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MUSIC NEWS: Lady Gaga, Rufus Wainwright, CocknBullKid, Friendly Fires, Stephin Merritt, New Order, Depeche Mode, Calvin Harris

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NORMAN BRANNON

Guestblogger Norman Brannon is a pop critic, musician, and author based in New York City. He presents a weekly music update here on Towleroad and writes regularly at Nervous Acid.  

Follow Norman on Twitter at @nervousacid.

EXTENDED PLAY:

Lady-gaga-Born-this-way-album-Cover-Motorcycle Lady Gaga Born This Way (Streamline/Interscope)

It may be officially impossible to write about Lady Gaga with any real modicum of objectivity, and on some level, that might be her real success: If Gaga aims to polarize — us vs. them, outsiders vs. establishment, monsters vs. non-monsters — then she's certainly done that. But to some extent, the visual and ideological spectacle that she insists upon also tends to obscure the fact that Lady Gaga is ostensibly a recording artist and not simply a performance piece; at one point, not too long ago, she was an ordinary young woman who played nondescript piano bar songs at nondescript piano bar venues and took the subway home like everyone else. The question, then, becomes how to isolate an album like Born This Way from the meat dress, the egg pod, or the paper-eating sideshow on David Letterman, and the answer is not quite clear. Because for all its successes (the synthesized resurrection of Laura Branigan on "Marry The Night") and failures (the cultural tourism and Latin-fetishization of "Americano"), Born This Way exposes a flaw in Gaga's multimedia barrage — if only because, without the over-the-top visual stimulation, there is a lot to be underwhelmed by: Like the relentless four-to-the-floor, which seems to have only one configuration. Or the lack of subtlety, which makes sure you immediately get the point, but discourages digging deeper. Or the frequent references to religious iconography, which fail to add anything new to an already over-mined conceit. Of course, if it sounds like I'm being overly harsh on the only artist in the world to ever achieve a number-one single with the words "gay" or "lesbian" or "transgendered" in the lyrics, you might have a point. There is a certain amount of carefree revel on Born This Way that is compelling for its potential to surprise — I'm still trying to figure out exactly what she means when she says "Scheiße, be mine," and don't worry, I know what "scheiße" means — but that means there's also something to be said about its more predictable moments. I mean, earlier this year, Gaga announced that this was "the greatest album of the decade." She can't possibly be upset if we hold it up to her own standard.

THE DISPATCH:

Rufus-Wainwright Road Rufus Wainwright has begun work on his seventh studio album with producer Mark Ronson — whose résumé includes work with Amy Winehouse and Adele, among others. "The main objective — not for the entire [album] necessarily, but for portions of it — is to be danceable," Wainwright says. "I just want to make something that you love, driving around in your car listening or losing your mind to on a dancefloor."

Road Relatedly: It has recently been confirmed that Adele is working on a collaboration with de rigeur British rapper Tinie Tempah. As for Amy Winehouse, her father Mitch — who is currently on a press tour promoting his own album — gives new word on his terribly missed daughter: "She's doing better now," he says. "She has been clean for two and a half years … I'm not saying that her problems have gone away, because they haven't. She's dealing with it."

Road Listicle: Eight openly queer rappers you should know.

Stephen_Merritt Road Magnetic Fields songwriter Stephin Merritt recently announced the release of Obscurities — a collection of rare and hard-to-find material spanning most of the 1990s. The fourteen-song album will come out of August 23, but you can download a teaser MP3 for the elegant "Forever and a Day" now.

Road Florence Welch has revealed thematic details for her forthcoming second album — the follow-up to Florence + The Machine's breakthrough debut Lungs: "It still feels like I'm very much drawn to dark metaphors in the new songs. It always feels like as if with each song you write, you're trying to understand something about yourself: Why am I this way? What's wrong with me?"

Road The original success-by-blog band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah return from their four-year absence with a new album called Hysterical — produced by John Congleton (Modest Mouse, Explosions in the Sky) and due in September.

Road June 6 is the street date for Total: From Joy Division to New Order — the first compilation album to combine classic singles from the related bands. Also featured: a previously unreleased song from New Order called "Hellbent." The new single is available for streaming below.

New Order — "Hellbent" (Previously Unreleased)

COMING OUT:

Cocknbullkid How to put this bluntly: If I were writing a column entitled Twelve Songs You Need To Hear This Week, I'd most likely hand you a copy of Adulthood — the debut album by CocknBullKid — and call it a day. In a week where Lady Gaga will be christened the still-reigning queen of pop, Anita Blay might get only a fraction of the accolades for an album that, hyperbole aside, actually delivers on incredibly sophisticated and well-executed modern pop. There are spiritual predecessors, of course — notes of Kylie Minogue admittedly register high here — but Blay's style is so inimitably English (and so unmistakably working class) that it's impossible to fail in teasing out her own idiosyncratic vision. That current single "Asthma Attack" namechecks LCD Soundsystem while recalling Change–era Sugababes is no accident: much like the entire album, Blay's occasionally harsh urban aesthetic is unfailingly tempered by kindness.

Friendly-fires-pala1 If 2011 is the year that commercial Euro-house went American mainstream, then Friendly Fires might be banking on the return of balaeric house: With their second album, Pala, the UK-band completely dismiss the over-filtered dark synths and go in favor of a lighter, summery sound that will inspire far more joy on the dancefloor than angst; it might be downright impossible to do anything but hug the person next to you when "Hawaiian Air" comes on. Their reverence to the rave is also present here — "Live Those Days Tonight" is the most authentic Manc–house track since people actually bought Happy Mondays records — but on Pala, it's more about smiley-faces than synthetic ecstasy.

Bazan-Strange-Negotiations-600-480x480 Very few artists can survive the ghost of being considered a "Christian artist," and yet David Bazan — whose '90s output as Pedro the Lion earned that very title — has persisted. Part of his reinvention, of course, lies in the release of 2009's Curse Your Branches, which effectively served as Bazan's break-up album with God; the introspection and criticism of his former life lay as bare as just about anything you'll ever hear on the subject. His second solo album, Strange Negotiations, gets its release today, and much like Branches, it's a musically and emotionally stripped-down affair — wistful over past mistakes, but softheartedly determined to make good on redemption.

Also out today: Various Artists — Kitsune Maison Vol. 11: The Indie Dance Issue (Kitsune), Art Brut — Brilliant! Tragic! (Cooking Vinyl), Bird of Youth — Defender (Jagjaguwar), Pete & The Pirates — One Thousand Pictures (Zoom), Thurston Moore — Demolished Thoughts (Matador), New Kids on the Block & Backstreet Boys — NKOTBSB (Sony Legacy)

SOUND & VISION:

Depeche Mode — "Personal Jesus" (Stargate Remix)

They're better known for their work with Rihanna and Katy Perry, but Norwegian production duo Stargate clearly owe much of their sound to bands like Depeche Mode. Here, with the lead single from Remixes 2: 81-11, Stargate finally inspire the medieval witch-hunting treatment they couldn't really muster up from "Firework."

Princeton — "The Electrician" (feat. Active Child)

The L.A.-based Princeton cite only two influences on the Facebook page: Steve Reich and Larry Levan. You kind of can't argue with that! For "The Electrician," the band puts its atmospheric synthpop in the hands of Active Child's Pat Grossi — whose wide-room vocal adds celestial depth. The video's graphic police brutality is not for the faint of heart, and yet the song's cinematic quality would feel a little less exposed without it.

Calvin Harris — "Bounce" (feat. Kelis)

Kelis continues to feed her club fixation, this time teaming up with UK electro-house producer Calvin Harris. The video is mostly safe, but still NSFW — which is probably the state of a lot of our weekend social lives. Aside from the part about passing out in the club, I hope.

James Blake — "Lindisfarne"

A standout track from Blake's acclaimed self-titled debut, "Lindisfarne" eschews dubstep for despondent robotic soul and features a somewhat uncomfortable clip that is one-part Party of Five, one-part cult recruitment video. Also, fans of gobbing may get a little extra something out of it.


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Comments

  1. cue the

    "ladygagaisthegreatestartistEVERandifyoudon'tlikethisalbumyou'reareally badpersonwhoisonlyahaterandifyouweretrulyamonsteryou'dunderstand"

    posts in 3-2-1!

    Posted by: alguien | May 24, 2011 5:42:50 PM


  2. I couldn't agree more with the review of Gaga's album. It leaves something to be desired and although it's a good attempt at a sophomore album...I can only look forward to a third album where she stops believing her own hype, and gets back writing music with a little more substance.

    Posted by: ventura79 | May 24, 2011 5:53:16 PM


  3. I thought Americano was a high point of Born This Way. A camp song that is about immigration laws and gay marriage? Whats not to love?

    Posted by: Thomas | May 24, 2011 5:53:43 PM


  4. lol @ alguien. Word.

    I think the review is fair and I love the shout-out to fetishization of another culture, which is far too ubiquitous in entertainment beyond Gaga. Madonna and Gwen Stefani's "Japanese" phases being ones that springs immediately to mind, though looking at how she behaves whens he mentions Japan, you'd think Gaga is right on the cusp of her own.

    “Gay is not enough, it used to be, but it’s not anymore. It’s a good start, but I think we have to be strong. There is such a thing as bad gay movies, there are some embarrassing things about gay culture, just like there were some embarrassing things in early black culture. I think we just have to never use being gay as an excuse for anything.”

    - John Waters

    That being said, as stupid as Judas is, the chorus is so damn catchy. Born This Way IS a huge visible shout out (despite its off color racial issues and lack of anything new to say) to the LGBT community, so points. But really, it's that she broke out of that slog with Edge of Glory that gives me reason to not be completely exasperated by her. it's a throw back, but one that sounds less masked by her show persona and more heartfelt and real.

    But there's no excuse for Hair. Blech.

    Posted by: luminum | May 24, 2011 5:57:24 PM


  5. Ventura79: This WAS her third album. Fame was her first and The Fame Monster was her second.

    Posted by: luminum | May 24, 2011 5:59:44 PM


  6. I bought the gaga album, but if it was uncensored I would of been more happy. I will pay full price if it was uncensored. However I did like Pala by Friendly Fires which is the more recommended album for this week.

    Kate Bush's new album is recommended for next week.

    Posted by: Matt Munson | May 24, 2011 6:00:12 PM


  7. I too like Americano. It's funny and makes me want to dance, which is really rare. The album isn't perfection, but it's better than I had feared based on the singles she released. It's quite cohesive, and many of the songs I disliked as singles sound better in the context of the album.

    But yes, some of her trademarks---the most obvious being the repetition of her name in 90% of the songs---wear a little thin. Not to mention, there was already a backlash, but it's going to reach incredible heights because right now she's absurdly overexposed. Frankly I don't know how she does it, and she needs to do less of it!

    Posted by: Paul R | May 24, 2011 6:03:37 PM


  8. @ Luminum:

    You took the words right out of my mouth.

    Thanks also to Norman for an even-keeled review of the new Gaga album. I'm tired of feeling like I have to applaud everything she does (no matter how underwhelming) or risk being called a "bad gay," especially when there are huge discrepancies between her over-determined image, the schlock she occasionally puts out, and the legitimately great music she's clearly still capable of making.

    Which is to say, she's not all that different from pretty much every other musician out there.

    Difference is, most musicians don't get talked about uncritically as the second coming, and most musicians don't seem to spend a huge amount of time crafting and courting their image as such--but Gaga certainly does.

    The stand-by Sloan maxim still holds true: "It's not the band I hate, it's their fans." In this case, it's also not the music I hate, it's that the musician's ego won't go away long enough for me to listen to the damn music.

    Posted by: TomSkylark | May 24, 2011 6:16:39 PM


  9. I love her music, I am over her artistic facade. When she sits at that piano and pounds away while belting out a song, that's when I know we have a real artist in the house.

    I understand her need for expression and the desire to be avant-garde, and I also applaud anyone champion the LGBT movement, but after a while it just seems filled with pretense.

    You don't need all that costume Gaga. But I can appreciate how much fun it is to do! lol!

    Posted by: Lizzie | May 24, 2011 6:31:28 PM


  10. The Fame Monster was an extention (some list it as an EP) of The Fame album....officially Born This Way is Gaga's sophomore album.

    I love Americano....probably the catchiest song in the album.

    Posted by: ventura79 | May 24, 2011 6:39:53 PM


  11. Very fair review of Born This Way. It was a bit disappointing, but there are some catchy tracks. Also, as someone else mentioned, it really is a cohesive album and she embodies it with her current phase of costumes and such. It'll be interesting see what happens next time she comes out with an album.

    Posted by: Matthew | May 24, 2011 6:52:07 PM


  12. @VENTURA79 The Fame Monster won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album, according to their many rules it could not have been nominated if it was just a "re-release". So according to the Grammys and the artist herself, Born This Way is her third album.

    Posted by: Thomas | May 24, 2011 6:53:27 PM


  13. This is the first time I've ever cared to read these little random music opinions here on Towleroad. If gaga's latest album really was as bad as this person thinks, then she wouldn't be breaking records right now. I'm bored with you.

    Posted by: Seriously | May 24, 2011 6:57:30 PM


  14. @seriously
    your comment was exactly the sort of response i was referring to in my initial comment to this piece.

    norman brannan took great care to point out the albums good points & weak points and, in 3 sentences you manage to dismiss a good critical examination.

    in reference to your second sentence, if sales levels are indicators of quality, why doesn't macdonald's have a zagat rating?

    Posted by: alguien | May 24, 2011 7:34:39 PM


  15. I don't blame people for not liking the music on the album, I admit there is a song on The Fame that i still go "eh." Americano, Marry the night, Electric Chapel, and Bloody Mary were good catchy songs to me. I like reading into what each individual song has to say. Overall Born This Way was something I really needed lately. There are so many bad days for my generation, we need these good days to (yes theres no other way to put it) just dance.

    What i think is the difference though is those who criticize her music (fair) and those who go on an all out rampage every time they see her. She worked hard for her success and as many times as you attack her for it, it's not going to make your life better. Got a better idea for music? Go for it.

    Posted by: Redebbm | May 24, 2011 7:49:19 PM


  16. I hated this album at first. And I kind of wanted to hate it because my friend will not shut up about her.

    But, like a fine wine, I swirled it and let it breathe. Now... I can't. turn. it. off! It is the epitome of infectious pop music perfection.

    Every time I listen to it, I swear I find something new to love about it--a chord I hadn't agreed with, a background vocal I hadn't heard before, a foreign language lyric that put the whole song into context.

    With 9 singles supposedly coming from this album, I think we'll see what she truly has planned for this "album of the decade".

    Posted by: Brooks | May 24, 2011 7:50:49 PM


  17. so, i like gaga and all (have only heard the leaked stuff but not the new album, so i'm withholding judgment for time being), but since norman wrote about a lot of other non-gaga acts in this post, i think there should be some other discussion, yeah?

    for one thing, how many compilations do new order and joy division NEED? both acts have more best-ofs and singles collections and live records than actual studio albums at this point, i think. OTOH, the friendly fires sounds right up my alley based on this description - looking forward!

    Posted by: joe | May 24, 2011 8:12:25 PM


  18. Yes there was too much hype, but I actually think the album is quite good, in fact better than I expected. Yes, there are specific things to critique, but the overall the negative comments I see are contradictory, ie --"it's too club-by", "it's too rock", or "it's too 80s", "it sounds like everything on the radio today", or, the worst, "why can't she do piano ballads?"

    If you want an album of piano ballads, then buy Adele's album. That's all great if I want to have a cup of tea then commit suicide, but if I want to dance, then I see nothing wrong with it being "four to the floor" the entire album.

    Posted by: Jollysocks | May 24, 2011 8:13:01 PM


  19. Thank you for mentioning cocknbullkid! She is AMAZING.

    Posted by: Robert | May 24, 2011 8:49:42 PM


  20. Loving "Asthma Attack". Thanks for the heads up on CockNBullKid.

    Posted by: Deepershades | May 24, 2011 9:53:45 PM


  21. Ok. Good column. Read what drew me in. I will always get a kick out of gaga, sometimes even despite myself. But that's different than finding her music TRULY satisfying, depending on my mood.

    So...yeah I get the "New Order" clip you streamed and listened to it like 7 times. Satisfying. With hints of edgy. Maybe even mysterious lyrics. I say, good, WORTH it.

    Now, as for cocknbullkid. Never heard of them/her before. But I am all ready to buy the album. KICKASS, sweet, adorable, and yet with just a bit of sass in there, but soully too.

    So why can't I buy the new cocknbullkid album on Itunes?!! What's with that?

    Also, if I keep finding time for this column...it makes me want a ~permanent link on the TR homepage to get to the latest one. For easy access. Maybe that's just me.

    Posted by: just_a_guy | May 25, 2011 12:35:25 AM


  22. I love cocknbullkid. It's a shame that her album isn't available in the US yet!

    Posted by: kybarsfang | May 25, 2011 12:54:38 AM


  23. The trend seems to be that if it's an acoustic song with a piano it's automatically good or high art. What's wrong with a campy, dancey tango-inspired song being high art. As Lady Gaga says herself, "Pop music will never be low brow. "
    For what it's worth, i really enjoyed the album. Of course it wasn't perfect, but it's catchy, weird, and layered.
    i also think it's impossible to review Lady Gaga without reviewing the image or "Lady Gaga." I though that was kind of the point of her schtik. You're not buying into Stephanie Germonatta, you're buying into Lady Gaga.

    Posted by: Josh | May 25, 2011 2:49:12 AM


  24. Well said Josh. I wouldn't call GaGa the greatest artist ever but I also really enjoy this album. It is catchy, weird, far from boring and dare I say it - fun. I do feel that at times her shtick gets a little tiresome but like so many other people I can't seem to turn away from it. I always want to see what she's going to come up with next.

    Posted by: RT | May 25, 2011 5:23:26 AM


  25. Born This Way is my first Gaga album. If one is comparing it to other pop albums, it's hard for me to see how it could be underwhelming. Though I don't love every song (Hair), it's largely a strong venture. I don't feel like any song is there as a throwaway (unlike the ill-fated time I bought a Britney album and the only good song was the first single).

    Loving GOVERNMENT HOOKER and HEAVY METAL LOVER.

    Posted by: Tonic | May 25, 2011 7:13:09 AM


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