Powerful vocals from Gaga, Spektor, Hynde propel albums to success
Lady Gaga — “Joanne” THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter Lady Gaga turns 30, ditches most of the theatrics (no meat dress this time) and releases a strippeddown fifth album. THE BAD: No real gripes. THE NITTY GRITTY: 2013’s “Artpop” may have been too pretentious for its own good. While the record had its fantastic moments, the concept sometimes overshadowed the music. Now “Joanne” (named after a late aunt who died about a decade before Gaga was even born) finds the singer tackling a multitude of genres with a bevy of producers (Mark Ronson serves as “executive producer”). However, the songs and the woman’s vocal abilities always take center stage. Even a slew of high-profile guests stars (everyone from Beck to Brian May) can’t steal away the spotlight from these raw vocal performances. Whether it’s the country-tinged ballad “Million Reasons” or the stomping and soaring “Dancing in Circles,” the songs are direct, crisp and packed with emotion. And the album’s mood swings from jubilant (“AYo”) to somber (“Angel Down”) to keep things unpredictable. BUY IT?: Surely.
Regina Spektor — “Remember Us To Life” THE GOOD: Russian-born singer/songwriter Regina Spektor comes back with her fifth major-label album. THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Guided by British composer/producer Leo Abrahams (Frightened Rabbit, Wild Beasts) and recorded with a full orchestra, “Life” is a lush affair. Yet, it features many instances of that bubbly brand of Spektor pop — feisty vocals guiding bold melodies that bounce over cruising rhythms. Bright bits such as “Older and Taller” and “Small Bills” pull you in immediately and never let go.
Much of the album, however, is more subdued and serious; mid-tempo pieces find Ms. Spektor and her piano placed against a backdrop of warm, sweeping strings. Those are the most memorable moments. Songs like “The Light” with its graceful ebb and flow or the brash and ever-shifting epic, “The Trapper and the Furrier,” show off her stirring vocal abilities (minus the silly yet charming chirps and quirks of records past). “Obsolete” is a sumptuous study in sadness and loss.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
The Pretenders — “Alone” THE GOOD: Post-punk indie legends the Pretenders are back with their 11th (and first in eight years). THE BAD: Not necessarily “bad,” but this time, the “Pretenders” are essentially songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Chrissie Hynde and the musicians she happened to play with in the studio. (Remember “Packed” in 1990?)
THE NITTY GRITTY: And since Ms. Hynde is working with producer Dan Auerbach, “Alone” often sounds like a later Black Keys album for which Hynde happens to supply all the lead vocals.
Still, at 65, Ms. Hynde’s songwriting and voice both remain strong. Mr. Auerbach helps add some jagged textures to even the gentler tunes, giving the entire record a much-welcome realism that’s painted in both light (the sharp title track and growling “Chord Lord”) and shadow (the cloudy “Let’s Get Lost” and moody “Blue Eyed Sky”).
The ballads aren’t syrupy. The rockers don’t reek of desperation. And even the keyboard-colored, pop-infused closer “Holy Commotion” doesn’t come off as forced. Ms. Hynde and Mr. Auerbach made a damn fine record.
BUY IT?: Sure.