The pop world has changed since the last time Ms. Fierce brought out an album—things that start with “Lady” and end with “Gaga.” You can hear the Egg’s influence throughout 4, especially on the album’s back half, when Beyonce lets go of the standard modern R&B for some songs with a bit of oddball kick. First, there’s some love by numbers (literally in the album opener “1+1”), followed by similar-sounding breakups. She doesn’t embrace these moments of eccentricity entirely, but it was a pleasant surprise to be reminded of the likes of Tori Amos, M.I.A. (on the wonderfully bizarre “Countdown”), and Gaga herself amid the usual love song/breakup song/I’m-a strong-fierce-woman song cycle that has typified Beyonce’s past albums.
The gentle, Wisconsin-cabin-recorded vibe of Bon Iver’s debut is replaced by something more expansive on this somewhat-typical “difficult” second album. Bandleader Justin Vernon still employs a soft, distant, almost-vague singing voice on these 10 tracks, but throughout the set, you can hear plenty of additional influences, including the ’70s soft rock that followed the original folk explosion of the 1960s. At times, all this threatens to derail the album, as the extra layers take a band known for its sparseness, and make them sound like any one of a million other modern indie-rock bands. It all takes away from the original’s stripped-down beauty without laying a new foundation. But enough of it works, such as the angelic “Wash,” to make it worthwhile.
Born This Way
A delay in obtaining a copy of this album meant I couldn’t get my review in time for the Pride Edition, but it’s to Lady Gaga’s benefit. Initially rather cool to it, I’ve found it has grown on me in ways that her debut never managed to do. Gaga’s mix of personal politics and shock imagery (really, she looks like a refugee from Marilyn Manson’s band) sometimes overshadows a bright pop artist—one who can make “Judas” funky, and create the best Madonna-like songs for at least two decades. The pro-be-who-you-are message shouldn’t be lost. I would have loved this album to death when I was 16, because there would have been a voice saying being odd is really, really cool.
What to do when your singer leaves the band? For experimental post-punk/dance rockers Battles, it’s simply don’t bother. Most of the band’s sophomore release is instrumental, and the remaining trio power their way through a compelling set of brittle guitar work and propulsive rhythms, fueled by percussion that owes as much to the sharp melodies of the steel pan as a traditional kit. When vocals are needed, some heavy hitters are involved, including electronic-dance godfather Gary Numan, who sings the appropriately titled “My Machines.” Elsewhere, Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead and Yamataka Eye (from legendary Japanese noise rockers the Boredoms) bring their own signature vocals to the music.