"A Star Is Born — Original Motion Picture Soundtrack," Various Artists

 

The soundtrack to "A Star Is Born" is no slim thing, thank goodness. It contains a whopping 34 tracks, mostly due to the inclusion of brief snatches of songs, dialogues or interludes. It will put fans back into the film in a visceral way. Haven't seen it yet? With this album, you may not need to.  The latest film incarnation of the doomed love affair between two singer-songwriters — one on the way up, the other down — has plenty of buzz thanks to its stars, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. But the soundtrack is proof that it deserves it. From bluesy rock to country to bubble gum pop, the 19 original songs are varied and addictive. We knew Lady Gaga was capable of great things, but Cooper's musicality is a wonder. We often make fun of actors who long to be rock stars, but Cooper shows real skill in front of the microphone.  The soundtrack is chronological and, of course, includes Gaga's performance of Edith Piaf's classic "La Vie En Rose," which is her star turn moment when Cooper's character discovers her in a cabaret. And it naturally has the huge tearful finale, "I'll Never Love Again" — actually it has an extended cut of that as well, if you have enough hankies at home.  But a film about the power of music needs to have lots of it and the soundtrack includes virtually every note heard onscreen, including blistering guitar instrumentals ("Out of Time"), duets (including the bluesy "Alibi," the country "Music to My Eyes" and the soft rocker "I Don't Know What Love Is"), and even dialogue about music (the minute-long "Twelve Notes" speech delivered by Sam Elliott).  In many ways, the film's trajectory can be boiled down to its first breakout hit, "Shallow," co-written by Mark Ronson. It starts in a folky vein with Cooper alone, then becomes a duet with Cooper and Gaga before ending with her taking it over, belting out the lyrics in a glam-rock style. (Gaga first singing it to Cooper in a parking lot is nicely included on the CD in an earlier snippet.) Like that song, the whole soundtrack starts with Cooper's blues and rock and ends with Gaga going full Gaga. Other highlights include the searing rock cut "Black Eyes," the country ballad "Always Remember Us This Way," the burning "Diggin' My Grave," the Britney Spears-ish "Hair Body Face," the moody club banger "Heal Me" and the simple, beautiful "Too Far Gone."  In addition to Cooper and Gaga, who also co-wrote most of the tunes, some other names jump out on the album, including Lukas Nelson (son of Willie Nelson), who is credited with co-writing a slew of songs for both stars. Diane Warren co-wrote "Why Did You Do That?" while frequent Gaga collaborator DJ White Shadow co-wrote and co-produced six of her new songs. And for those of you with not enough Alec Baldwin in your lives, rejoice — he's there, in a tiny audio excerpt as a "Saturday Night Live" host. There's a good chance he could win a Grammy for uttering four words. There's no way this album won't be in contention.  — Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press

 

"Look Now," Elvis Costello & The Imposters

Like in "Anna Karenina," the characters in "Look Now," Elvis Costello's sumptuous new album with The Imposters, are each unhappy in their own way.  A woman who laments her deteriorated marriage while doing some renovations around the house ("Stripping Paper"); a dilapidated music-hall singer whose return to showbiz may be brief ("Under Lime"); a daughter pondering her dad's infidelity ("Photographs Can Lie"); someone grieving the end of the British empire ("I Let the Sun Go Down") and so on.  What make it easy to be sympathetic with even the most pitiable of those in these very human songs are Costello's elegant melodies and arrangements, which result in a kind of silkier, even more debonair version of "Imperial Bedroom," his 1982 album produced by recently departed Beatles recording engineer Geoff Emerick.  Costello's guitars are mostly in a supporting role. Horns, woodwinds and strings — as well as some of the liveliest backing vocals on an EC album since Afrodiziak lit up "Punch the Clock" — plus the deft hands of The Imposters and Argentine-born co-producer Sebastian Krys, turn "Look Now" into one of his most sonically gratifying records.  Burt Bacharach composed some of the music and Costello also dusted off "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter," another tale of domestic gloom, written years ago with Carole King. But there are several others, including "Why Won't Heaven Help Me" and "Stripping Paper," which show how deeply those 1960s sounds, from pop to soul, influenced Costello and how expertly he applies them in his own superlative songwriting, which "Look Now" has plenty of.  Costello said he recorded the lead vocals as he was recovering from a cancer scare and it made him feel invigorated instead of depressed. The power of his voice here, including that characteristic long-wave vibrato, confirms his mood.  Those in Costello's songs may be mostly miserable, but "Look Now" will make its listeners very happy indeed. — Pablo Gorondi, The Associated Press

 

"Trench," Twenty One Pilots

It's going to be hard for Twenty One Pilots to top the success of their last album. Every tune on "Blurryface" went gold, platinum or, in some cases, multiplatinum — the first album to do so in history. But if anyone's going to do better, it's these two guys from Ohio. "Trench," the 14-track, fifth album from vocalist Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun (as well as songwriting help from Paul Meany), is every bit as good as "Blurryface," continuing the band's genre-bending trademark of tackling various styles and showcasing a knack for songwriting.  The band comes fast out of the gate with the throbbing bass line of "Jumpsuit" with insecurity in the lyrics ("I can't believe how much I hate/ Pressures of a new place roll my way"). Then it's on to Dun's kinetic drumming on "Levitate," a blissed-out and terrific "Morph" and The Killers-like, falsetto-fueled "My Blood." Further ahead, there's the reggae-tinged "Nico and the Niners," the '80s-sounding "The Hype" and the complex, constantly shifting "Bandito."  We reach peak Twenty One Pilots on "Pet Cheetah," an exhilarating and daffy tune that namechecks Jason Statham as it mixes techno, rap and rock, along with a healthy dose of reggae and house. No one out there makes music as thrilling as this.  "Trench" is a more low-key album — "Cut My Lip" and "Neon Gravestones" are slow burners — and Joseph and Dun show maturity in not overworking songs, too. The last track, "Leave the City," is a piano-driven gem with understated drumming and ghostly vocals.  Of course, it wouldn't be a Pilots record without opaque lyrics that connect the songs — "jumpsuit" and "neon" — and the album to a larger fantasy narrative that has spooled out over several albums and onto websites. We'll leave all those clues — references to Dema and the bishops and Nicolas Bourbaki — to the fans on Reddit.  "Trench" also finds Joseph in a confident mood, lyric-wise, even mocking songwriting itself. "Chorus, verse, chorus, verse/ Now here comes the eight," he sings on "Levitate." On "Smithereens," he croons: "For you, I'd go write a slick song just to show you the world."  Well, he's certainly done that. He's made another album full of them. — Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press