Pop goes the Lady. Plus Feinstein does Cheyenne, and Robbie Williams strikes out — again
4 out of 5 stars
THE FAME MONSTER
In a very short time, Lady Gaga has been anointed to the heights of "pop diva for the gays" and "the next Madonna" — but for real this time. Her 2007 debut, The Fame, hit the right notes in the clubs and resonated differently than reigning divas Britney and Beyonce.
With her second release, the just-out Fame Monster, she steps away from all others with a smart sophomore effort.
In the powerful opener "Bad Romance," Gaga makes the immediate statement her quality has stepped up. For a dance tune, her vocals and lyrics stand out more than before. You could easily think this was Christina Aguilera singing the gorgeously layered chorus. Gaga then pulls back into a weirdly guttural tone emitting lyrics like "I want your ugly / I want your disease" that prick up the ears — a rarity in modern pop music.
Gaga’s gift to the genre is her ability to write songs worth listening to. "Monster" deserves a few listens for her twisted tale of fucking. She’s assertive in her carnal desire for "the monster in her bed" and you don’t feel bad she’s objectified the guy for his hotness.
When she ventures into ballad territory, as she does with "Speechless," it’s a missed-it-by-that-much effort. Her slower singing voice is slightly off-kilter. Still, it matters little. When she sings, "I can’t believe how you slurred at me / With your half wired broken jaw," who cares how off it sounds? It’s brilliantly outrÃ©. Her voice’s natural deepness makes "Speechless" ideal for melodramatic drag numbers.
After "Bad Romance," "Telephone" anchors the second half of the eight-song CD as the highlight, mostly due to Beyonce’s appearance. It’s an odd pairing resulting in one of the most badass songs of the year. You could dissect it as a statement of our cell phone culture but don’t bother: Cleverly sassy lyrics are all over the song, but the abandon in this tune is in deference to tearing up the dance floor.
The ladies sing against a volcanic techno backdrop about their nosy man with a phoning fixation. Beyonce’s part is small but she gets the best line: "I shoulda left my phone at home / ‘Cause this is a disaster! / Callin’ like a collector / Sorry, I cannot answer!"
The album is solid even with the small number of songs. That alone is peculiarly refreshing. I don’t know why she felt the need to release it as a companion piece to The Fame. It’s a gimmick, clearly, and it is strong enough to stand on its own.
But Gaga is an intriguing enough pop star with the savvy to be both accessible and eccentric. With The Fame Monster’s sharp irreverence and exciting sound, she matures as an artist and finally gives pop music something to aspire to.
3.5 out of 5 stars
THE POWER OF TWO
Michael Feinstein & Cheyenne Jackson
The Power of Two is a surprise of a valentine — and just in time for Christmas. Pianist Michael Feinstein and Broadway dreamboat Cheyenne Jackson team up to perform a slew of show tunes and popular songs in jubilant fashion. No one loses when these two gay artists run the show.
Pop standards can be an acquired taste, but what happens here is how each song plays with certain honesty because it’s gloriously gay. The gents sing to each other with the first track, "I’m Nothing Without You." It’s sweet to hear two men singing adoringly to each other without any refrain or apology.
"We Kiss in a Shadow" is a heartbreaking tale of hidden love. The simple tweaks of having two male singers taking these tunes on add a new depth. "Shadow" stands out on a sadder note but most are tender gems for any man in love with another man.
The album’s final track, Gershwin’s "Somebody To Watch Over Me," is the song every gay man might want to dedicate to his loved one. Its slow ride is a tender poem to bathe in and finishes the album leaving you wanting more, even after 15 tracks.
2 out of 5 stars
REALITY KILLED THE VIDEO STAR
Robbie Williams is a strange sort of music star: Huge in Europe, he has never broken through to American audiences, despite repeated efforts that play up his pop sensibilities and bad-boy charm. Still, he fizzles this side of the pond. With his seventh original album, Reality Killed the Video Star, he won’t do it this round, either.
After a disappointing run with his 2007 dance album, Rudebox, Williams seems to return to the sound of his early albums. With famed producer Trevor Horn, Williams triumphs in creating an elegant album filled with substantial songs. But in the end, none of it matters. While each song is a nice composition, it goes nowhere and fast.
He opens with the dreamy "Morning Sun" that is half-ballad, half-pop ditty and swells nicely into dramatic overtones. His voice has remained beautifully silken but with lyrics like "After a long and sleepless night / How many stars would you give to the moon," it’s heavy on the abstract but without any payoff of figuring what it means. The song is not overly complex but it’s nothing worth examining.
The same could be said for the entire album. The 13 cuts from Reality are more like a compilation of an artist trying to regain his fading glory. In doing so, Williams never captures the confidence of his old self but instead sounds more like Elton John from the ’90s searching more for a hit than actually releasing any sense of art.
"Blasphemy" is an attempt at epic, strangely referring to Ancient Egyptians and pyramids when it’s merely a personal song about a relationship. The song is curiously ideal for a musical but as an album cut, it’s laughable. When he sings, "Words cut like a knife / Through Vaseline / You can’t really mean / What you mean," your first thought is, "Really, Robbie? Really?"
He enters the pantheon of uncool with "Do You Mind?," which rocks with flair … only in the way Huey Lewis and the News did 20 years ago. However, Williams finds some redemption with the dancey "Difficult for Weirdos" that should easily be a club hit. It’s reminiscent of Pet Shop Boys at their best and he’s far more interesting to listen to in this sound.
Ultimately, Williams plays it safe throughout Reality resulting in a good album (said with a shoulder shrug) that’s not at all worth caring about. Reality didn’t kill the video star but it’s not doing much for Williams’ career.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 27, 2009.