Music Reviews: The Latest From Lady Gaga, The Beatles and More

PHOTO: Lady Gaga is seen in New York, Nov. 15, 2013.
Mario Magnani/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

After last week's release deluge, we have a lighter load this week, led by Lady Gaga's heavily anticipated "Artpop." Plus we'll listen to the Beatles' second volume of BBC performances, take a trip through the eighties with Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, and get a peek at the soundtrack to the new Coen Brothers movie, "Inside Llewyn Davis," featuring Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan.

PHOTO: Lady Gaga's latest album, Artpop.
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Lady Gaga's "Artpop" ***1/2

With "Artpop," Lady Gaga will finally lose the comparisons to Madonna. Sure, the Material Girl's influence still looms, but this is a venture where Gaga truly sets her own course. This album is inspiringly strange and full of experiments. While it doesn't always succeed, it does further establish Gaga as the oddball art-house poster-woman, who somehow donned some camouflage and escaped her way into the club's mainstream.

There's a sense that Gaga could've been a cabaret singer and that she's doing so now with a house-beat, from the opening spoken lines of "Aura," to the low, husky, Amanda Palmer-esque confession song, "Dope." She's bringing something different to the game and it's something pop radio hasn't heard in a while. This music plays with modern conventions of pop production but doesn't seem readily made from the same factory as the others. There's a darker, more club-driven vibe here. It's from a seedier, more liberated world.

With the gender-bending talk of sexual positions in "G.U.Y." or the nods to self-love in "Sexx Dreams," Gaga isn't aiming to be played in suburban malls. She'll coyly sneak into that world, but her aim is for the clubs. The eighties-synth-soaked "Do What U Want" even features the master of sleaze-pop, R. Kelly, although, given the context and the associations, Gaga's lyric of "Do what U want with my body" might induce some uncomfortable associations.

"Jewels N' Drugs" features some dirty, ominous synth funk perfectly fitting the guest verses by Twista, T.I. and Too Short.

The weird, synth-driven rock of "Manicure" doesn't really work well and is one of the collection's few missteps. Its rock-flourishes are cheesy in a negative way, although as a rock vocalist, Gaga packs some surprising muscle, proving her versatility.

The title-track is a slow-burning club-banger with a digital sheen, even if its repetition of the title becomes a little too self-aware. It still sounds like the kind of futuristic dance club hit we might have been expecting.

"Swine" seems like an odd place to put on a diva-pose, but the groove carries it well. As Gaga tells off her subject saying, "You're just a pig," the beat hits you with some sharpness. As always, for the first 20 seconds, it's hard to tell if Gaga has made the right choices, but as with many of the tracks here, by the end of the cycle, she will most likely win you over. She can have an uncanny knack for pop persuasion.

Considering this album on the whole for the most part seems meant for the runway, perhaps naming a song, "Fashion!" is a little too on the nose. Is it cheesy? Yes. But Gaga knows her audience and doesn't hide her intentions.

The record is pretty consistent throughout, delivering hook after hook. Interestingly, though, the first single, "Applause" is actually the album's closer. I must admit that I wasn't the biggest fan of this track when I first heard it, perhaps due to Gaga's vocal affectation during the verses, but as the months have gone by and I have heard it a few hundred times, (many times in passing) it has won me over. I have a feeling this is the way many people will find the album on the whole. It may need a few listens to sink in. It actually plays slightly better as a continuous whole than it does broken down.

This is a better and more focused collection than her last effort, "Born This Way," and it almost plays as well as "The Fame." Is this record worth the hype that surrounds it? Not quite, but almost. On "Artpop," Lady Gaga shows herself to be one of the most daring figures amidst a sea of empty pop divas. She's one of the most interesting pop figures to emerge within the last few years, and she's quite a musician as well if you've ever seen her let loose on the piano. "ARTPOP" delivers a raw, funked-up, sex-fueled soundtrack for the upscale fashion set. It is at the very least, an impressive collection that will spawn many club hits.

The Beatles' "On Air: Live At The BBC Volume 2" ****

The first collection of BBC radio recordings for the BBC arrived back in 1996. Why it has taken 17 years to release a second volume is a mystery, but one thing is for certain, the Fab Four sure did make a lot of BBC appearances during the early part of their career.

If you are hoping for live performances from their later, more experimental period, you are out of luck. Keep in mind, midway through Beatle-mania, the band pretty much retired from live performance because it became extremely difficult to handle. So what we have on this set is apparently what didn't make the first volume. It is two discs of excellent live performances mixed with bumpers and interviews. In fact, as far as the latter portion is concerned, each Beatle is given an eight-minute interview piece or a "Pop Profile."

Live, the band sounds great. They don't differ much from the studio recordings, as was the case with the first volume, but there are little ways you can tell the difference. "Words Of Love" sounds slightly more loose and ragged, and Lennon lets loose on this rendition of "Twist and Shout" slightly differently than he did on the studio take.

There's a nice collection of performances and an interview section regarding the songs in "A Hard Day's Night." A highlight includes an especially nice rendition of "And I Love Her."

If you have the first four Beatle albums, this isn't a mandatory purchase, and it even features a few alternate live performances of songs covered on the first set of BBC recordings. Since they had a knack for imitating their records in the live setting, this offers few surprises. This does however prove that the Beatles from 1963 onward were always at the top of their game. The pain that Lennon infuses into the bridge-section of their version of the break-up song, "Anna (Go With Him)" speaks volumes. This set just offers further proof of the Beatles' legendary greatness.

PHOTO: Matthew Sweet And Susanna Hoffs' "Under The Covers Vol. 3" album.
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Matthew Sweet And Susanna Hoffs' "Under The Covers Vol. 3" ***1/2

For their third collection of covers, Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs or "Sid n Susie" as they call each other, continue the cycle of their "Under The Covers" series. Volume 1 explored their favorites from the sixties and Volume 2 explored the seventies, so now we have reached the sweet spot of the eighties. I refer to it as such with no pun intended, but because the eighties was the decade both Sweet and Hoffs made their respective debuts. Hoffs' full-length debut with Bangles, "All Over The Place" dropped in 1984 and Sweet released his first album, "Inside" two years later. So essentially, this covers collection covers their contemporaries.

Of course, much has been made of the cover here of the Go-Go's' "Our Lips Are Sealed," since it is fascinating to hear a Bangle sing the track considering that at the time both groups were frequently compared with one another, but this collection has a ton of equally notable covers.

Sweet's lead take during the verses of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" is worthy, as is his lyrical deciphering on R.E.M.'s "Sitting Still." Both he and Hoffs blend well on The English Beat's classic, "Save It For Later" and Echo & The Bunnymen's "Killing Moon." Their effective interplay throughout is undeniable.

Hoffs takes the lead on an excellent cover of Roxy Music's "More Than This," which easily bests the cover done by the late-period, Natalie Merchant-less 10,000 Maniacs. She also does justice to The Pretenders' "Kid," Kristy MacCall's "They Don't Know" and Elvis Costello's "Girls Talk" (which is actually originally a Dave Edmunds song.)

My only complaint here is that I think their cover of the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now" might have been more interesting if Hoffs had led it instead of Sweet. Morrissey's words are always uniquely his, but I think having Sweet in front was the all-too-safe choice. Nevertheless, this stands as a better version than Love Spit Love's famous cover.

These covers, like the ones on the other two collections, tend to take few risks. But what we are left with is two ace musicians working both as interpreters and as fans. The liner notes indicate their feelings about the songs they chose and partly why they were picked.

"Under The Covers Vol. 3" should please fans of the first two collections. Here's hoping "Sid n Susie" continue onward and in a couple years we get to hear what they choose out of the nineties. These collections should keep going!

PHOTO: Inside Llewyn Davis: Original Soundtrack Recording.
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Inside Llewyn Davis: Original Soundtrack Recording ****

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is the latest film from the Coen Brothers. The movie won't come out until December 20, but here we already have the soundtrack. The film stars Oscar Isaac ("Drive," "W.E.") as the title character, a folk-singer in Greenwich Village in the early sixties. Other cast members include Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and Stark Sands, who all also appear on the disc.

Isaac can really sing. That's made clear from his opening turn singing the traditional, "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me." He's anchoring a film about folk music, so that shouldn't be a surprise. After all, the Coens are all about authenticity, and once again they've wisely paired themselves with T. Bone Burnett, who memorably assisted on the successful soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

The biggest surprise the disc has to offer is how well Timberlake does with the folky material. His voice is much smoother on "A Hundred Miles," for instance than it normally is within his more typical pop confines. Like his cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," a couple years back, this stands as evidence that he needs to record more material in this vein.

Since we are more than a month away from this film's release, it is hard to tell how these songs are used in the film. "Please Mr. Kennedy," helmed by Timberlake, Isaac and Adam Driver is a protest song against space travel. Elsewhere this plays like a pleasant collection of songs mostly based in a traditional vein, with the cast taking turns at the mic. Mulligan's participation makes it a sort of family affair since her real-life husband, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons also plays on the soundtrack and did some arranging as well. The Punch Brothers also lend a hand, backing the performers.

The disc is rounded out by a previously unreleased take of Bob Dylan's "Farewell" and Dave Van Ronk's version of "Green, Green Rocky Road," a track which is also covered by Isaac earlier in the set.

Depending on how well the movie does and how well it connects with audiences, this could be a classic soundtrack. Even without seeing the movie, it comes off like it wants to be one. The past performances on the Coen Brothers' previous work play in its favor. They don't generally make duds. So, essentially what we have here is an early start on one of the most buzzed-about and anticipated films of the year. Here's hoping the movie delivers on this soundtrack's promise.

Next week looks like it may be another surprisingly light release week as we approach the holiday season, but we will have yet another assortment of fresh, new releases.

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