MUSIC REVIEW: Lady Gaga, Norah Jones, The Slits, Harper Simon, Julianna Barwick, Joyful Noise, The Bloodsugars
After Lady Gaga’s debut album The Fame in 2008, the young blonde in black sensation introduced us to follow up, The Fame Monster. This self-proclaimed bisexual daddy’s girl reached fame since several songs from album one hit international charts. Her pop dance numbers were a refreshing change and her presentation was irresistible to twenty-something’s everywhere.
Track one, the vicious catchy “Bad Romance” has haunted our radios these past few weeks. This title describes feelings of all-encompassing love, that point when you love someone so much that you want the good, bad, and ugly. In the music video the dance scenes lead to a chilling image of Gaga lying in a burning bed smoking a cigarette casually beside a skeleton.
It’s followed by “Alejandro” and “Monster,” a favorite. “He ate my heart…licked his lips, said to me, girl you look good enough to eat.” This depicts the scary big bad wolf image that she can’t resist no matter what. The tempo slows down for “Speechless” but speeds up for “Dance in the Dark,” an eighties-inspired song about a siliconed girl who looks good but whose boyfriend describes her as a mess.
“Telephone” is a witty duet with Beyonce about not wanting to answer her cell phone. “So Happy I Could Die” is a mediocre song about masturbating to a “lavender blonde.” This is followed by the last track, “Teeth.” The tables have turned since “Monster,” as she seems to welcome the predator, saying “take a bite of my bad girl meat.” She doesn’t want money because “that shit’s ugly — just want your sex.”
This lady wanted her fame and now she has it. After comparing greatness to monstrous things, does she want it? This is part performance but also puts it all out there so you don’t want it for yourself. In the meantime, she uses her fame for some infamous things. Not only does she keep us guessing with scandalous costumes and presentations, but she stands up for equal rights and stays humble, in an over the top sort of way.
I admit the first time I listened to “Back to Manhattan,” it brought a tear to my eye; not only because of the melancholy feel, but because of memories: leaving a lover you really didn’t want to…but doing it because you know you needed to. Whether she knows it or not, Norah’s music has that effect on the senses. The consummate artist recently released her fourth studio-album The Fall, and though it’s a departure from her signature jazz roots – the journey into indie rock definitely suits her. The lead single “Chasing Pirates” does just that, directs us towards the electric guitars on various tracks such as “I Wouldn’t Need You,” “You’ve Ruined Me,” “Stuck,” and “Tell Yer Mama.” There’s a bit of comic relief on “Man of the Hour,” but other than that, The Fall is emotional and reflective – just the way we like our Norah.
It’s been 25 years since an all-girl quintet wreaked havoc with feminist anthems that would transform them from rebels to icons. The Slits formed in London, the epicenter of spike-haired lads in combat boots and moth-eaten hand-me-downs. Three of the four founding members appeared topless and slathered in mud on their 1979 debut album Cut, the beginning of what should have been the downfall of an all-boys club. Despite unleashing their angst while producing a fusion of satiric reggae-punk, it would be fellow English bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash that would get all the credit. As soon as they arrived, The Slits split in 1982 over poor management. Fortunately, the ladies are back with Trapped Animal and this is one reunion everyone can look forward to.
If you were expecting Trapped Animal to be another aggressive compilation, then you’re in for a major shock. Gone are savage attacks from maddening Lolitas, only to be replaced by a delightful concoction of dub-funk laced with old school hip-hop and electronica beats. The first track, “Ask Ma,” is an Amazonian chant producing a hip-shaking melody that’s more girl power than man-hating. Here the ladies address men who hate women because of their relationship with their mothers, but listeners wouldn’t guess it as the expected animosity is non-existent, especially with its feel-good reggae jam made for a weekend outing. “Lazy Slam” is bursting with sexual heat, but is sadly overshadowed by surprising Auto-Tune, making front woman Ari Up’s heavy German-Jamaican accent unrecognizable. Sometimes The Slits’ fuck-the-man attitude is more appreciated than any club anthem.
The Slits’ sound may have changed with time, but many of the band’s signature elements have remained intact on Trapped Animal. “Peer Pressure” contains Up’s familiar bird quivers and warrior princess cries with a salsa-esque, tropical setting made fit for celebrating. “Issues” starts off like the intro of a Webster Hall all-nighter, but instead exposes Up’s soft pleads against child abuse. In “Reggae Gypsy,” women can get up on their feet and channel their inner snake charmer, feeling like the most desired female on the planet. With today’s pop singers flashing their assets instead of talent, it’s refreshing and downright pleasing.
Many longtime fans will despise The Slits’ decision on going worldly pop than old school rock, but there’s no denying that Trapped Animal is an album worth checking out. The Slits have never tried to be something they’re not and that spirit is still alive and well. Ultimately, this is one animal we gladly won’t tame.
Even for a non-country music fan, I can honestly say I really like this album by Harper Simon (son of Paul Simon). Maybe it’s a combination of the young Simon’s gentle vocals, the use of the steel guitar, his candid lyrical style and thoughtful songwriting, or perhaps the notable cast of Nashville talents on board, but mix them all together and you get a stellar debut album from a newly emerging artist. With comparisons made to Elliott Smith, Simon’s eponymous release blends sounds of Americana, rock, alt-country and folk. A couple of my favorite tracks happen to be the more country-sounding ones including “Tennessee” and “Cactus Flower Rag.” Although, the ballads such as “Shooting Star,” “The Shine,” and “Berkeley Girl” are just as beautiful and tender in terms of lyricism and style. That’s probably one of the best features of the album, the thoughtful mix of upbeat, folksy and melodic numbers, as well as the touching and sentimentally endearing tracks arranged nicely and harmoniously together. Overall, the entire album seems like a well-crafted and well-executed mix. The high-level of talent definitely comes through, especially considering that producer Bob Johnston, who has worked with Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan in the past, also collaborated on this release. Having a talented parent, such as Paul Simon, doesn’t always guarantee the same result, but fortunately in this case, Harper Simon’s own ability and merit carry through in this memorable debut release. If you haven’t already, definitely check it out, as there are some real download-worthy songs featured here.
Julianna Barwick’s EP release Florine is a six-song offering of New Age influenced pieces that could have just as easily been titled The Cure For Stress. If music could manifest itself into a physical massage you’d probably end up with this album. Even Enya couldn’t deny the tranquility of this pleasant effort.
I hate to use the word “song” to describe each track because they play out more like a score or musical ambiance as opposed to something with a couple of verses and a chorus. The vocals are used more as an additional instrument, blending in smoothly with the rest of the music in an otherworldly-like fashion.
Each track finds its mood immediately and runs with it. And although every track is a peaceful and relaxing journey, some have a bit more eeriness to them, courtesy of the vocals. A good example of this is the track “Choose.” There is something very welcoming yet ominous about it.
My only gripe is the lack of variety. Not so much amongst the songs but within the songs themselves. The six songs presented are different from each other while maintaining a similar feeling. However, once the track kicks in it’s pretty much on autopilot until it ends.
I enjoyed Florine and I’d love to see how Julianna Barwick’s talents translate to film or even theater. She paints a very pretty picture that with a bit more color will definitely leave its mark wherever she decides to display it.
Joyful Noise is a new reggae compilation from I Grade Records, a Virgin Islands based record label. The way the album works is there are four roots reggae riddims (basically the musical backing track) being used five times each with a variety of artists taking a stab singing over them. All in all I’d say these are decent songs if you are a reggae fan. Not the best I’ve ever heard but not the worst either. However, listening to the entire album and hearing essentially the same songs over and over is bizarre and can be rather frustrating. I liken the experience to that of Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day. The first go-round was pretty standard, nothing extraordinary but certainly some high points. Then I heard the music of the first track start again. I was confused at first and thought I was mistaken, but sure enough the second, third, and fourth songs also repeated. The singers were different, but it’s hard to really take notice of that when you are in a state of disbelief. I accepted how this was going to go down but it still sort of got on my nerves. Every time I heard the intro of the first riddim begin again it sounded more and more spiteful. I don’t know if this is common practice among reggae comps because I generally listen to one artist at a time, or in some cases one producer. Of the four, I’d say the third riddim (known as the “Flying High Riddim”) was my favorite. It was probably the mellowest, but in a minor key and with a good sense of longing. It’s hard to pick definitive versions of the different tracks because most of the album did blend together and few songs stood out. Special mention should be made of Danny I’s “Hold On” for putting a noticeably different take on the “Harvest Riddim.” If you love roots reggae and don’t think you’ll be put off by the repeated musical tracks, then give it a try. However, if you skip this one, you won’t be missing anything phenomenal.
The group appropriately categorizes itself as synth-pop and is probably a lot of fun to see live. The Brooklyn-based band’s latest album, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On, is sugary and brimming with synthesized sounds. Frontman Jason Rabinowitz, bassist Brendan O’Grady, keyboardist Matt Katz and drummer Kenneth Salters make up the Bloodsugars.
There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but the group definitely has a light, fun sound that could appeal to the masses. The best track on the album, “Light at the End of the Tunnel” ties Rabinowitz’s clean, likable voice to O’Grady’s playful, poppy bass line. “Happiness” is kind of catchy, and “Sleep Well (Cottage Industry)” picks up the tempo of the album and has a nice musical interlude.
Most of these songs have pieces that sound similar to things you’ve heard before. Ever watch a movie and find yourself not following the plot, but wondering where you’ve seen the actress before? Listening to this album might be a similar experience, only you’ll be thinking, “What song does this remind me of?” A lot of this album feels that familiar. These guys are talented though, and it would be nice to hear something a little less safe and a lot more original from them.