Lady Gaga (Interscope)
The mission of some art, particularly the modern kind, is to provoke to present outlandish concepts, explore non-traditional ideas, challenge norms, and leave you with many questions, searching for answers.
If that is the goal of Lady Gaga's fourth album, "Artpop," then she's already got a success on her hands. If the goal, however, is to entertain, then she fails in her typical spectacular fashion.
"My artpop could mean anything, anything, I try to sell myself, but I am really laughing because I love the music and not the bling," Gaga sings in a near monotone voice, backed by futuristic electrobeat, on the title track. And there lies the ultimate problem: For all its lofty goals, "ArtPop" the album comes off as vapid artifice, with Gaga relying on familiar dance grooves and nonsensical lyrics that may be provocative but convey very little.
"Donatella" paints the picture of a narcisstic, skin-deep model, with lines like, "I'm a rich (expletive), I'm the upper class ... I smoke Marlboro Reds and drink champagne." There's no storytelling there, though, and while the electrogroove is racing with energy, the disconnect with the lyrics makes it ultimately fall flat.
"Jewels N' Drugs" features T.I., Too Short, and Twista, and the rappers are the most interesting part of this wanna-be gangsta ode to the love of the drug trade and that's not saying much. It sounds rather ridiculous with Gaga intoning: "Jewels n' drugs, play that hustle, smother 'em, if you wanna be bad, ain't nothing if it ain't family, we know how to make that money." Clearly, Pusha T and Rick Ross have no competition when it comes to drug lore.
"Sexxx Dreams" is an apparent girl-on-girl fantasy that's strikingly unsexy thanks to Gaga's unimaginative delivery: "I was thinking about you, hurts more than I can say, and it was kind of dirty, all night, and the way you looked at me, help." Yes, help is definitely needed on this track (it's as if she never listened to a Prince song).
The few moments that resonate are when it seems like we're hearing something that gives us true emotion from Gaga, or Stefani Germonatta. On the melancholy ballad "Dope," Gaga soars as she admits her failings but begs for one more chance from her loved one, singing, "I need you more than dope." It's powerful and touching, and is truly heart-stirring.
But rarely do we get that kind of heartfelt sentiment. Instead "Artpop" draws from familiar themes we've already heard on "Born This Way" and "The Fame," and it sounds like someone who is stuck very much in the same place artistically ironic, given how badly Gaga wants to be seen as an artist.
— NEKESA MUMBI MOODY,
THE WOMAN I AM
Kellie Pickler (Black River Entertainment)
Kellie Pickler has always had the sassy country part down.
From her early days as a ditzy, but fun American Idol contestant to her recent “100 Proof” album, Pickler had a strong sense of where she fit in the world of country — following in the footsteps of Reba and Dolly Parton.
But then she arrived on Dancing With the Stars and won the show, as well as America’s hearts, with her graceful dance moves and pretty, more grown-up performances. That newfound comfort with beauty finds its way into “The Woman I Am” (Black River Entertainment).
On the title track, which she co-wrote with husband Kyle Jacobs, Pickler approaches the autobiographical song with a new focus on sweet notes and elegant phrasing that shine in the spare arrangement, even as she declares, “I get loud with a beer in my hand ... Sometimes I cuss too much because I don’t give a damn.” She channels Patty Griffin, in tone and delivery, on the poignant single “Someone Somewhere Tonight” and the lovely, empathetic “Tough All Over.”
Pickler’s growth is impressive, but she is still at her most charming when she lets that sassiness out. She rocks on “Bonnie and Clyde.” On “Ring for Sale,” one of the year’s best country kiss-offs, she details her revenge against a cheating fiance — selling off the engagement ring and “Act right now, ‘fore he finds out and I’ll throw in the dress for free.”
With “The Woman I Am,” Pickler shows how the next phase of her career may be bigger than she ever dreamed.
— GLENN GAMBOA,
Erasure’s new album is a weird mix of year-end treats. It’s a holiday album, of sorts, so it includes Andy Bell’s angelic delivery of classics like “The Christmas Song” and “Silent Night” over Vince Clarke’s inventively spare, bleepy-bloopy synth arrangements.
There also are dark originals — “Blood on the Snow” and “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” — that bridge the gap between holiday songs and more expected Erasure numbers. There also are new dance anthems, including the groovy party-starter “Brooklyn” and the sweetly retro “Loving Man” that will be the stars of many a holiday party.
Does it hold together? Does that really matter? It’s fun.
— GLENN GAMBOA,