Monthly Archives: November 2016

Sound ‘Round: Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck / Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

An American stalwart gets help from his friends

Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck – The White House Sessions, Live 1962 (Sony Legacy, 2013)

bennet-and-brubeck-the-white-house-sessions-1962It seems straightforward. A jazz titan and lounge god perform a one-off set in the shadow of the Washington Monument at the behest of J.F.K. But a little background magnifies the music. Brubeck, a piano prodigy from California, and Bennett, the hard-luck son of Italian immigrants, served in the army during World War II. The former led a racially-integrated jazz band and never saw combat while the latter fought on the front lines of Europe near war’s end. Each came home an avowed pacifist and better citizen. Brubeck’s set best reflects such worldly views. “Castilian Blues” comes with a complex Latin beat that allows drummer Joe Morello room to improvise, and the Middle Eastern flair of “Nomad” features a resplendent turn from the always jovial saxophonist, Paul Desmond. After Brubeck’s four-song stay, Bennett gets his turn, performing 10 brisk numbers of which six feature Brubeck. Crooners are privy to overdoing ballads — mistaking bombast for brilliance — but a festive mood fitting of the occasion makes Bennett keep things upbeat. Highlights include the one wherein a new romance overcomes his bad bank account and the finale in which both performers push each other in a spirited display of their powers. The song is called, “There Will Never Be Another You.” How fitting. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Nomad” / “Rags to Riches” / “There Will Never Be Another You”

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga – Cheek to Cheek (Streamline/Interscope/Columbia, 2014)

tony-bennett-and-lady-gaga-cheek-to-cheekAs someone who hasn’t laughed at Family Guy in over a decade, know I appreciate swing jazz standards for their place in the American songbook and not much else. Give me garage-band grit over Broadway grace and hip-hop swagger over cocktail hour prissiness. But I nonetheless get the appeal. Bennett is 88 years old here, a one-man tower of song, a monument of charisma and a model of resiliency from The Greatest Generation. As for Gaga, a show tunes addict from a posh East Coast family, her arena-ready voice fits the mood and carries the weight of this collab’s half hour run time. The track list includes takes on Porter, Berlin, Gershwin and the whole thing sounds every bit the Grammy-bait it is. The production is crisp, the band is sharp and the harmonies are as well-lubricated as you’d expect.  This is a real duets album, though. He keeps it cool, she keeps it ebullient. He plays it straight, she plays the ham. When each takes their respective solo turn, they become victims of their hubris and the genre’s sappiest, most regrettable tendencies. When they ditch the ballads and stick with the lounge bar pzazz, however, you understand why both live for this shit in the first place. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks:  “Anything Goes” / “Cheek to Cheek” / “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”


Sound ‘Round: Leonard Cohen

In which a cult hero goes out in style

Leonard Cohen – Live in London (Columbia, 2009)

leonard-cohen-live-in-londonRare is the cult icon afforded such a gracious public display of affection in their lifetime. Cohen was a notorious recluse for the bulk of his career, releasing music and touring with such infrequency it furthered his mythos as a brooding song master hiding in a faraway monastery. But after a backstabbing manager sold the rights to his catalog and embezzled most of his retirement funds, a then-74-year-old Cohen embarked on a multi-year world tour to replenish his accounts and give wanting fans their due. This double-disc recorded at the O2 Arena clocks in at just under three hours and debunks all preconceived notions. That God-like baritone is glum in tone but powerful and smooth in delivery thanks to the daily rigors of putting on a good show. The set list zig-zags from his 1967 debut, features an obligatory-but-inspired performance of “Hallelujah” and features a track from his 2001 comeback. Lyrical themes include lost love, personal redemption and quasi-spiritualism. The band is tight and in fine form, the angelic backup singers are ebullient and tranquil while Cohen’s well-rehearsed stage banter is charming and earnest. Everything here drips with an irrepressible sadness, but let this definitive performance stand as a testament that he died knowing others shared in his loneliness. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Hallelujah” / “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” / “Suzanne”

Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker (Columbia)

leonard-cohen-you-want-it-darkerHis death-bed voice at its most guttural, Cohen bids adieu singing about the subject matter that defined him from Day One — troubled love as spiritual torment as death. That he was aware of his impending fate with the grave while recording these nine hymns makes the material all the more pressing and his grim-reaping disposition never more appropriate. Only son Adam serves as producer and puts dad’s voice up front, softening its rough edges with gospel organ, a Gregorian choir and tremolo guitars that expertly toe the line between weepy and professional (“Damn right,” says Roy Orbison). If it sounds like a funeral mass, it’s because that’s the point. If it sounds like Cohen at long last finds resolution that’s just the finality of the moment fooling you. “Treaty,” finds him angry and tired from a tumultuous romance and he gives up on love entirely a few tracks later. The religious overtones throughout are apparent — always have been with him — but the bitter lyrical barbs aren’t inherently anti-God. Instead, they are the resolute rhymes of a man refusing to go gently into an afterlife that waits for us all. Don’t play it for fun. Play it in hopes you too can stare down eternity with as much bravery. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Treaty” / “Traveling Light” / “Out of the Game”

Sound ‘Round: Lady Gaga / Against Me!

Striving to grow comfortable in their new skin

Lady Gaga – Joanne (Streamline/Interscope)


Showbiz is a copycat league, so of course Stefani Germanotta was bound to make a record like this. With meat dresses, glitter vomit and neo-Catholic arena pop no longer in fashion, album number five is her most subdued and unfocused as she figures what her next move is. Hired hands include producer and nostalgia master, Mark Ronson, Queen of the Stoners, Josh Homme and reformed weirdo, Beck. But it’s Gaga who makes this such an inconsistent listen. As seems to be the case throughout her career, the weakest songs are the most bombastic. The election-year pleas for peace (“Come to Mama,” “Angel Down”) reek of Broadway schmaltz, and the guitar bangers aim for Bowie but wind up two-bit hair metal retreads. She gets closer to the mark as her point of view narrows. “Diamond Heart” is about the engagement ring adorning her hand and celebrates the satisfaction that comes by hustling to the top in a man’s world. The wonderfully tranquil title track is a tribute to an aunt lost to lupus before Gaga was born and comes with a chorus that asks a question best pointed at the auteur herself. “Girl, where do you think you’re going?” We all get lost sometimes. Hopefully she doesn’t wander too long. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “Joanne” / “Diamond Heart” / “John Wayne”

Against Me! – Shape Shift with Me (Total Treble Music)

agaisnt-me-shape-shift-with-meLaura Jane Grace’s transition into a woman has opened a window in her songwriting though which protest-heavy lyrics are personal declarations of resolve. Once awash in an interchangeable mix of Warped Tour acts whose leftism was undercut by bad tunes, Grace now champions the riot anthem and keeps the choruses coming. This is album number two since announcing her transgender identity in 2012 and is a worthy successor to Transgender Dysphoria Blues, a coming out which captured the zeitgeist of the nation’s budding Trans movement. If that record was her re-introduction to the world, this sequel is a series of tracks that ask the same question — Where do I go from here? Fresh off a second divorce and unconstrained by her new body, the search for answers comes in the guise of frenetic love songs so tender for their raw power they prove to everyone else that Trans people are more than fetish objects. But Grace’s reoccurring fault is that of sameness. The power chords pack a punch, but many of the melodies bleed together and none of these songs peak in a way to distinguish one from the next. I’m glad she’s in a good personal place. I only wish these songs stuck around in my head longer than their brief run times. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “12:03” / “333” / “Boyfriend”

Sound ‘Round: Tacocat / The Coathangers

Nasty women make their voices heard

Tacocat – Lost Time (Hardly Art)

tacocat-lost-timeQ: Why is Emily Nokes a proud Seattle native? A: Because the Emerald City’s progressiveness incubates the storied femme-punk scene she inhabits. No surprise she goes down with the ship on “Beautiful Seattle,” which skewers the Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker article in which the Pacific Northwest is obliterated by an apocalyptic seismic event. “Earthquake, tsunami / There’s still no place I’d rather be.” But villains take a more pressing form than tectonic plates. With her trusty tambourine and a band of fellow garage-rock lifers — including male guitarist Eric Randall — she runs through her hit list with exactness and mechanical efficiency. With a resilient sense of melody and balanced diet of sass, snark and smarts, Nokes makes short work of anonymous internet trolls, mansplainers and boyfriends too clueless to pull their faces away from their smartphones. The mini-feminist anthems bite the hardest and sport the best jokes (Google what “FDP” means yourself), but Nokes also preaches a blue collar point of view in support of both genders. She defends “working stiffs” from yuppie bros who overrun the neighborhood on “I Hate the Weekend,” and the finale celebrates a life unregulated by the 40 hour work week. An avowed freedom fighter for women, she knows a working class hero is something to be, too. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “I Hate the Weekend” / “Plan A, Plan B” / “Leisure Bees”

The Coathangers – Nosebleed Weekend (Suicide Squeeze)

coathangers-nosebleed-weekendThis trio of irreverent alt-punks has lived off its measly take from the rock-’n-roll dream since its inception a decade ago. But with album number five, Meredith Franco, Julia Kugel and Stephanie Luke aim to take their brand of garage-fuzz from the basements of their Atlanta home to the national underground (and who said rock is dead?). To prove their readiness for the next level, the midtempo singalong “Perfume” is placed at the beginning so as to showcase their underrated songwriting abilities. Formalities out of the way, it’s on to their typical attack of frenetic powerchords and little-riffs-that-can. The frantic soprano of Kugel and rugged alto of Luke share time at the mic, with the former pulling the punchlines and the latter flexing the muscle. Musically, they’re as ragged, rugged and succinct as lifelong punks ought to be. Just a trio of songs eclipse the 3 minute mark. They’re just as cut-and-dry lyrically. Verses are typically staccato blurbs which set up choruses that double as personal statements. My favorite line sums up their aesthetic. When a no-good boy informs Luke she’s pretty tough, for a girl, she responds in kind: “I’m not sure if you realize, but I just don’t give a shit.” Preach, sister. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Perfume” / “Make it Right” / “Nosebleed Weekend”