Sparks fly with Gaga and Bennett’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’

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More often than not, a similar response is elicited when a big name in music releases a crossover or cover album: “Why?!” There’s always the notion of self-indulgence, like when an artist’s fanboy admiration for another’s work simply cannot be contained within their own back catalogue — see The Flaming Lips’ upcoming With a Little Help From My Fwends. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes musicians, like politicians, need to pander to their constituents — see David Bowie’s Pin Ups.

And then there’s Lady Gaga, who — defying trends and, frankly, reason — recently teamed up for the second time with jazz-pop powerhouse Tony Bennett to record a full-length jazz standards cover album called Cheek to Cheek.

In this strange case, the question of “Why?” seems less relevant than that of “Why not?” After all, Gaga has teamed up with Bennett before, covering “The Lady Is a Tramp” for his similarly themed album Duets II in 2011. In this case, the implausible duet by this odd couple was implausibly well received. Fortunately, on their previous work and new release alike, Gaga actually sounds like she’s having a great time — at least, more than on 2013’s overextended and undershot Artpop.

Predictably, this enthusiasm may translate into overly melismatic singing on her part; she can sometimes tend toward embellishing her lines with flourishes that come across as a bit flashy for the context, which is saying a lot considering the more-or-less aerosol cheesy nature of the showtune material. On “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” for instance, the Adelaide Hall song is basically dominated by Gaga, whose vocals resemble those of Christina Aguilera in terms of how often they test the boundaries of showboating. For the most part, though, she actually does an excellent job of proving her chops, considering the pitch-corrected nature of her day job.

In contrast, Bennett spends most of the album serving almost as a backdrop to rookie player Gaga. However, this difference only feeds their hunger for authenticity. Their embodiment of an Adam-and-Eve-style encounter, heard in their markedly gendered lyrical roles, is an especially old trope, giving an energetically human spark to tracks like the hyper-rhythmic “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” Glaring age gap aside, the two voices actually sound natural together.

While questions of motivation aren’t too important here, Cheek to Cheek begs another by its end: “Was this necessary?” In truth, probably not, but vocal jazz fans should get a kick out of it anyway.

Contact Erik Weiner at [email protected].