Album reviews: Lady Gaga | The Pretenders | Lazarus Cast Recording

With the eccentric imagery gone, Lady Gaga showcases her voice, with some interesting collaborations to boot writes FIONA SHEPHERD

Lady Gaga PIC: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

POP

Lady Gaga: Joanne ***

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Interscope

The Pretenders: Alone ***

BMG

Various: Lazarus Cast Recording ****

ISO/Columbia

Life is a cabaret to Lady Gaga so even when she appears divested of her outlandish regalia and make-up mask in the promo shots for her latest album, you can be fairly sure this is simply pop artifice of a different stripe – even if she has attached her middle name, Joanne, to the project.

Until this point in her career, Gaga has been visually eccentric but musically conservative; now, the whole package feels pretty straight, as she opts to showcase her vocal capabilities against a backdrop of rootsy pop material, from gritty power ballad Million Reasons to the conventional country canter Sinner’s Prayer.

The pumping single Perfect Illusion was a pretty accurate augur of affairs, with Gaga warbling away like Stevie Nicks. Radio rocker Diamond Heart brings out the raspy rock ache in her voice; A-YO is a catchy hybrid of country pop with R&B attitude and hip-hop rhythms.

Her guests are hipster namedrops from the world of alternative rock – Florence Welch, Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker, Father John Misty. Josh Homme plays guitar and drums on John Wayne, not that there’s any room for his signature desert rock style in Gagaworld. Beck co-wrote Dancin’ In Circles, a distinctly non-rapturous ode to masturbation in a Jamaican dancehall-infused electro style, presumably saving the best stuff for his forthcoming album.

But what could have been a battle of the foghorns with Welch on Hey Girl is actually a likeable slice of sunny synth soul pop and she has a lot of fun with manicured, Motown-inspired pop stomp Come To Mama.

Producer Mark Ronson, another skillful pop shape-shifter, oversees the whole carefully-calibrated operation with both he and Gaga showing remarkable restraint on the title track, a lovely acoustic ballad written for her dad about his late sister, also called Joanne, and delivered with genuine vulnerability. Or the semblance of it.

Chrissie Hynde, a performer who scorns artifice, has reactivated The Pretenders, mustering a natural low-slung rock’n’roll swagger in the opening seconds of Alone which eludes an entertainment all-rounder like Gaga. Hynde’s cool producer foil is Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys; her supercool guest guitarist is Duane Eddy. While the material, from the sultry fuzz blues of Roadie Man to the yearning Death Is Not Enough, is no great stretch for Hynde, she has spent almost 40 years being herself, so when she opens her mouth, we instinctively believe her.

David Bowie was the ultimate pop conjurer, immersed in theatricality but also able to cut to the emotional quick. The release of the cast recording of his musical Lazarus, which transfers imminently from New York to London, is greatly enhanced by a bonus CD featuring three new tracks he recorded during the sessions for his stunning swansong, Blackstar.

So while the cast, led by Michael C Hall, do a decent job of rendering songs from various points in his back catalogue in inevitably theatrical style – all the more admirable, given that this recording was made on the day news broke of Bowie’s death – their efforts are easily eclipsed by this trio of previously unheard originals.

The slow, wistful lament No Plan features Bowie in jazz torch song mode, taking stock with “nothing to regret”, his frail but serene croon complemented by twinkling keyboards and mellow, meandering saxophone. Killing A Little Time is a dramatic jazz rock thriller, fuelled by “this rage in me”, while When I Met You is his ambivalent pop offering, with tribal drums, deep, moody bassline and a simple, soulful chord progression. Savour them, because who knows what else is in that vault and whether it is intended for release.

JAZZ

Chet Baker: Live in London ****

Ubuntu Music

In 1983, just five years before his fatal fall from an Amsterdam hotel room, legendary trumpeter Chet Baker played six memorable nights at The Canteen in London. His bassist for the gigs, Jim Richardson, recorded them on a basic audiocassette recorder, and they’ve been meticulously restored for this double CD.

As the opening Have You Met Miss Jones? inarguably demonstrates, despite looking twice his age due to the ravages of addiction, Baker was on form, blowing with fluent ease and authority, and supported with panache by a London rhythm section of Richardson, John Horler on piano and drummer Tony Mann. The trumpeter delivers insistent attack in numbers such as Margarine and I’ll Remember April, Horler, too, stylishly keeping pace on piano.

Baker’s angelic crooning had weathered, but he still infuses feeling into The Touch of Your Lips. Never have the closing phrases of My Funny Valentine sounded so poignant.

Jim Gilchrist

CLASSICAL

James MacMillan: Violin Concerto & Symphony No 4 *****

Onyx

James MacMillan’s Violin Concerto was written in memory of his late mother and it is a passionate and at times troubled work. Its opening two movements contrast an exorcised flood of emotion with the reflective tunefulness of the central slow movement. The final movement, with its curious German vocalisations, combines the vigour of the first with the reminiscences of the second. It is mysterious, ambiguous, eerily humorous at times, but hugely moving. Violinist Vadim Repin has made this concerto his own on the live circuit, and here turns in another virtuosic performance with Donald Runnicles and the BBC SSO, also on top form. In his Symphony No 4, MacMillan claims to present a more abstract musical statement. Yet I find it impossible not to feel embraced by its strength of personality and expression, much of it arising from the ghostly references to Robert Carver’s music.

Ken Walton

ends