for: Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, the return of T-Pain, Kendrick Lamar, Adam Levine, Kristin Wiig and Hugh Jackman, among others. The guest stars, all having fun in the studio, help to add to the album’s theme of spoofing the very foundations of hip-hop.

The best bits on the album are the ones that have the simplest concepts. “The Compliments” is the three band members – Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone – simply complimenting each other, making fun of insult songs. The song features the best guest spot, from rapper Too $hort, who has no idea what he is doing there. “Meet the Crew” is a parody of rappers constantly saying their own names in songs by being a band introduction with many, crazy personalities (ending with Rod Stewart, played by Samberg). “I F****d My Aunt” has the band members (and T-Pain) recounting childhood memories and following them up with “and [x] years later I f****d my aunt.” It’s an incredibly simple concept with no context, and works well because of it. The album’s best tracks all share this.

The more inventive and inspired bits actually do not work as well here. “YOLO” and “3-Way” are well thought-out, but regular “SNL” viewers are already familiar with those two tracks. “I Run NY” features Samberg rapping from the perspective of NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg. The song’s inspiration was, inventively so, to spoof all NYC rappers that claim to own the city. But the song falls flat as it quickly becomes a bit about Bloomberg saying profane things he would never say normally. “I Don’t Give a Honk” and “Hugs” cancel each out, as both songs are about replacing the F-word with a safer term, neither of which are very funny. Finally, “Diaper Money” is rapping from the perspective of a married man, but a very profane one, and it all doesn’t really make sense. The Lonely Island have never been ones to stray away from crude and bodily humor (“Dick In a Box” won them an Emmy), which is why the more inspired ideas end up missing. The characters themselves tend not to make sense. “The Wack Album” is at it’s best when the trio, guests or not, are stripped down and working solely with funny concepts.

If You like this, try: “The Sounds of Science,” the Beastie Boys box set that contains some of their lesser-known funny songs. Another white trio from NY that revolutionized comedy-rap.

-By Andrew McNally