Saturday, 21 May 2011

Album Review: Lady Gaga - Born This Way

2011’s most highly anticipated album is finally here, as Lady Gaga returns with her latest offering: Born This Way. But can it possibly live up to the hype? I set about finding out.

From the very beginning of opener Marry the Night, Gaga’s signature is all over this album. Utilising the blinding pop hooks which made her first album so great, this takes it a step further. This album shows a definite evolution since The Fame Monster.

It’s clear this album had big shoes to fill, and songs like the dark and brutal Government Hooker drive the album to new and exciting places. The song relies highly on Gaga’s superb vocal ability, not only in the form of her singing voice, but her ability to make everything sound like theatre – and that’s what the Lady Gaga phenomenon is all about: pantomime and performance.

It’s clear that when this album was being written and produced, this was the key. Gaga was going to sing the hell out every track given to her, and each track would have a quirky way of making it unique. From the guitar riffs at the start of Bad Kids, to the echoing, screeching German chanting at the top of Scheibe, this “uniqueness” factor bears out throughout, and it really seems to work.

The real stand out is Americano. Part pop record, part fiddle driven latino explosion, this is probably the best song on the album, and it really shows a very different side to what we’ve been used to up to this point (perhaps unsurprising that Gaga would go out on a limb to do something completely unexpected.

Unfortunately, it’s the singles which ultimately bring the album down. It feels weird – usually of course it is the singles which are practically the only tracks worth hearing, but this time songs like Born this Way (and especially the frankly dull and uninspiring Hair) just don’t stand up to the rest of the album.

They feel generic, and like anyone in the world could be singing them – they don’t fit into the Gaga repertoire, and it’s a real shame because every time you’re almost getting into the album, one of these songs comes along, and brings the whole tone down.

Does this album live up to everything that will no doubt be said about it then? Probably not. Of the 17 tracks, there are plenty of great new tunes, but it really doesn’t seem to flow as an album in the way Fame Monster did, and it’s because of this it is unlikely to ever become a true classic in the same way. Interestingly, with the four singles taken out it seems to work better, but perhaps that’s just a personal observation.

What Gaga has managed though is to build a collection of decent – and in some cases fantastic – pop sounds, building on plenty of different styles and influences to find a sound which feels new and fresh. There is no sense of a difficult second album here, and this is an album which is sure to be played on repeat by Gaga’s legions of fanatics for some time to come. Which I suppose is the point

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Doctor Who - The Doctor's Wife


So: Neil Gaiman wrote an episode of Doctor Who. Even writing those words is fantastic. Yet the episode itself was something else entirely.

Fantastic is a word which does not begin to sum up my feelings for it. It was spellbinding, beautiful, completely and unreservedly fantastic, and just genuinely one of the finest episodes of New Who ever (dare I say it beats Blink for all-time best? It needs a second viewing to be sure, but its damn close)

The premise is frankly fantastic: what if The Doctor met the TARDIS? What if “she” was a real she?

Enter Suranne Jones as Idris, the “mad bitey lady”, who is infact inhabiting the soul of the TARDIS. A tardis called Sexy.

While there was a lot to love about the episode, the relationship between Idris and the Doctor was what will make it an instant classic. From the scenes in the cage, where we learn of their very first exchange – The Doctor stroking the console and calling it beautiful – to the scenes in the TARDIS graveyard, their interaction is simply sublime. It is clear that they are as close to husband and wife as any two beings ever were.

When we hear Idris speak of her plan to find a Timelord and explore the universe, we finally hear the other side of the story – up until now we’ve always assumed, as the Doctor has, that it was the other way around, and the idea of the sentience of the TARDIS stretching to this great a depth is one we’ve never really explored up until this point.

The fact that they have never been able to talk to eachother until now is tragic, but the final resolution – as Idris speaks of her happiness at having even a few hours with her Doctor, it was enough to send chills down my spine.

Away from this, it was also brilliant to finally see a part of the TARDIS which isn’t the central control room. As Amy and Rory are forced to run for their lives around the seemingly never ending tunnel systems, the colour scheme immediately recalls several of the TARDIS’ of classic Who, and the sight of the pair walking on to Nine and Ten’s flight deck was enough to make me literally squee outloud.

Michael Sheen’s villainous, bodiless House was a particularly scary villain, in that you really felt he could have killed our heroes at any time, and that he was really just playing with them - toying with the mice running around his little maze before finally finishing them off.

From the mind of Neil Gaiman has come one of the Doctor’s greatest adventures, and it’s so clear that he’s a huge fan – the way he’s built this story comes from a place where every fanboy in the world can surely relate. My only question: when can we get Gaiman back? Because we need more episodes like this!

Friday, 6 May 2011

Review: The Last Little Blue Envelope

WARNING: The following review includes spoilers for 13 Little Blue Envelopes and The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson

Title: The Last Little Blue Envelope

Author: Maureen Johnson

Published by: Harper Teen

When last we met Ginny Blackstone - at the end of 13 Little Blue Envelopes - she had just made more than a hundred thousand pounds selling her Aunt Peg’s artwork, and was heading back to America , never discovering the contents of the last envelope.

Well now, as Maureen Johnson finally returns to Ginny, it’s time to find out exactly what the last clue said.

Feeling lost, bored and alone at home in America, Ginny receives an email which will change her life (once again) forever. A young man called Oliver has found the last envelope. There are more instructions, and they must search out a second piece of art, bringing Keith – and his new girlfriend Ellis – along for the ride.

From the very start the reader is plunged right back into the adventure that the first novel held within it, and with the almost immediate twist that Keith is suddenly quite so entirely with Ginny as you’d expect, the entire dynamic of this book evolves from its predecessor.

In the void we find Oliver. A smart, but seemingly malevolent man, who you want to dislike, and yet (as Ginny herself finds as the book goes on) you simply struggle to do so. He never actually lies to her, and while his motives remain unclear for the most part, it is clear Ginny is never actually in any danger around him.

Most interesting is the continued interaction between Ginny and the envelopes themselves, and through them with her Aunt Peg. In a crucial scene towards the end of the novel, you truly feel like Peg is stood beside Ginny, and that they have shared this wild adventure together.

Maureen Johnson proves once again - as is so often the case with the best YA writers – that just because this novel will be found in the YA section of your local book store, it can deal with some properly adult themes. The way the novel deals with death, and with Peg’s cancer stricken and deluded sense of being towards the end of her life, is to be commended.

At the same time it should be said that while this book is marketed primarily at a female market , this book (unlike its predecessor which played up the romance), feels much more like an adventure novel than a piece of “chick-lit” (a phrase I rather abhor anyway as a male who enjoys this kind of book).

LLBE should genuinely appeal to anyone who enjoys fun, well written characters and witty and at times even zany situations (when you read about the Cat Palace you’ll understand what I mean by zany).

While this is – seemingly – the end of Ginny’s story, I for one cannot wait to see what Johnson has in store for her readers next. If she can make me care even half this much about her next collection of characters, she’ll be doing astoundingly well.