LADY GAGA “Born This Way” Grade: A-minus
Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” album is straight-up crazy.
By now, we’ve all heard the title track that reworks mid-‘80s Madonna into a disco anthem for inclusion that has kids in even the reddest of states singing the praises of all races and sexual orientations. The follow-up is another disco stomp, this time about a love triangle between Mary Magdalene, Judas Iscariot and Jesus Christ that doesn’t ruffle Catholic teachings. Last week, we were introduced to another anthem that equates freedom to hair and sounds like Pat Benatar fronting The Shirelles recording for the “Miami Vice” soundtrack.
All that stuff is just Gaga getting started. “Born This Way” (Interscope) gets way stranger, as her musical statements are just as envelope-pushing as her fashion declarations with meat-dresses and plastic outfits inspired by condoms. It’s a testament to how well crafted the 25-year-old former Stefani Germanotta’s wild moves actually are that this bizarre monster album all hangs together.
Take the insanely catchy “Americano” as an example. Over a thudding Eurodisco beat, with flourishes of flamenco guitar and Latin horn blasts, Ga outlines an international love story that is actually her protest against a new anti-immigrant law in Arizona.
Even a form as tried-and-true as the power ballad can get reworked by Ga. “You and I,” which is piano-driven and seemingly Elton John-influenced in concert, becomes a totally different animal on the album. Thanks to producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, it becomes a long-lost Def Leppard song, complete with Queen’s Brian May delivering the guitar solo.
Gaga’s mastery of ‘80s influences reaches its peak with the closing “The Edge of Glory,” which sounds like Meat Loaf doing the soundtrack to “St. Elmo’s Fire,” including a sax solo from the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons. It’s yet another inside joke for Ga to give her most conventional song a chorus about being on the edge.
Of course, Gaga is all about being clever. She sings in four languages on “Born This Way,” including German in “Scheibe,” a weird combination that bounces between Nitzer Ebb austerity and Basement Jaxx playfulness to deliver the message: “If you’re a strong female, you don’t need permission.”
So far, she’s managed to push nearly all the right buttons to establish herself as an artistic force — in music, video, fashion and marketing, no less — with “Born This Way,” which is only her second proper studio album. (“The Fame Monster” was really just a continuation of her debut, “The Fame.”)
She’s done it by embodying her message. Gaga preaches celebrating your individuality and she certainly practices that on “Born This Way.”
Only Gaga would’ve thought that mining club music from three decades ago to create the backbone for her new pop album would be a good idea. And only Gaga would’ve been able to make it work this well.
BRAD PAISLEY “This Is Country Music” Grade: B-minus
Brad Paisley seems like a nice guy. And there’s nothing wrong with his catalog of nice country hits.
But on “This Is Country Music” (Arista), Paisley takes the country Everyman thing a little too far. It’s not just the false fights he drums up in the pandering title track, where he declares, “It ain’t hip to sing about tractors, trucks, little towns or mama — yeah, that might be true. But this is country music and we do.” And it’s not just the subtle digs at Sinatra and Barry White’s mood-setting abilities in his current single “Old Alabama.” It’s a feeling that runs through the whole album.
Even more cloying are Paisley’s attempts to be cleverer-than-thou. The twist ending to “Toothbrush” just makes the aw-shucks idea (“Love starts with a toothbrush, a Bic razor and a Dixie cup”) too cutesy. “Be the Lake” — where he fantasizes, “Wish I could be the beach towel that you lay down on or the two-piece fitting you so right it’s wrong” — gets a touch creepy.
It’s too bad, really, because when Paisley gets things right, he’s stunningly good. “Remind Me,” his poignant country-rock duet with Carrie Underwood, may be one of the best country songs of the year. The bluegrass-tinged “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” with Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow and Carl Jackson, is a musical treat, while “One of Those Lives” is a lyrical one.
But Paisley ends up crowding out those high points, which sells “This Is Country Music” short.
JOSEPH ARTHUR “The Graduation Ceremony” Grade: A
Joseph Arthur doesn’t just create memorable melodies on his new solo album “The Graduation Ceremony” (Lonely Astronaut). He nurtures them with unusual arrangements and sounds. He decorates them with well-crafted lyrics and ideas (“You want everyone to look at you til no one looks away,” he offers in “Face in the Crowd”) in a style similar to his mixed-media artwork. Each song — from the delicate, complicated single “This Is Still My World” to the dreamy ballad “Midwest” — offers surprises, making “The Graduation Ceremony” the start of even bigger and better things for Arthur.
Nicki Minaj continues her string of song-stealing cameos on “Where Them Girls At” (Astralwerks). The single nominally belongs to super-producer David Guetta, and it’s definitely more about Flo Rida, who tackles the verses with his usual “Right Round” style. But Nicki takes control with her cameo (delivered in a British accent) and never lets go, shaking up the mediocre dance number and making it memorable.
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// Notes from the Road
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