Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Adam Lambert's "For Your Entertainment": He Will...He Will ROCK YOU! (sorta)

Rating: 3.5/5

At the start of “Strut,” track 4 on “For Your Entertainment,” when Adam Lambert croons “I wanna start a revolution,” one can’t help but see it as the album, and the man’s, mission statement.

I mean, Adam Lambert’s very existence is pretty damn revolutionary. There have been many openly gay pop stars, but certainly not at the start of their careers. The sexual orientation of George Michael, Elton John and Freddie Mercury was perhaps an open secret throughout their respective heydays, but Lambert is beginning his career open, honest and unapologetic about whom he is, and that’s important. Gay youth (and straight youth, as well) across the globe can turn on the radio and hear a young, talented and confident gay man treat his sexuality exactly the way he should, rather than as some dark secret to be ashamed of and hide at all costs. While this is exciting and, well…awesome, it places quite the burden on the 27 year-old American Idol alum; can he live up to not just the hype, but the responsibility of forging new ground for a community in the throes of a vital, ever-intensifying battle for equal rights?

Well, the second part of that question remains to be seen (and would be quite the daunting task to judge). Musically, “For Your Entertainment” is a respectable, accomplished debut album however, showcasing Lambert’s exceptional pipes over slice after slice of fun, life-affirming, Queen-inspired glam-pop. It’s a bit disappointing that things stay at the shallow end of the pool lyrically, oscillating between carefree, “life is good” sentiments and lover’s lament. But sometimes the results are spectacular; “Pick U Up” is a blast, and album highlight "Sure Fire Winners," Lambert's response to "We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions," actually rocks pretty hard. The aforementioned “Strut” is a perfect example of songwriting that marries concept with sound perfectly (the song really does...strut), and the Lady Gaga-penned “Fever” is the album’s sexiest and most confident moment, perhaps in part due to the fact that it’s the only song where Lambert has the balls to use the pronouns “he” and “him” to describe the object of his affections, rather than playing it safe.

Elsewhere though, the album begins to falter with cookie cutter, mainstream pop numbers, like lead single “For Your Entertainment” for example, that do nothing particularly spectacular and seem to just lumber along until they’re over, relying on Lambert himself to carry the song. "Aftermath," for example, boasts a phenomenal vocal performance, as does just about everything here, though the song itself is actually quite bland.

But when things slow down, the results are quite stunning. “Soaked,” written by Muse, is absolutely gorgeous. Boasting the best vocal performance on the album, Lambert sounds like Jeff Buckley reincarnated. “Soaked” is gloriously heavy-handed, but its twin, album closer “Broken Open,” utilizes a subtle, Radiohead-inspired electronic sound, and a beautiful, effectively-restrained performance from Lambert, to end the album in haunting, contemplative fashion.

There’s something to be said for the way Adam Lambert injects his unique personality into this music; this is definitely his album. Hopefully next time he’ll be able to match his admirable ambition with song craft that works all the time, rather than just some of the time.

But for a first try, “For Your Entertainment” is nothing to be ashamed of.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Lady Gaga's "The Fame Monster": Your New Favorite Album

Rating 4.5/5

Is Lady Gaga even human?

Ridiculous question, I know, but upon snagging my first listen to “The Fame Monster” last week, I’ve been pondering this mystery ever since.

I mean, what can't she do? Her music videos and live performances are quickly becoming must-see media events (did anybody else see her break a massive glass barrier surrounding a piano with a microphone stand, set this same piano on fire while playing it, and then smash empty vodka bottles on its keys throughout her performance at the AMA’s last night?), her fashion sense (or fashion philosophy, perhaps) and public persona fascinates even her biggest detractors, and her music has basically held every club and radio station hostage for the past 8 months or so.

Lady Gaga owned 2009

And with The Fame Monster, she will undoubtedly own 2010 as well.

What I find most intriguing about The Fame Monster is how cohesive and satisfying it is. Running at just over 34 minutes in length, it’s hard to believe that The Fame Monster was supposed to be some measly collection of bonus tracks for the rerelease of the massively successful “The Fame” album. Don’t be confused or misled; The Fame Monster is a brisk, consistently entertaining album, and it’s better than The Fame. For one thing, It’s more interesting musically, going in some ridiculously unexpected directions. “Speechless”, most definitely the centerpiece of the album, is a new songwriting plateau for Gaga, stripping away the synthesizers and sound effects to reveal an actual heart underneath all that glitter and makeup (and fire and blood). Her vocal performance is masterful; powerful and sturdy at first, and then fragile and movingly unhinged the next. It's a near perfect exercise in epic, glammed-up power balladry that would definitely make Freddy Mercury crack an approving smile.

But the true gem here is the depraved, deliciously evil “Teeth”. Sounding like The Doors' “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)” if it were produced by Timbaland, the song is meant to signal the point where Gaga gives in to that dastardly fame monster; she sings, “Got no salvation/Got no religion/Take a bite of my bad girl meat/Show me your teeth.” It’s one of the oddest pop songs I’ve heard all year, and it’s truly a testament to Lady Gaga’s talent that it works so damn well. The song struts along like a drunken supermodel teetering off the side of a runaway, at once sloppy and thrillingly fierce.

Elsewhere the songs may hold a bit closer to previous hits like “Paparazzi” and “Poker Face”, but it’s in the details, both sonically and lyrically, where Gaga takes things to the next level. “Bad Romance” has got to be her best moment lyrically, embracing the ugliness and misery of a relationship, and even conjuring a few clever Hitchcock references, with lines like “I want your psycho/Your vertigo shtick/I want you in my rear window/Baby, you’re sick.” Meanwhile, “Alejandro” comes complete with a fun, unforgettable hook, and “So Happy I Could Die” is a blissful, dreamlike send-up to a carefree, shit-faced night out with friends.

And did I mention that track 6, entitled "Telephone" feautures Beyonce?!

Say no more, right?

All in all, The Fame Monster is what’s happening right now. This is the pop album of the moment, and you’d have to be remiss or deaf to let it pass you by. In other words, it’ll be the soundtrack to you getting ready to go out to the clubs this weekend, and then it’ll be all you hear in the clubs once you get there.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, the year of Lady Gaga is upon us.