- Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga, "Born This Way" (Interscope)
Long before anyone knew of her, Lady Gaga had the hubris to title her debut album "The Fame," as if celebrity were her destiny. So what does she do when she's actually famous, when she finally has the wherewithal to realize any quirk or urge imaginable? She retreats into the '80s, wallowing in trashy hair metal, "Flashdance" pop, Reagan-era club-thumpers and "American Anthem" anthems. At first, "Born This Way" sounds like a crisis of imagination, as the title track rewrites Madonna's "Express Yourself." Then "Judas" rehashes the Catholic controversy of "Like a Prayer." But simpler pleasures stand out: With its grandiose production, "Marry the Night" takes a stuttering chorus further than you thought possible, and "You and I" dresses up a staple of country music — the city girl-country boy romance — in sequined chaps and a glittery 10-gallon. They're pop baubles rather than big statements, but Gaga works best when her songs are free of any meaning beyond their own sugary pleasures. — Stephen M. Deusner
The Black Lips "Arabia Mountain" (Vice)
Atlanta's Black Lips may have earned some notoriety because of crazy garage rock shows that rain bodily fluids — but they still haven't made a great album. Hiring slick producer Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Beyoncé) for their sixth effort doesn't help much. This album has some nice touches, sleazy sax bits abound and the psychedelic flares are more pronounced. Yet most of these less-than-three-minute songs peddle similar-sounding pop hooks, played sloppy and with gusto. As usual there are funny lyrics (there's a fine, "Exile in Stonesville" honky-tonk number, "Dumpster Diving," about finding recycled Bin Laden urinal pads that seemed like they were spitting back at you) and enough drug references to earn a High Times cover story. But the band still has difficulty sounding like more than the sum of its influences, particularly '60s British pop and the Animals on this record (props for a solid Ramones rip-off, "Raw Meat"). Their singers do the howling rock thing well, and coolly hypnotic songs like "Mr. Driver," with its slinky backup chorus and rise-and-fall lyrical delivery, show they're capable of producing catchy, atmospheric stuff. But this album simply kicks the can down the road farther. Not terrible, but not enough to justify any more hype. — Brent Baldwin
Shabazz Palaces "Black Up" (Sub Pop)
Shabazz Palaces may be the most surprising comeback story in hip-hop history. Ishmail Butler is best remembered as Butterfly of Digable Planets, which had a few minor hits in the early '90s melding rap with birth-of-cool jazz. Nearly 20 years later, the emcee is at the forefront of the burgeoning Seattle rap scene with Shabazz Palaces, which is getting the kind of buzz usually reserved for upstarts. Butler creates and sustains a dark mood with tight, minimalist beats and claustrophobic production. These songs specialize in unease: Standout "An Echo from the Hosts That Profess Infinitum" loops a spectral vocal sample over a kalimba beat, and the effect is uncomfortably hypnotic. Butler contrasts that bleak soundscape with playful rhymes that may be rooted in '90s Native Tongues rhythms, but never sound dated. Full of humor and humanity, his lyrics are both playful and coded, such that he never comes across as academic or sermonizing — just smart and passionate. — S.D.
DVD: Levon Helm "Ramble at the Ryman" (Dirt Farmer/Vanguard)
When former Band drummer Levon Helm began his comeback in 2007, his famously gritty Arkansas vocals were holding out for most of his concerts. Nowadays, the 71-year-old throat-cancer survivor has a difficult time singing more than a few songs per show — but he can still work that snare hand like a champ. It helps that he surrounds himself here with top-notch musicians capable of nailing classics from the Band's catalogue as well as Helm solo material and Americana and blues nuggets. This 2008 concert from the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville catches him on a good night. While Band songs such as opener "Ophelia," "Rag Mama Rag" and closer, "The Weight," provide audience highlights, the real pleasure is watching a veteran performer like Helm still grinning, singing and enjoying himself, backed by great horn arrangements as well as multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan) and daughter Amy Helm (vocals, drums and mandolin). An edited version of this concert already aired during a PBS fundraiser and there are no DVD extras here. But the show is better enjoyed in its entirety — basically a master-class lesson in Americana roots music. Helm has all his musical bases covered, particularly when he brings a blues legend like Little Sammy Davis, 82, onstage to blow harp and sing — and a few other surprise guests. Fans should watch out for the documentary, "Ain't in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm," which should be coming to DVD soon. — Brent Baldwin
Ombak "Fan Bricks" (self-released)
Ombak's second CD opens with "Dingledai's" head-banging hook coalescing out of the sonic mists to stomp around anthem land, deconstructing in a series of improvisations before recombining for the reprise. It's a fair distillation of the current Richmond sound, avant-garde moves executed with rock attitude, with lyrical vistas opening briefly in the churning swirl of invention. Bryan Hooten (trombonist for Fight the Big Bull and No BS Brass) has plenty of room to explore polyphonic textures — complemented by Trey Pollard's melodic guitar work, grounded by Cameron Ralston's bass and propelled by Brian Jones' percussion. The all-star palette is agreeably extended from the first CDs with the addition of J.C. Kuhl on saxophone and bass clarinet. The recording — done at Pollard's Songwire Studios — is rich and dimensional. The result is recommended for all but background listening. The hard-edge take on "Lonely Woman" (one of the loveliest of Ornette Coleman's compositions) shows that this is a band more interested in being interesting than being pretty. — Peter McElhinney
The album is available for download at http://ombak.bandcamp.com/album/fan-bricks.