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Lady Gaga releases a mature ‘Monster’ of a sophomore album

By Christina Edwards

December 2, 2009

A year following the release of her debut album “The Fame,” singer Lady Gaga’s own fame has skyrocketed to staggering heights. With four No. 1 singles under her glittery belt, over four million albums sold worldwide and her picture printed in numerous celebrity hit-or-miss fashion blogs, Gaga continues her streak of avant-garde domination with her sophomore effort, “The Fame Monster,” released Nov. 23.

While it was originally packaged as a re-release of her first album, Gaga and Interscope records have released the eight bonus tracks as an album of their own.

“The Fame Monster” picks up where “The Fame” left off. Both musically and in content, Gaga has moved on from discussing fame, money and their perils and onto an earnest and often startling portrayal of her eight fears — including the fear of love, the fear of death and the fear of loneliness.

While the content has moved forward and, in several cases, into a more mature, thoughtful space, “The Fame Monster” is still at heart an electro-pop dance album. Gaga has taken the catchy, club-destined beats of her debut and pushed them a step further, becoming more ambitious with production and more creative with her experimentation.

The result is a mass of hits, with a few scattered misses that are still admirable attempts.

One of the highlights of the album is “Monster,” a darker turn of the club beats that gave her success with “LoveGame” and “Pokerface.” The song opens with a breathy, spoken “don’t call me Gaga,” setting the horror-film-meets-underground-club feel. She goes on to sing about the monster who ate her heart, throwing in a cheeky reference to her carefree first single “Just Dance.” The result perfectly straddles the line between potential radio hit and solid artistic experimentation.

“Telephone,” her collaboration with Beyonce, feels almost destined for top-40 success, a result of the combined unstoppable star power and danceable backbeat. The song veers toward overproduction in spots, but the sassy punch of the lyrics takes the attitude of “Single Ladies” one step further and makes up for it.

The album also features several more esoteric attempts that may never see wide radio play, but certainly add to her credibility as an artist. “Speechless,” written to convince her father to have open-heart surgery, is a poignant piano-driven ballad with some of the album’s most heavy-hitting, raw lyrics.

As she wails “I’ll never talk again/oh boy, you’ve left me speechless,” the listener finally gets to see the crack in her shiny veneer. The dark, brash lyrics of “Teeth” are almost scary as they hit hard, but are easily some of her most bold artistic ventures yet.

There are weak spots, of course. Lead single “Bad Romance” feels predictable and uninspired at spots, recalling dance beats of the 80s a little too familiarly.  “Dance in the Dark” is slightly overproduced with too much going on, while still managing to drag the beat. Both tracks feel like a Madonna update, but the update part seems to have been forgotten.

Gaga is one of the most exciting artists on the current pop scene. She’s not afraid to dabble in disco and techno and attempts to make it heartfelt or hard-hitting. At times, she falls flat on her face in the process, but the brilliance of the hits far outweigh the missteps.

Overall, “The Fame Monster” is more than worthy of a listen, and if Gaga can continue to progress in later musical forays the way she has here, make sure to keep an eye out for a fast-rising star.

Originally written for the Pendulum

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Categories: A&E: Editorial/Review

Robbie Williams’ new release is an atypical pop album

By Christina Edwards

November 18, 2009

In a world where top- 40 radio hits have people conditioned to recognize pop music as mindless, albeit occasionally fun, variations upon a theme, British pop star Robbie Williams’ latest offering, “Reality Killed the Video Star,” might come as a shock to the system.

Despite being a former member of British 90s boy band Take That (he left the group in 1995 to launch his solo career), his work in the last 15 years has shown a sense of ingenuity and a penchant for constant reinvention rarely found anymore on the major labels. “Reality Killed the Video Star,” which is his eighth solo album, is no exception to this rule.

Williams has yet to gain an incredibly strong notoriety in the United States but is probably best known for his 1999 single “Angels,” still clearly has something to say and a point of view to express, even after being in the industry for nearly two decades. This album features Williams’ signature insightful irreverence for the mainstream point of view and an impressively cohesive smorgasbord of musical influences and allusions.

The album opens with “Morning Sun” and closes with a reprise of the song, a full-circle move that nicely pulls the whole thing together. The song, a lyrical reference and tribute to Michael Jackson, is a somber and jarring take on the reality of loneliness in fame: “You always wanted more than life/ But now you don’t have the appetite/ In a message to the troubadour/ The world don’t love you anymore.” The lyrics are in a pleasant juxtaposition to the soaring, bright orchestrations.

Williams continues to mix and modernize genres throughout the album, creating an eclectic collection of perspectives. The track “You Know Me” is layered with an old-school, Frankie Valli nostalgic sound and mixed with a much fuller orchestration coming out of the chorus. The lyrics mix a 50s heartthrob simplicity with occasional literary genius as he throws in a refreshing bout of alliteration.

Williams goes on to tackle the dance beats in the vaguely dark “Last Days of Disco,” overlaying a stereotypical disco sound with modern electro beat in what becomes surprising aural ear candy.
Williams proves his versatility, as that track doesn’t seem at all out of place on the same album as the drum-heavy, catchy rock beat of “Do You Mind?” The repetitive, forward-moving melody is enough to earn the song multiple plays, but coupled with the opening tongue-in-cheek “this is a song about metaphors,” it easily transitions from fun to borderline intuitive genius.

The lyrics hit hard and pack a punch throughout the album. A pop album may be slightly better served with a side of mindless fun, but this is already so far from a typical pop album it’s more than forgivable. The album is so littered with lyrical gems it’s hard to pick a standout, but Williams manages to be insightful without being overwhelming or cryptically trying too hard.

Williams manages to capture his wide-ranging perspective in a nutshell in “Difficult for Weirdos” — “I like it different/I like it strange/In my own way/I haven’t changed.”

Each song is worth listening to as its own complete, inspired entity. There’s not a hint of filler or repetition to be found. With “Reality Killed the Video Star,” Williams has managed to create something that entertains with the capability of making the listener feel something, while retaining his unique point of view and musically taking himself — and the listener — somewhere new.

Originally written for The Pendulum

Categories: A&E: Editorial/Review

Spreading the ‘Glee’ offscreen

By Christina Edwards

November 11, 2009

“Glee” is taking over the entertainment world like “High School Musical” on steroids.

Fox’s breakout comedy of the fall season had massive promotion last spring, building up to impressively huge viewership numbers and critical acclaim practically across the board for the premiere of the pilot last May. The hype managed to last through a summer of no new material.

While the ratings continued to hold strong and steady and the battalion of new young stars conquered the rabid press at Comic Con, the little show that could braved a relatively new frontier for television: iTunes and the general music world at large.

Within a day of each new episode airing, at least one newly released cover track from the show has managed to break the top-10 singles on iTunes. On Nov. 3, “Glee – The Music, Volume 1” was released as a compilation of these songs. In addition, several tracks that have yet to premiere on the show made it on the album.

Generally, the tracks on the album manage to capture the same quirky, fun irreverence that has arguably made the show a giant success. “Glee” doesn’t take itself seriously with its earnestly over-the-top punch lines, and that same sensibility extends to the music, particularly in instances such as the cover of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” where wheelchair-bound, suspenders-wearing Artie (Kevin McHale) cheerfully declares, “This is a dance for all the sexy people.”

But while many of the tracks aren’t meant to be taken seriously, there is some serious talent and musical innovation displayed in these covers.
The show mainly focuses on glee club leads Finn (Cory Monteith) and Rachel (Lea Michele), giving them the majority of the solos. While Michele is more than a few steps up from Disney ingénue Vanessa Hudgens in the singing department, and Monteith’s version of “It’s My Life” has garnered multiple plays on this listener’s iPod, the album gives the rest of the mega-talented cast a chance to shine.

Amber Reilly, who plays Mercedes, shows off a boatload of fierce attitude and vocal chops as she belts out Jazmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows” and Jill Scott’s “Hate On Me.”  McHale’s vocals on Usher’s “Confessions Part II” is one of the biggest pleasant surprises in a show full of pleasant surprises. Both McHale and Reilly also get larger parts in the extended tracks of “Somebody to Love” and “Halo/Walking on Sunshine,” splitting the parts Monteith and Michele took on the show.

The mash-up tracks, “Halo/Walking on Sunshine” and “It’s My Life/Confessions,” are a strong showing of innovation and are actually mash-up pairings that lyrically make sense.  The show’s breakout hit cover of the Journey classic “Don’t Stop Believing” is a fun homage to show choirs everywhere.

There are a few misses, though. While it’s nice to finally get to hear more than a few bars out of the talented Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt, the slowed-down rearrangement of “Wicked” showstopper “Defying Gravity,” shared in a duet with Michele, doesn’t provide much of a glory moment and lacks the epic impact of the original arrangement.

Overall, this album is incredibly reflective of the show — fun and silly, with a good quality that comes out of nowhere to surprise you. It’s a recommended addition to the guilty pleasure playlists of iPods everywhere.

Originally written for Elon University’s The Pendulum

Categories: A&E: Editorial/Review