1½ stars (Out of four)
For all of Lady Gaga’s pretension otherwise, musically, most of her new “Artpop” sounds like something Miley Cyrus would be comfortable with. If you dress up mainstream pop in a weird leather hat and stuff a gag-ball in its mouth, that doesn’t make it dangerous and groundbreaking.
The big problem with “Artpop” presaged the album’s release date by weeks, and like most problems these days, it had its genesis in social media. Through Twitter, Gaga proclaimed the unreleased record to be “the album of the millennium,” a collection that would attempt to reconcile the worlds of art and pop. This is akin to a novelist doing an advance interview for his book in which he proclaims it to be “the great American novel.”
Reconciling art and pop might be a noble idea. But David Bowie already did it. So did Roxy Music. Come to think of it, so did the Beatles. So what will be Gaga’s great contribution to the struggle between creativity and commerce? Apparently, self-conscious stabs at the avant-garde tossed into the mix with standard, often trite, pop claptrap.
“Artpop” is less about balancing the inspired against the banal and more about celebrating the things its creator appears to be obsessed with – sex, fame, fashion and Lady Gaga. The album opens with “Aura” and finds Gaga cooing, “Do you wanna see me naked, lover?” which comes across as about as sexy as a trip to a health clinic for an STD checkup. “Detached” doesn’t even come close to covering it – Gaga sounds positively absent.
“G.U.Y” is a sleazy slab of Euro-disco that sounds an awful lot like Madonna. The lyrics are embarrassingly bad – we learn that “G.U.Y.” stands for “girl under you,” and even before we can stop groaning over that one, Gaga hits us with “Touch me, touch me, don’t be sweet/Love me, love me/please retweet.” Yep. That happened.
“Swine” is straight Euro-EDM, though its intentionally “arty” midtune breakdown suggests that it wishes it was something more. “Donatella” is a tribute to Donatella Versace, and it sounds a lot like Moon and Frank Zappa’s parody “Valley Girl.” Gaga is trying to be funny, but since we don’t necessarily share her obsession with glitz and glamour and wealth, it comes across as pretentiously in-jokey.
This is all bad – very bad. But it’s nowhere near as bad as “Fashion!,” a Will.i.am-produced catastrophe that apparently intends to be Bowie’s “Fashion” and Madonna’s “Vogue” mashed into one mess. (Bowie for art, Madonna for pop. Get it?) This is lowest-common-denominator pabulum, but oddly, it’s one of the more enjoyable tunes on “Artpop,” because it seems the least self-conscious. Catchy, throwaway dance-pop seems to be what Gaga does best.
Despite Gaga’s insistence otherwise, even after the release of her “album of the millennium,” art and pop remain unreconciled. “Artpop” largely fails as both.
– Jeff Miers
Noel! Christmas! Weihnachten!
This lush, unhurried disc begins with Mendelssohn’s “Frohlocket, ihr Volker auf Erden” (“Rejoice O People of Earth”), and continues with the choral music of Max Bruch, Arvo Part’s pleasantly dissonant “Magnificat,” a luminous “Ave Maria” by Bruckner, Grieg’s “Ave Maris Stella” and other beautiful things that I kept thinking we should hear more. Four Christmas motets by Poulenc were a highlight, and so is the ringing “Hodie Christus natus est,” by Jan Sweelinck, the Dutch composer who was a favorite of pianist Glenn Gould. Michael Praetorius’ timeless treatment of “In Dulci Jubilo” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” lead into a hushed “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” arranged by Eusebius Mandyczewski (1857-1926) in beautiful and simple harmony.
Between the verses there are silences, and you can barely hear the singers gently taking a breath before starting to sing again – a lovely and reverent effect.
RIAS, by the way, stands for Radio in the American Sector. The RIAS Kammerchor was put together in postwar Berlin.
– Mary Kunz Goldman
Randy Weston and Billy Harper
The Roots of the Blues
Randy Weston’s three-day residence in Buffalo in 2011 – including meetings and classes with local high school students – was one of the great jazz visitations of the past 20 years. Weston has never been a frequent Buffalo visitor (for many years while he lived and ran a nightclub in Morocco, he wasn’t a frequent American visitor). That three-day immersion in his extraordinary art, piano playing and world view was an incomparable experience.
Weston will be 88 in April. The musical pairing of Weston, one of the great composer/pianists in jazz, and tenor saxophonist Billy Harper began in 1972, when they bonded at a jazz festival in Tangier.
“I heard a sound that I like,” Weston says now, “that Texas sound, and being from Texas, Billy is a great blues player. When Billy plays the tenor, it’s like an orchestra. The call and response is always there. I always hear the black church in his playing; he’s constantly singing through his horn. As far as why we work well together, it’s the magic, that big, black sound he gets.”
If the pairing of Weston and Harper isn’t quite as majestic as the pairing of Weston and the great Booker Ervin once was, it’s one of the great tragedies in jazz that the great Texas tenor Ervin was already dead of kidney disease, at 39, in 1970, thus ending who knows how many more years of music with both Weston and Charles Mingus.
This recording from February in New York is a formidable meeting of musical minds, mostly on a repertoire of Weston’s compositions, which are almost in a league with Ellington’s and Monk’s. Sure, they play one tune by Harper (“If One Could Only See”) and a couple of universal standards (“Body and Soul,” “Take the A-Train”), but Weston’s musical territory is extraordinary and deserves this kind of intuitive understanding many times over.
The power of Weston’s piano playing (out of Duke by way of Monk and Bud Powell), as he’s well into his ninth decade on Earth, is undiminished. When Weston plays a left-hand chord, it stays played. His dance rhythms (you should have seen kids dancing in their seats listening) are magnificent. A wonderful disc.
– Jeff Simon
Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night) and other works: Robert Craft Collection
Fred Sherry String Quartet and Sextet
Classical music audiences just don’t riot the way they used to. When Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 1 was first performed, the audience audibly scoffed, sneered and tittered so disrespectfully that it took Gustav Mahler’s eminence – and efforts – in the audience to hush them all up. From then on in his composing life, according to Schoenberg (who knew more than his share about misery), “the scandal never stopped.”
To listen to great late Romantic music like that first String Quartet Op.7 from 1904/5 and that great earlier masterpiece “Verklarte Nacht” (Transfigured Night), first performed by a string sextet, is to hear some of the greatest music of one of Schoenberg’s greatest periods, even though the world-beating atonal and then serial revolutionary was still to come.
These performances by chamber groups led by the great cellist – and Tashi co-founder – Fred Sherry are exceptional. If there are far more ecstatic and febrile recordings of “Verkarlte Nacht,” it’s good to hear one disciplined enough to hear the ultimate transfiguration of the transfigured night. Completing the disc are “Four Canons” from the 30 Canons inspired by Brahms. Among the other musicians in Sherry’s groups is violinist Leila Josefowicz in the first violin role.