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Album roundup: Gaga just so-so on new album ‘Chromatica’

Indigo Girls shine, Adam nails it and Perfume Genius — wtf?

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2020 summer albums, gay news, Washington Blade

Lady Gaga

Chromatica (**1/2 out of four) 

Streamline/Interscope

Although Lady Gaga has never had an out-and-out bomb, she lost her footing a bit with her 2013 album “Artpop.” 

Her fans point to its decent chart performance (it debuted at no. 1 and went platinum) and say that’s more perception than reality, but she was starting to experience a law of diminishing returns. The danceclub hits and outrageous fashion upon which she built her brand didn’t resonate the same way five years into her career.

She wisely recognized that and veered hard left making an album with Tony Bennett (of all people; 2014’s “Cheek to Cheek”), recapturing the pop culture zeitgeist with movie debut “A Star is Born” (pleasantly, she actually can act) and go mellow and subdued with her last studio album, 2016’s more singer/songwriter-oriented “Joanne.” 

“Chromatica” (out May 29) is her official return to form. It all goes down breezily enough — it’s an easy, catchy listen — yet it’s also not quite the reclaiming of the pop diva throne she clearly intended it to be. It’s good, not great; her fans will love it and it will make a respectable chart dent but creatively she’s painted herself into a corner. While some of her unexpected (at the time) career swerves served her well and were well received, you can’t build a whole career on stunt casting — the meat dress! the Tony Bennett duets! “American Horror Story”! a “normal” album from kooky Gaga! Stuff like that only gets you so far then you’re kinda back where you were five years prior (albeit with an Oscar in tow).

Eventually you have to return to the business of doing what it is you supposedly do and a decade in to her admittedly impressive career, it feels like she’s reaching the bottom of her bag of creative tricks. “Chromatica” suggests to me we’ll look back on her in 50 years more as a Petula Clark (the singer of a decent string of era-defining standards)-type figure rather than a Bette Midler or, heck, even a Kelly Clarkson. 

Gaga takes the “Confessions on a Dancefloor” approach here — there’s not a ballad in the batch. Track after track — first single “Stupid Love,” “Plastic Doll,” “Replay” and dozens more — are full of big, luscious, vaguely ’80s-tinged club beats courtesy of producer BloodPop (Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, et. al.), and melodies that take advantage of her impressive set of lungs. The lady can sing — nobody is arguing otherwise. 

But it all gets a little samey sounding by the album’s end and a trio of orchestral interludes (dubbed “Chromatica,” “Chromatica II” and “Chromatica III”) sound like they were yanked off some poor man’s Ralph Vaughan Williams imitation attempt and tacked on for contrast and gravitas. They backfire though, sounding like ludicrous non sequiturs. 

Lyrically there’s nothing terribly interesting happening but the guest spots — Ariana Grande on second single “Rain on Me,” K-pop girl group Blackpink on “Sour Candy” and Elton John on “Sine From Above” — work slightly better than you’d think. She doubles John’s vocal an octave above to pleasant effect. Glammy, campy (but fun!) final song “Babylon” had me picturing the “Queer as Folk” cast on the dancefloor. 

Indigo Girls

Look Long (***1/2)

Rounder Records

It’s easy to take the Indigo Girls for granted. Although it’s been five years since their last studio album (2015’s “One Lost Day”), they keep busy with constant (pre-COVID-19) touring, regular solo outings from both members (Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, both lesbians) and even a live symphony album “Indigo Girls Live with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra” (2018). 

Their new album “Long Look,” (May 22) however, is a pleasant reminder that not only are they greater vocally than the sum of their parts — their harmonies are truly heavenly — their songwriting is so assured and mature, they’re doing some of their best work now ages after aging (sadly) out of commercial relevance. John Reynolds, who also produced their 1999 album “Come On Now Social,” is back at the reins. 

Standout cuts are the groovey, swampy opener “Shit Kickin,’” dance-around-the-campfire-esque “Howl at the Moon,” the plaintive title cut (in which they sound vocally as lovely as Emmylou Harris) and sonic curveball “Favorite Flavor.” Musically overall, this is Americana. 

Topics are lyrically varied. “Feel This Way Again” is an urge to teens to savor emotions, album closer “Sorrow and Joy” is a well-crafted examination of ‘80s-era politics and it varies outward from there. Only occasionally (the chorus of “Flavor” or the slightly cloying “Country Radio”) do things feel a tad forced. 

Perfume Genius

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (*1/2)

Matador

Perfume Genius (aka Michael Hadreas) is back with his fifth album (it dropped mid-May) and while it’s more accessible (which isn’t saying much) than his previous efforts — some tracks actually feel like songs — it’s still a tough listen and something you have to be in the mood for. 

Atmospherically, there’s a lot here to appreciate — the dreamy, ethereal “Whole Life,” the gauzy, fuzzy rock guitars on “Describe,” the retro organ underpinnings of “One More Try” and so on. One senses here that no instrumental choice or sonic effect was chosen haphazardly; Hadreas (38 and gay) and producer Blake Mills (who returns after 2017’s “No Shape”) took obvious care and mood and texture, to them, is everything (it certainly trumps melody and tempo). 

The degree to which you like this album will be proportional to how much avant garde you can stomach. I tried to just close my eyes and savor it on its own terms but I also couldn’t wait for it to be over. The too-precious-by-half, whispery falsetto vocals on “Jason,” the plodding, uncategorizable “Your Body Changes Everything” and the sonic whiplash of “Some Dream,” which sounds like silly nonsense, had me itching to go put on some Jonas Brothers. 

In fairness, though, could this be one of those magical albums that just needs time to seep into your pores? An album you endure on the first listen but can’t get enough of three months later? It’s a fair question, but I’m going with no. Texture solely for the sake of texture — and that’s what this feels like — just isn’t enough for me. 

Adam Lambert

Velvet (***1/2)

Empire Distribution

An album you might have missed (somehow I did) that dropped in late March is the new Adam Lambert project “Velvet,” the gay “American Idol” runner-up’s fourth.

Lambert here manages to hit that sonic sweet spot where the production sounds both retro yet uber contemporary. There’s a funky, groovy, ’70s/Stax vibe here but also a 2020-kind of top coat on everything that sounds utterly of the moment. 

Stylistically it’s still varied. “Superpower” is slutty and all attitude, “Loverboy” is a neo-disco shuffle, “Comin’ in Hot” is slinky and skanky and “Love Don’t” is a gritty rocker. “Ready to Run” has rock swagger and gospel organ accents. First single “Roses,” a duet with Nile Rodgers (of Chic) has lovely hooks and atmosphere to spare. It’s a romantic kiss-off to a lover who offers gestures but little else. 

There are only a handful of slow songs, a straightforward piano ballad (“Closer to You”) and closer “Feel Something,” the album’s only pensive, moody moment. 

Only occasionally and fleetingly does Lambert fumble — a weak chorus on “New Eyes,” a couple spots where the hooks aren’t quite enough to undergird the swagger and energy, but even then, Lambert’s shimmering whale of a voice — his calling card — is enough to sustain pleasure throughout. This is my summer car album for sure. 

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At 15, restored ‘Shortbus’ is still a movie ahead of its time

Depictions of real sex among actors raised eyebrows

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Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy in ‘Shortbus.’ (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

When it debuted in 2006, John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” – which this month receives a special 15th anniversary re-release in the form of a sumptuous new 4K restoration – was described by Variety as being “unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry.”

That description arguably still holds true, and it was not hyperbole. Mitchell, fresh off the success of both the stage and film versions of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” had deliberately set out to make a film exploring “the language of sex as a metaphor for other aspects of the characters’ lives.” He solicited videotaped submissions from would-be cast members – whether they were trained actors or not – who were open to the experience of performing in sexually explicit material, then collaborated with the chosen players over a two-and-a-half-year process of improvisational workshops to create the story and script. When the cameras finally started rolling, the cast had already developed a level of emotional and physical intimacy that allowed them to deliver unprecedented authenticity. Almost all the sex scenes were un-simulated – and indeed, according to Mitchell, all but one of the many orgasms that take place in the film are real.

It’s not surprising that “Shortbus” would garner a lot of attention 15 years ago for its bold approach to onscreen sex, considering that real sex on film is still largely considered a taboo in the mainstream. What’s surprising is that it generated relatively little outrage or backlash from the conservative crowd. There were detractors, of course, whose pearl-clutching reaction to the idea of such a film was simply to decry it as “pornography,” and it was banned in some foreign markets with draconian censorship laws regarding sexual content; nevertheless, thanks to Mitchell’s established reputation as an artist and the enthusiastic response it received at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie managed a reasonably widespread release across major markets in the United States without raising too many eyebrows, meeting with a mostly favorable response from both critics and audiences – at least the audiences who weren’t too squeamish to go and see it.

Those who did quickly found themselves drawn into the lives of a collection of young New Yorkers, all struggling to find meaning, connection, and gratification in a city still reeling from the tragedy of 9/11 and the frustrations of Bush-era politics. There’s Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, and her attentive but increasingly bewildered husband Rob (Raphael Barker), whose own sexual needs are not being met, either; there’s Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson), a former child TV star and his ex-hustler boyfriend who are looking to open up their relationship to others, and Caleb (Peter Stickles), a voyeuristic neighbor who lives vicariously through stalking them and obsessively following their lives; and finally, there’s Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a professional dominatrix frustrated over her inability to make emotional connections. Along with other sexual pilgrims of the New York underground scene, they come together at Shortbus, a weekly “salon” dedicated to art, music, politics, and polysexual carnality.

At the time of its initial release, “Shortbus” felt for many – perhaps even most – like a glimpse into another world, an erotic utopia where sexual freedom and experimentation were not only “normal” but incorporated into a holistic view of life and used as a valid avenue for achieving personal growth. Seen today, what strikes the viewer most is just how far ahead of its time Mitchell’s purposefully transgressive movie really was. Though we haven’t quite reached a cultural place where the freewheeling and permissive sexuality it depicts has been fully embraced by all, many of the then-arcane sexual concepts it presents – polyamory, BDSM, “pegging” – no longer carry the same sense of transgressive danger they once did in the mainstream cultural imagination. More importantly, the attitude of sex-positivity it champions has become far more widespread in our modern world, thanks in no small part to the increased visibility and acceptance of “non-traditional” sexual practices in popular media.

There’s also an unexpected – indeed, almost eerie – resonance to be found in the underlying zeitgeist of the film’s post-9/11 New York, as reflected in the existential crises with which its characters resignedly grapple. This is particularly notable in the secretly depressed James (Dawson’s sensitive portrayal of his mental health struggles provides the emotional heart of the movie), but any of the characters could easily be transplanted into the COVID-exhausted world of 2022 and seem just as much at home.

For all that looming heaviness in the air, though, “Shortbus” remains as refreshingly upbeat and unexpectedly joyful as it was 15 years ago – and that’s not just because of the sex. Mitchell, in talking about making the film, says he did not “necessarily seek to be erotic.”

“In the years I was making ‘Hedwig,’ he says, “I welcomed the fact that movies were exploring sexual frankness again, as some had in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I regretted the fact that most of the new ones were so grim and humorless. Sex seemed just as connected to negativity as it was for, say, Christian conservatives. I guess it’s understandable. I was brought up in a strict Catholic/military environment where sex was the scariest thing imaginable, which, of course, made it fascinating. I decided to make a New York-style, emotionally challenging comedy that would be sexually frank, thought-provoking, and, if possible, funny.”

True to that goal, “Shortbus” feels for most of its running time like a light-hearted romp. Justin Vivian Bond, playing themself as the host of the film’s titular salon, brings a buoyant sense of humor to the movie that pervades even when they’re not onscreen, and the colorful community of background characters – including an Ed Koch lookalike who confides in a young potential hook-up that he was “once the mayor of New York City” – provide a constant stream of memorable comedic moments throughout. There’s even an overtly farcical sequence involving a remote-control orgasmic egg, which would not seem at all out of place in a 1960s screwball comedy from Blake Edwards.

Still, to downplay the sexiness of “Shortbus” would be to ignore its most enduring legacy. After all, it’s a film that features graphic sex between various combinations of gender, including extended scenes of three-ways, orgies, rimming, cunnilingus, fellatio, self-sucking, and full-on penetration of multiple orifices. Yes, some of it may arouse you – but the real power of sex in this film has to do with the fact that, unlike porn or even most “tasteful” Hollywood sex scenes, the intention is not so much to turn us on but to help us get over it.

As Mitchell puts it, “In the current and important campaign to correct social wrongs, sometimes sex itself gets a bad name. To some today, any kind of sex on screen is exploitation… Let’s not let our need for safety and justice boomerang us back to our default American Puritanism. Sex between consenting respectful adults is one of the great joys and mysteries of our lives. No need to panic. 

“Let’s just lie back and think of each other.”

The new 4K restoration of “Shortbus” opens theatrically in New York City on January 26, followed by an expansion to other cities across the US. You can find information about theatres and dates at the Oscilloscope Laboratories Website.

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Arts & Entertainment

Amy Schneider’s Jeopardy! winning streak ends at 40 games

Transgender contestant is the highest-earning woman in competition’s history

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(Photo Courtesy Casey Durkin/ Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

Amy Schneider‘s record-setting Jeopardy! winning streak came to an end on Wednesday’s show after getting tripped up on the Final Jeopardy! clue.

Schneider is the first transgender contestant to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, and she’s the highest-earning woman in the competition’s history, with a total of $1,382,800 from 40 wins.

Schneider was leading by $10,000 as the contestants headed into the all-important “Final Jeopardy!” category, she failed to answer the clue. It was, “The only nation in the world whose name in English ends in an H, it’s also one of the 10 most populous.” Contestant Rhone Talsma managed to overtake Schneider when she answered, “What is Bangladesh?” the correct response. Schneider ended up with $19,600 versus Talsma’s $29,600.

“I think that the best part for me has been being on TV as my true self, expressing myself and representing the entire community of trans people,” Schneider told Good Morning America this week. “And just kind of showing a different thing than maybe some people have seen, of just being a smart, confident woman and just doing something super normal, like being on Jeopardy!.”

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A Revolution for Women in Baseball

Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball.

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Rachel Balkovec was hired as a hitting coach in the Yankees’ system in 2019. She will now manage the Class A Tampa Tarpons.Credit. Photo Courtesy of Rachel Balkovec/Instagram.

The Yankees were late on introducing an African-American player to their roster, adding Hall of Famer Elston Howard to the team in 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson starred for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The Yankees seem determined not to repeat that bad history.  Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball when she takes the helm of the Tampa Tarpons this spring. 

It has been just over ten years since Justin Siegal threw batting practice to the Cleveland Guardians and five since she was the first woman to coach a MLB squad with the Oakland Athletics.  Two years ago, Kim Ng became the first female General Manager of any of the four major professional sports when the Marlins hired her to run their team.  In the two years since then, the dam has burst.  Women have been hired to important on-field positions with professional baseball at an impressive clip.  As baseball has lagged behind other professional sports in bringing women into the game, the current pace of hires indicates that baseball’s embrace of analytics and objective measures have finally penetrated the walls of one of the most enduring old boys clubs in the U.S. and given talented women opportunities they have long been denied.

Ten women will be coaching with major or minor league teams in 2022.  In 2021, Bianca Smith became the first African-American woman to coach in the minors when the Red Sox hired her. Alyssa Nakken became the first woman in uniform during a Major League Baseball game when she coached first base for the Giants in a July 2020 exhibition against the Oakland A’s.  Her jersey now belongs to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  Cuban-American Veronica Alvarez is not only the coach of the U.S. Women’s National Baseball team, she also served as a spring training coach for the Oakland A’s.

The proliferation of women in baseball is not an accident.  More girls than ever are playing baseball.  Here, in the DC area, 160 girls participated with D.C. Girls Baseball in 2021.  Baseball for All, an organization that supports and promotes girls in baseball, held a tournament last summer that drew nearly 600 girls who play baseball.  There are more women than ever on collegiate baseball rosters.  Major League Baseball has also devoted significant resources to girls and women in baseball, running several development camps for girls in baseball.  Six of the women now coaching professional baseball participated in MLB’s Take the Field initiative, which is designed to help place women into baseball positions. To top it all off, the classic film about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, A League of Their Own, is getting a reboot on Amazon Prime this year.

The pace of hiring is exhilarating.  Unfortunately, every report of a woman being hired is followed by predictable hateful commentary on social media.  Many cannot imagine that a woman may be hired for a baseball position on merit and resort to making sexist and derogatory comments.  As women in baseball, the coaches are used to that vitriol and have developed thick skin and sophisticated defense mechanisms.  However, also reading are thousands of girls who are inspired by the achievements of these women and they are, sadly, learning that to achieve in baseball means enduring the sexist taunts, gross come-ons, and hurtful comments.

Baseball has a long way to go.  Other leagues have women officiating games, so it should be reasonable to expect that baseball will have women umpires in the near future.  The possibility of women playing professional baseball is tantalizingly close as 17 year old Genevieve Beacom made history last week as the first women to play Australian professional baseball, when she threw a scoreless inning against the Adelaide Giants.

We are watching a revolution in baseball unfold before our eyes. 

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