Welcome to the music industry’s Super Tuesday.
Today marks the start of the fall rush, when record companies open the floodgates, setting a pace of releases that won't cease until the last leaves drop. This year’s crop offers a veritable autumnal cornucopia, including Lady Gaga’s tete-a-tete with Tony Bennett, a solo debut solofrom Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and new works from Jennifer Hudson, Leonard Cohen, guitar hero Gary Clark Jr. and more. Brace yourself:
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga
“Cheek to Cheek”
Tony Bennett could sing standards in his sleep. Luckily, his umpteenth run through the Great American Songbook — this one a PR coup with Lady Gaga — never lapses into the lazy or the rote. Both singers sound stoked by each other’s presence.
Their tandem versions of war-horses by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Cy Coleman emphasize the swing in the songs. They keep the beat brisk and the arrangements sharp. There’s rarely a hint of loungy contemplation or orchestral lushness in their interpretations. Instead, they emphasize energy.
That’s especially nice to hear from Bennett. At 88, he’s not just leaning on his authority. He’s navigating the phrases with agility and pluck.
Gaga has always been a power singer, but on her pop recordings she can sound monochromatic, shouting out lyrics like a carnival barker. Here, she uses her athletic skills for more varied and lustrous effect. She has a blast bending the notes in the Gershwins’ “They All Laughed” or running the scales with madcap abandon in Coleman’s “Firefly.” Her tone resounds like never before.
Even so, Gaga’s approach isn’t that of a subtle jazz singer, but more like a Broadway belter. She has a lot of Liza Minnelli in her, sometimes even in timbre. When she sings solo in “Ev’ry time We Say Goodbye,” the notes shine but there’s no ache.
Bennett has a few of his own solo pieces, including one newer song, written in the old mold, “Don’t Wait Too Long.”
The match between Bennett and Gaga winds up quite differently from the one between the master and k.d. lang in 2002. Those two created a more sober and mature affair. By contrast, the duets with Gaga give Bennett a whole new hold on youth.
Jennifer Hudson also ages in reverse on her latest album.
For the third work from the Oscar-winning “American Idol” graduate, Hudson adopts a pop ingenue’s nickname (JHUD), features a guest shot from girl-of-the-hour Iggy Azalea, and greatly increases the pace of her songs. Her earlier albums hedged their bets with R&B, gospel and soupy ballads, but nearly all the new tracks have rhythms made for the dance floor.
JHUD also goes trendy by featuring two 1970s-esque tracks produced by pop’s most happy fella, Pharrell. If only they had the zip of his best tunes. In fact, much of the material sounds like it was fished out of the slush pile of hotter stars like Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj. Part of one cut, “Walk It Out,” even sounds like a second run at Bey’s “Flawless.”
The album finally shakes awake toward the end. “Bring Back the Music” has the retro feel of vintage Labelle, while “Say It” has the modern R&B zip that the other tracks aspire to. Even better is “Moan,” an 11 o’clock, Broadway-style blowout that lets Hudson show how much more power she has than most of her new material can handle.
Jeff Tweedy turned his first solo album into a family affair.
The leader of Wilco — and a pioneer of Americana with the ‘80s band Uncle Tupelo — recorded most of the songs on his 20-song disc with his 18-year-old son Spencer, a drummer.
The relationship between their instruments forms a key part of the album’s dynamic. Spencer Tweedy’s playing has a casual, shuffling quality that dovetails nicely with father Jeff’s whispered singing and flinty guitar.
There’s an acoustic-Zeppelin motif to part of the disc, most notably in the askew blues riffs in tracks like the opening “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Misunderstood” (not a cover). But there’s also lots of beautiful balladry.
The songs’ dreamy quality won’t surprise Wilco fans. But, reflecting the relationship of the players, the album has its own low-fi, homey intimacy.
John Mellencamp made a turn toward folk 10 years ago, and he clearly has no intention of turning back now.
For the fifth time, Mellencamp leans toward acoustic songs, with mere flashes of rock peeking out along the way. The 62-year-old star used as his lofty role model Bob Dylan’s epic “Blood on the Tracks.” But only one song (“The Courtesy of Kings”) approaches mimicry. Otherwise, Mellencamp finds his own delicate melodies, including some of the prettiest of his career. Their finery offers a sweet contrast to the increasing grit in his voice and bile in his lyrics — the most incisive of which take dead aim at himself.
It’s typecasting for Gary Clark Jr. to release a live album. As one of few guitarists of his generation gifted enough to launch extended solos, Clark deservedly follows up his 2012 studio debut, “Blak and Blu,” with a concert album — a double set, no less.
Accordingly, the longer the songs, the better, including a 10-plus minute run at Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun.”
Even his more terse licks and runs have full expression, as do his vocals. At times, you wish he’d push up the speed — thrashing out blues-rock in the frenzied ’60s and ’70s tradition. But by today’s timid standards, this burns.
Two days after his 80th birthday, Leonard Cohen has released one of the most musically varied albums of his career. A touch of country and a hint of Arabian music break up his usual louche blues and hushed folk. Cohen’s dry wit remains, as do his grand themes. But he treats them more abstractly than on his recent work, basking in the great enigmas of life with a wink.
In the way-back world of Imelda May, rockabilly still rules the airwaves. On her third album, the Irish-born singer continues her love affair with ’50s American pop culture, be-bop-a-looing her way through cool-cat riffs and Little Richard rhythms. She updates her sound (slightly) with forays into the ’60s lounge stylings of Julie London and a flash of the attitude of ’70s punk snarlers like Chrissie Hynde.
The obvious skill and spring in May’s delivery can excite, but her music has become too uniform, too fixed in its backward view to keep us rapt.
May plays Irving Plaza on Monday.