Robert Christgau:
Expert Witness

Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band /
Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga / Leonard Cohen


Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band:
Take Me to the Land of Hell

(Charisma)

Recorded in the six months preceding Ono’s 80th birthday and released seven months after it, this is a quantum livelier and more assured than Between My Head and the Sky, Ono’s 2009 album with her and Sean’s revival of her and John’s band/concept. In fact, it outstrips 1981's Season of Glass and 1995's Rising, surely her two standouts from a pop perspective. In other words, this justly renowned avant-pop figurehead not only made a good album as she looked 80 in the face, she made her best album, separated from her previous peak by 18 years, which was separated in turn from its previous peak by 14 years. That’s what I call a life. Crucially, failed frontman Sean mirrors the boss’s artistic appetite and force of personality by overseeing a studio-rock that’s as eclectic as it is unified. There are clubby beats and avant-noise and straight rock guitar; there’s a song that starts with little bells and a song that anchors his mom’s ululations to bassy avant-funk. Of course she preaches peace and bemoans her desolation and tells us to dream. But my two faves are both quite funny for an artist some stupidly pigeonhole as pretentious: “Bad Dancer” and “Leaving Tim.” Both are about what they say they’re about, and delighted as I am that a Fluxus grad who’s been known to flirt with EDM should giggle about breaking a leg, I’m even more delighted to hear an old woman break off snippily and light-heartedly from her latest boyfriend. A MINUS


Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga:
Cheek to Cheek

(Streamline/Columbia/Interscope)

I’m agnostic at best as regards the urban legend of Bennett’s ageless cool. It’s too classy on his end and too voguish on that of his eager young admirers. But this guy isn’t just 80—he’s 88, old enough to awaken in a 72-year-old like myself something approaching the dreams of immortality he instills his thirtysomething partisans. Granted, it’s his twentysomething partner who provides the elan vital here. Gaga grabs these standards as Linda Ronstadt never did and Annie Lennox should be tried for trying—rock-’em sock-’em uptempo, not quite overripe on ballads, and having a ball both ways. In a true collaboration—both solo turns fall flat—it’s her enthusiasm, her vulgarity, and the liberties she takes with the tunes that make the concept sing. That said, however, Bennett always sounds like he has some left in the tank. It’s inspirational, I admit. B PLUS


Leonard Cohen: Popular Problems

(Columbia)

Exercise lubricated his voice for a while, but it’s dried up again. And when you’re croaking the way Cohen is croaking—pun actively regretted, Cohen if anyone has earned the right to call his impending death by however dignified a name he deems appropriate—it takes more than a corps of angels and a Quebecois Madonna collaborator to turn your verse into song. I admire and when I concentrate enjoy most of these tracks, in particular the spiritually advanced “You Got Me Singing,” the fondly remembered “My Oh My,” and the consciously complicit “Almost Like the Blues.” But the only one I love is “Slow,” which is not about how considerately he makes love if that’s what he’s making these days. It’s about how unhurriedly he approaches the death that impends for us all. B PLUS


Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter at @rxgau.
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