Music Reviews: The Latest From Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Tweedy, Lenny Kravitz and More

PHOTO: Album ReviewsMarc Piasecki/WireImage/Getty Images
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga perform at Grand'place, Sept. 22, 2014 in Brussels, Belgium.

intro: This week we get a full-length album from the unlikely duo of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy joins forces with his young son as “Tweedy,” Lenny Kravitz offers up his latest, The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas releases his second solo record and debuts a new back-up band the Voidz, Aphex Twin returns after a 13-year absence and British band Alt-J offer up their buzz-worthy second album.

quicklist: 1 title: Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga’s “Cheek To Cheek” (Deluxe) ***1/2 text: This album is going to go down as an oddity no matter how you slice it. Gaga doesn’t sound out of place singing these standards alongside an 88-year-old Tony Bennett. Yes, these songs are mostly ones that Bennett can probably do in his sleep at this point. His voice is still in top form and undeniably iconic. This collection swings, too, even if the biggest surprise is the fact that Gaga doesn’t clash in spite of her modern R&B tinged vocal bombast.

Given the lackluster public reaction to “ARTpop,” (an album I liked) this is just the kind of game-changer Gaga needs. Plus, singing jazzy classics with Bennett is not likely to get her in as much trouble as singing uncomfortable odes to submissive sex with R. Kelly. Considering in the last few years that her courting of controversy has too often overshadowed her talent, this is a nice reminder of her considerable skill. If you think she’s all about meat dresses and people regurgitating green paint, this album and it might change your mind. After all, she captures an old-school classic spirit when she sings “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.”

In the coming years, considering the 60-year age gap between these two performers, it will become increasingly utterly bizarre that this album exists, but it in a weird way it makes sense. If you’ve ever seen Gaga play a piano by herself without all the flash it is evident that she has more traditional roots than her brand of dance pop might let you know. And Bennett has had a great track record working with the youngsters going back to the nineties when he inexplicably found himself in rotation on MTV. Keep in mind that he and Gaga got to be fast friends after working together on his last duets record. Bennett is eternally cool somehow and though she may shock sometimes, Gaga is as it turns out an old soul.

Note: The deluxe edition comes packed with four extra songs not available in the album’s standard form.

Focus Tracks:

“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” Both singers swing on this track, as they give each other ad-libbed shout-outs in the lyrics. “Nature Boy” I’ve always found this song to be profoundly strange. Gaga in particular achieves an amazing vocal tone here and the arrangement is particularly sharp.

“Don’t Wait Too Long” This is actually Bennett singing by himself, but it’s a song about age difference and a May-December romance but in this context as Bennett contemplates what the future has in store.

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quicklist: 2 title: Tweedy’s “Sukierae” **** text: Tweedy is the band formed by Wilco and Uncle Tupelo veteran Jeff Tweedy with his teenage son Spencer on drums. “Sukierae” is their debut album. Spread across two discs, this 72-minute collection conveys a lot of moods over its 20 tracks but in all truth, it isn’t too different from the post-“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” Wilco output. The one difference is that it is a little more ramshackle-sounding. It’s a little more stripped down. But it ends up sounding mostly like a strange hybrid between The Band and early-period Beck. The fact that this album plays better and more consistently than the last two Wilco records is the icing on the cake. This is a record brimming with love. And I don’t mean that in a syrupy way. This album isn’t sappy or saccharine in any way, but you can tell by listening that making this record was a fun bonding experience for both father and son.

Spencer is a pretty excellent drummer, too. It helps when your father is an indie-rock and alt-rock legend, but it is evident he is here based on the merit of his skill as well and not merely his lineage. Quite a few times he bangs on the kit with a lot of force or delivers a complex beat and over the course of the record I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, that’s why he’s there.” The opening to “Diamond Light Pt. 1” is particularly impressive.

If you’ve been a fan of Jeff Tweedy's earlier work, this should hit the spot as well. That is, if you aren’t strictly a country person who only digs Uncle Tupelo and the first couple Wilco records. You won’t really find any country in this album’s semi-psychedelic, shape-shifting haze. But this album is a winner.

Focus Tracks:

“High As Hello” The riff on this track almost plays like a woozy answer to Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” or Dusty Springfield’s “Son Of A Preacherman.” And yet, at the same time it wouldn’t sound out of place on a Beck record.

“Low Key” There’s a sense that this would have been a big hit in the early seventies. It probably would’ve sounded good on the radio next to America’s “Ventura Highway.” It’s very laid back, but then again, it is called “Low Key.”

“Fake Fur Coat” This is a sweet bit of classic folk and Jeff Tweedy provides some nice details In his acoustic guitar line.

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quicklist: 3 title: Julian Casablancas + The Voidz’s “Tyranny” * text: Say what you will about the Strokes, but at least they were (and still are to some degree) cohesive. Even if you are not a fan, it is hard to deny the power of their first two albums, “Is This It” and “Room On Fire.” They offer two of the better straight-ahead rock collections the last decade. But as bandmate Albert Hammond Jr. has offered up high quality solo work (and has proven to be a decent singer) Casablancas has sunk like a stone when not accompanied by his regular band.

This album is a mess. It is dissonant in all the wrong ways and sounds mostly like it was made with no sense of musical cohesion. It’s one thing to experiment with unusual textures. It’s another to throw it all out the window. At times, this album is deafening and incoherent. “M.utually A.ssured D.estruction” was probably intended to sound like a dirty, raw piece of punk. It’s quickly apparent that it is in fact somewhat artless noise. And then there are the oldies radio samples that are put at the end of “Crunch Punch,” for no apparent reason. Really, mostly what tracks like “Father Electricity” and “Dare I Call” offer is exploding cacophony. Whereas “Take Me In Your Army” and “Nintendo Blood” seem to sport a dark, lounge-y, disjointed “hold-music” vibe.

Casablancas no doubt wanted to release something edgy, arty and experimental. He didn’t succeed. As much as it tries to disguise this mess for playful, rocked-out mayhem, only one thought crosses my mind after the album is done. “What on earth did I just listen to?” It’s not ground-breaking. It’s not well-defined. It is pretention and arrogance in their purest forms. This is a very upsetting listen.

Casablancas said recently in an interview with Stereogum that the Strokes may record together again next year. After hearing this album, I can say that it needs to happen.

Focus Tracks:

“Business Dog” The rapidly-paced guitar riff is one of the most pleasing moments on the record. It’s too bad Casablancas is hard to understand as he mutters along.

“Where No Eagles Fly” With better production, this borders on sounding like a trippy out-take from a Strokes record. Casablancas almost has a “Juicebox”-esque punk energy here.

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quicklist: 4 title: Lenny Kravitz’ s “Strut” ** text: Here’s the weird thing about Lenny Kravitz. He has always been an excellent imitator. From the Smokey Robinson-esque “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over” to the Hendrix-esque “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” to the Elvis Costello-gone-hippie hybrid of “Let Love Rule,” he's is an ace at knowing rock history and spouting it back in his own way. It makes his records interesting to some degree but it doesn’t give them a unique spin. The fact that he’s not very adept at writing lyrics that don’t sound like grade-school poetry has always been a point of frustration. His career has had both high creative points and low ones and his last album “Black & White America” was one of his stronger offerings as of late, so in contrast “Strut” comes off as a disappointment, because it seems more recycled than ever.

The opener, “Sex” sounds like funky eighties sleaze, while Lenny seems to be doing a strange David Lee Roth impression during the verses. The bridge that leads into the chorus liberally borrows from the “hold me, please me, tease me” section of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” while sounding actually more like the Talking Heads’ version of the song.

This album is intended to be for the most part a collection of highly-sexualized glam-rock, complete with loud handclaps and people shouting “HEY!” But when your songs start with “Come up to my room. / Get out of the weather. / Close the window shade / And take off your sweater,” as “Dirty Boots" does, it’s hard not to crack up. Especially when that song is followed up by a funky number called “New York City,” containing just about every lyrical cliché about New York known to the history of the written word.

Don’t get me wrong. The album isn’t terrible. It offers up plenty of Lenny’s signature swagger and will provide fans with another collection of his work, but for as likable and skilled as Lenny can be, this record just doesn’t deliver in the way it should. It’s mostly his lyrics and his reliance on formulas that really hold the record back and keep it from being genuinely enjoyable. Like “Baptism” a decade ago, this album stands as one of the weaker offerings in his discography.

Focus Tracks:

“The Pleasure And The Pain” Yes, this song is named after another tired cliché but it’s actually as good as the songwriting gets here. It’s a nice bit of blues-rock with a tuneful chorus. It would make for an excellent single.

“The Chamber” This song does achieve a sultry drive and is another one of the stronger tracks here. Again, the song’s structure and production recall rock hits of the eighties.

“Ooo Baby Baby” Lenny delivers a fittingly decent cover of the Smokey & The Miracles classic.

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quicklist: 5 title: Aphex Twin’s “Syro” **** text: So, it’s finally here! Richard D. James’ first Aphex Twin album in 13 years, and the level of attention it's getting is striking. Mostly because I always figured his Aphex Twin records were too experimental and weird for the mainstream to truly love. I’m happy to be proven wrong. After all, in the time since his last record, naturally the cult around him has grown. The disturbing music videos to “Windowlicker” and “Come To Daddy” are frequently cited as iconic, and just last month James made a claim that Kanye West illegally sampled his cut “Avril 14” in the song “Blame Game” from “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”

Indeed, James’ records are dense and this one seems noticeably streamlined, focusing on house-y grooves with shades of funk. In fact, this is a pretty freaky party record. If you are looking for something as beautifully delicate as “Avril 14,” you’ll find it on the album’s closing track, “aisatsana {102}.” Otherwise, the album is filled with the kind of crazily gutsy sound upon which he built his legacy. Discordant notes fly around over slamming beats, while distorted vocal samples come and go. There are even a few hectic “drum ‘n’ bass” moments. That being said, if you’ve ever listened to Aphex Twin, or his similarly-minded friend Squarepusher, the sound of this record shouldn’t be a surprise.

“Syro” reminds us that James may have disappeared for some time, but he hasn’t lost his touch. It will be interesting to hear the newest generation of EDM-kids’ reaction to this record. I would imagine for instance that very few of Skrillex’s fans have Aphex Twin albums. If this album does what it should, the generation that is too young to have caught James’ work the first time, upon hearing this record will begin combing through his back catalog.

“Syro” is a fresh, moving piece of work, which is somewhat singular in its focus, offering up 12 excellent, cryptically-titled tracks for your sonic enjoyment. The drum-machines are turned up on full-blast and James is about to show the youngsters how it is done. He also earns bonus points for the clever cover art which literally breaks down the cost of putting out the record line-by-line.

Focus Tracks:

“Xmas_Evet10 [120][Thanaton3 Mix]” This track clocks in over the ten-minute mark and feels like a warmed trip into an early eighties club. At times it gets a tad dizzying, but somehow that ends up being part of the joy.

“produk 29 [101]” With a synth-y strut this track oozes authority and yet it covers similar chilled territory as newer artists like Evil Needle. It sounds casually off-kilter, but that’s typical of James. It’s as if he wants his audience to always feel slightly unsettled. Strangely, that is part of his charm. The vocal sample in the middle works, too.

“Circlont14 [152.97][Shrymoming Mix]” This is a lightning-fast feat of beat-mechanics. If you don’t like hyper beats, this might not be for you. It is high-tension chill music (if such a niche genre exists.) A voice ghostly echoes vocal snippets across the track and again, that feeling of uneasiness settles in.

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quicklist: 6 title: Alt-J’s “This Is All Yours” ****1/2 text: On their second album, British buzz-band Alt-J fully delivers on the promise of their first record, actually surpassing that album by leaps and bounds. Now a trio after the departure of Gwil Sainsbury, they deliver a tight, captivating set which ping-pongs from soft, almost Gregorian-chant style pieces to loud, blues-driven garage-rock. This music is artistically weighty and yet it doesn’t sound like it is trying to be hip. It’s just really well-written music with its own unique bend. And yet there are a lot of influences at play when you consider how sometimes hip-hop and electro-beats come swirling into a semi-psychedelic soundscape as words are uniquely phrased and given their own poetic spin. (There’s even nice usage at one point, believe it or not, of a Miley Cyrus sample of all things.)

Sure, the instrumental portion of the cut “Arrival In Nara” resembles an interpretation of Lana Del Rey’s “Blue Jeans,” but throughout the set, there is a very composer-friendly atmosphere. Although this album does have a chance to make waves on the pop charts, it sounds well-placed and well-thought out. The focus was on the art and not on hit-potential.

You should give this album a listen even if you didn’t quite get the appeal of the band’s first record, “An Awesome Wave,” and you should give it a chance even if the only track you know from them is the hit “Fitzpleasure.”

When the album doesn’t make rock detours, it has almost a meditative quality. In some ways, some of these songs sound like a less crunchy, better formed, slicker answer to Fleet Foxes. They have drive. This is a band to watch. This album is probably going to go down as a classic.

Focus Tracks:

“Left Hand Free” Supposedly they made this song as an attempt to please the label. It’s half considered a joke because they consider it to be a bit of a stupid pop song. The thing is, it is far from a stupid pop song. It’s the kind of raw blues you’d find from the “Nuggets” era. It’s like a love child between The Black Keys and The Bees. And the crazy keyboard solo is loaded with dynamite.

“Every Other Freckle” I’m not sure I’ve heard a song so effortlessly fueled by eroticism since Portishead’s “Glory Box,” with the soft command of “I want turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp package.” (Note to self: I’ve never cleaned out the sides of a potato chip bag that way. I wonder if I’m missing something.)

“Warm Foothills” Always a tight vocal group, this song has especially slick vocal interplay backed by a subtle, folk-driven background.

“Lovely Day” This radical reading of the Bill Withers classic is a secret track and it works extremely well!

Next Week: Prince, Lucinda Williams and more!

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