-- intro: This week Lady Gaga makes a striking, revamped return, Jimmy Eat World offers up one of the best albums of their career, Leonard Cohen gets dark, the Pretenders return with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys handling production, David Bowie’s musical “Lazarus” gets a cast recording which includes his last songs, singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke explores love, loss and religion and Boston power-poppers Letters To Cleo return with a sharp new EP. It’s another week with another wide variety of new records to explore.
quicklist: 1 title: Lady Gaga’s “Joanne” (Deluxe Edition) **** text: If you scroll through YouTube, you can easily find footage of a teenage Stefani Germanotta playing sets at The Bitter End. It seems kind of striking now, since she has reinvented herself as the larger-than-life Lady Gaga, but really if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Gaga is a singer-songwriter who just decided to work the pop angle.
Her latest album, “Joanne,” takes its title from her middle name, also the name of her late aunt. It’s also comparatively stripped-down compared to her previous work. Gone, particularly are the more garish aspects of her last solo effort, “ARTPOP.” Perhaps her work with Tony Bennett on 2014’s “Cheek To Cheek” made her aim for more of a timeless quality. Any way you slice it, though, “Joanne” stands as her most solid album to date with her singer-songwriter side more visible than ever before.
Gaga also has an interesting batch of cohorts and collaborators here. The bulk of the album was largely produced by Gaga and Mark Ronson, with various contributions from the likes of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Beck and Father John Misty and Florence Welch. A look at the credits and you’ll even see Sean Lennon contributing slide-guitar on “Sinner’s Prayer.” It is evident that Gaga has now surrounded herself with a very cool crowd that is both unexpected and simultaneously not surprising.
The title track and “A Million Reasons” are both stand-out ballads, while “A-YO” is a party-starting jam. “Dancin’ In Circles” is a reggae-tinged ode to self-love that probably belongs with Cyndi Lauper’s “She-Bop” and Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” “Perfect Illusion” is a booming show-stopper thick with eighties, area-rock cheese.
While this seems fresh and somewhat organic from Gaga, there’s also a vaguely Western theme going through the record. This mood hits its apex most likely on the unusual but rousing, “John Wayne.”
The deluxe edition comes packaged with three extra tracks that don’t diminish the album. The alternate “(Work Tape)” version of “Angel Down,” in particular provides an interesting comparison to the version that closes the standard set.
In all, “Joanne” not only sheds Gaga of the Madonna-comparisons she earned in the past, but it helps her leap firmly into her own unique space. More than before, this album is a braver move than her previous work. It maintains the pop charm on some level but adds a more concrete sense of artistry. Gaga walks the line between pop star and singer-songwriter quite skillfully. She remains a stunning entertainer while finding her own path.
“Joanne” This folk-driven title-track is a definite eye-opener and should widen her fan base considerably. It’s a beautifully written and emotionally gripping song.
“Million Reasons” This piano-driven hymn of sorts is already on its way to being one of the set’s standout hits.
"Hey Girl" (Featuring Florence Welch) This duet with Florence Welch finds the two singers meeting over a funky groove that vaguely recalls Frank Ocean’s track, “Super Rich Kids.” Welch and Gaga make a winning combination. Both have artistic cred and both have incredibly powerful voices.
quicklist: 2 title: Jimmy Eat World’s “Integrity Blues” ****1/2 text: Jimmy Eat World’s ninth studio album, “Integrity Blues” finds the Arizona natives in an extraordinarily confident place. It’s an extremely ethereal set, often playing to the band’s most dream-pop and shoegaze-like aspects. Perfect nuggets of soul-searching power-pop like “Sure And Certain” and “You With Me,” sit beside less immediate but no less effective slow-burners “Pass The Baby” and “You Are Free.”
I still say that 2010’s “Invented” was a vastly misunderstood masterpiece. That album did not get quite the reception it deserved. Six years later, in their discography, I find myself revisiting it and their 2001 masterpiece, “Bleed American” in seemingly equal measure. “Integrity Blues” kind of hits a nice middle-point between the sounds of those two sets. It has some pop fortitude and some hard-charging moments like “Bleed American,” but is delivered in often the same delicate manner as the majority of “Invented,” as if showing an even stronger bit of influence from the Cure’s “Disintegration.”
Jimmy Eat World sound more comfortable as a band than they did on 2013’s still decent but comparatively slap-dash-sounding “Damage.” This is a much more affecting record. The interplay between the fuzz-bass with the shimmering keyboards on “Pretty Grids” is a stunning feat. There are moments here that will take a few spins to sink in, but trust me, this record deserves the attention and the repeats. It’s also nice to see Courtney Marie Andrews among the background vocalists listed here. She was definitely one of the reasons why “Invented” worked so well. Her voice and Jim Adkins’ voice blend together surprisingly well. “Integrity Blues” is a gem of a record that will no doubt achieve more emotional heft with time. In their discography, it’s a clear landmark.
“Sure And Certain” This is a perfect Jimmy Eat World single. It deserves the same level of attention and radio play that “The Middle” received in 2001.
“You With Me” This is a blooming, atmospheric opener and it goes quickly from being serene to delivering a strong pop hook.
“Pass The Baby” This might seem like an odd choice to some. I chose it because it is a constantly evolving piece that goes from a bass-driven trip-hop exercise to a stellar bit of dream-pop before becoming a muscular rock song. In just over five minutes, it shows the band’s extensive range.
quicklist: 3 title: Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” ***1/2 text: Leonard Cohen is now 82. His cigarette-stained growl has become as iconic as his songwriting. His low voice has never been the most melodic instrument, but let’s face it, he has always been much more of a poet and he definitely hasn’t lost a step.
“You Want It Darker” is an apt title for this set which sounds like a collection solemn hymns sung by the Grim Reaper. Religious subject matter has almost always been at the core of Cohen’s work. After all, his most famous and most often covered song is “Hallelujah,” and the title-track, the peak-level “Treaty” and “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” all follow a familiar pattern in Cohen’s world. “It Seemed The Better Way” has an eeriness that brings to mind a haunted monastery. Cohen’s been rather active the last few years and his voice is more magnetic than ever as it pulls you in.
This isn’t a good time listen. This isn’t the kind of record designed to make you relax. But any fan of Cohen’s 50 years of previous work knows what to expect. This is still a rather effective and stirring set which might serve as an offbeat Halloween selection. True to its title, this is a truly dire sounding selection that wallows in the shadows. At the same time, it is one of the better offerings from Cohen’s latter-day work.
There are bits of beauty fighting to get noticed on tracks like the gospel and blues-driven “On The Level,” but Cohen and his impossibly low voice remains the main focal point.
As an album, “You Want It Darker” isn’t designed for casual listening. But that has never been Cohen’s goal. He’s always wandered around in his own dimly lit corner.
“Treaty” I can imagine this being picked up and covered by someone else. In Cohen’s discography, that is usually the sign of a keeper. It’s also the most melodic track on here. The fact that it gets reprised in the final track indicates that Cohen himself knows of its power.
“You Want It Darker” Sly and disturbing, this title track makes “Everybody Knows” sound like a feel-good summer hit. The church choir vocals may be a touch heavy-handed, but subtlety has never been one of Cohen’s gifts. This is a theatrical and powerful bit of menace.
“If I Didn’t Have Your Love” Like “Treaty,” this is a slow-burning winner, as Cohen sings his version of a love poem.
quicklist: 4 title: Pretenders’ “Alone” **1/2 text: On paper, having Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys produce a Pretenders record with his bandmate in the Arcs, Richard Swift, by his side seems like a good idea. In reality, when Chrissie Hynde is placed in Auerbach’s dusty, garage-rock world, something is lost. “Alone” is a mishmash and an unlikely misstep of a record. It wants to sound tough but Hynde sounds kind of bored as she makes her way through the set. On the “Chain Of Fools”-esque “Roadie Man,” she should be working the smooth groove, but instead the results are kind of listless.
This isn’t an album without its moments. “Let’s Get Lost” has a vintage Pretenders feel and the half-spoken title-track has a bit of bite, but it is a collection that in general has few instances of honest excitement. There’s kind of an “OK … (sigh) Let’s do this” energy. At least the album ends on an up-note with the peppy “Holy Commotion.” Throughout the rest of the set, grooves that should sound smooth end up sounding surprisingly sleepy, with Hynde occasionally taking some questionable vocal risks.
“Alone” is a far cry from the raw, rocking, triumph the band found on 2008’s “Break Up The Concrete,” which found the band full of consistent life and in some scattered moments reconnecting with their punk roots. In comparison to that record, this one is a huge let-down and a bit on the boring side. Then again, “Break Up The Concrete” had a much more solid set of songs.
Chrissie Hynde is unquestionably a legend. The Pretenders’ legacy has had its share of peaks and valleys, but they are still an enduring, ever-shifting rock force. Die-hard fans may still find some moments to enjoy here, but on the whole this album comes off like an idea that seemed initially good, but didn’t work out as well as expected.
“Holy Commotion” Maybe it is the bright synths, but this song offers up the kind of wake-up call the album needed. Too bad it occurs at the very end of the set.
“Let’s Get Lost” In a slightly different (and perhaps remixed) form, it’s easy to imagine this song becoming a hit. It’s a solid composition.
“Alone” This is little more than Hynde riffing about her solemn independence over a piece of blues-rock, but it actually works and it has a vaguely cool spark.
quicklist: 5 title: “Lazarus” (Original Cast Recording) **** text: David Bowie’s music has always had a theatrical quality deep within its very fiber. It makes sense that it would eventually result in a musical. Inspired by “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” “Lazarus” is a Broadway journey through Bowie’s catalog classics, along with renditions of songs from his last two records, “The Next Day” and “Blackstar.” With high-profile stars like Michael C. Hall and Cristin Milioti, the cast recording does not disappoint, even if Hall at times sounds like he’s doing a Bowie impression. His “Dexter” and “Six Feet Under” associations add an interesting, darker subtext to his performances, particularly as he sings the title-track.
Milioti’s cabaret-style take on “Changes” is full of an appropriate level of pep while Sophia Anne Caruso delivers a show-stopping take on “Life On Mars,” recasting it as a hymn to child-like wonder. Michael Esper nails the energy on “Valentine’s Day” and Charlie Pollack’s near-trip-hop take on “The Man Who Sold The World” works well.
Like “Blackstar,” this musical has gained more emotional momentum since Bowie’s death in January. More importantly, this collection tacks on Bowie’s version of “Lazarus” and three newer songs from the musical, marking what are probably his final recordings. The three songs, “No Plan,” “Killing A Little Time” and “When I Met You” would have all fit extremely well on “Blackstar,” since they are filled with the same kind of sorrowful dread of a man facing his own mortality. Considering “Blackstar” only has seven songs, I’m amazed they weren’t included on that record in the first place. From a marketing standpoint, they do give this soundtrack a strong hook.
In any case, the performances on the cast recording of “Lazarus” speak volumes about his influence. Many may prefer his original versions, but the mere existence of this musical, even with Bowie’s involvement, is a pure love letter to his legacy. He is greatly missed.
“Killing A Little Time" For this section, I am going to focus on the new tracks. “Killing A Little Time” is here both sung by Bowie and Hall. It’s a metallic, intense, hard-hitting rocker which brings to mind the same kind of tension felt of the “Blackstar” version of “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” Bowie’s final pieces definitely had a signature sound of their own.
“No Plan” This minor-key ballad appears both by Bowie and Caruso. On Bowie’s version, he delivers a very emotional performance, seemingly almost crying out the lyrics.
“When I Met You” In the show, this is sung by Hall with Krystina Alabado. On Bowie’s version, he sounds like he is trying to channel the dark, menacing sound into a pop song. The bass-line has some punch, but once again, Bowie’s voice still sounds truly tormented.
quicklist: 6 title: Jonatha Brooke’s “Midnight, Hallelujah” **** text: Jonatha Brooke follows up her 2014 tribute to her mother, “My Mother Has 4 Noses” with a new set of songs. “Midnight Hallelujah” was funded by a Pledgemusic campaign and comes off like a concept album about people’s different relationships to religious forces and beliefs. There are a lot of different perspectives covered here.
This also seems to be a strong reflection on mortality throughout the set, making it a continuation of sorts to “My Mother Has 4 Noses,” which detailed Brooke’s mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s. (Brooke turned it into a well-received one-woman show.) With that context, this set sounds like a quest for answers in the wake of tragedy.
“Put The Gun Down” and “You & I” follow well behind Brooke’s most famous songs, “Linger” “Better After All,” “Crumbs” and “Nothing Sacred,” while “Mean Looking Jesus” ponders religious dread under a grungy blues-line that harkens back to Brooke’s New England, 90s alt-rock roots.
Love and loss are strong themes here, whether on the piano ballad “Light Years,” or the soft and tender “Too Much Happiness.” The title-track equates religious devotion with passionate encounter of two lovers, asking the question, “If love is our religion, could it be a sin?”
As always, Brooke’s voice soars with emotional heft with each note and she remains a keen storyteller. It’s no wonder that she has also been writing songs for others in recent years. Over the last two decades she has continued to release thought-provoking, intelligently written albums.
“Midnight Hallelujah” is another really strong set. This is less gut-wrenching than “My Mother Has 4 Noses,” but that is expected. This album finds Brooke picking up the pieces and trying to make sense. This is where healing begins.
“Light Years” This sweeping ballad is a love song for someone who is no longer in reach. Brooke makes reference to a “blue folder” with a final testament.” If radio still championed this kind of songwriting, this would have the chance of being a hit. It’s quite an incredibly moving song.
“Nothing Hurts Like Love Hurts” This track, like much of this album is a beautifully penned tribute to love, loss and absence.
“Midnight Hallelujah” Weirdly this ode to religion, love and lust wouldn’t sound out of place on modern country radio. If given the right chance, Brooke could find herself with an unlikely crossover hit.
quicklist: 7 title: Letters To Cleo’s “Back To Nebraska” EP **** text: “Back To Nebraska” is essentially Letters To Cleo’s first collection of new songs this century. Their last proper studio album, “Go!” was released in 1997. That was followed by the reissue of the band’s earliest work with 1998’s “Sister,” and a 1999 appearance on the “10 Things I Hate About You” soundtrack where they delivered excellent covers of both Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” and Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind.” The band officially broke up in 2000, reuniting from time to time in the latter half of the last decade, fueled in part by a major shout-out from Adam Scott’s character, Ben Wyatt on the show “Parks and Recreation.” In 2008 they released a B-sides record, “When Did We Do That?” and 2013’s stellar live recording “From Boston, Massachusetts” should be mandatory listening for every fan of the band.
During the off-time, drummer Stacy Jones spent a brief minute in Veruca Salt, formed American Hi-Fi, and served (believe it or not) as Miley Cyrus’ musical director. Leader Kay Hanley served as the singing voice of Josie in the Josie and the Pussycats” movie, dropped a couple solo records and formed a new duo, Palmdale with Linus of Hollywood.
So, with everything that has happened, you’d expect “Back To Nebraska” to possibly sound like the work of a different, changed band. It doesn’t. These five songs deliver exactly the kind of infectious power-pop that made them famous. If you liked “Here And Now,” “Awake” or “Anchor” in the nineties, chances are, you’ll also get a kick out of “4 Leaf Clover” and “Can’t Say” from this set.
The title-track is a sprawling, five-minute ballad which still maintains the band’s signature crunch, while “Hitch A Ride” is a rocking rave-up. Closer, “Good Right Here,” has some effective sunny undertones that wouldn’t sound out of place next to Best Coast.
It’s nice to hear this band back in action and this brief offering shows they still have a lot more to say. It’s kind of a shame this isn’t a full-length offering. Nevertheless, Hanley’s voice is as iconic and clear as ever. It is like no time has passed. Hopefully this is just a taster of more to come.
“Back To Nebraska” The origin of this title is a bit of a mystery. (Letters To Cleo formed in Boston.) This track sounds a bit like it has a strong amount of Big Star influence, albeit pushed through a post-nineties alt-rock funnel. The Big Star influence shouldn’t be a shock considering “Big Star” is the name of the opening track to their 1994 debut album, “Aurora Gory Alice.” One thing is certain, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell may not have sold a lot of records, but he sure influenced a lot of musicians.
“4 Leaf Clover” This track wouldn’t have sounded out of place on “Go!” and it packs an immediate persistent punch.
“Can’t Say” The best quality of Letters To Cleo’s music is that it is unapologetic pop that never gets too sugary for its own good. This song sounds like they are picking up exactly where they left off sixteen years ago.
Next Week: New music from Tove Lo, Helmet and more.
Missed last week's? Get the latest from Kings of Leon, Suzanne Vega, Mike Doughty.