Irie. For those uninitiated -- and there are a few -- the Mad Professor is the George Clinton of Jamaican sound. For well over 20 years, he has written, produced, recorded, mixed, remixed and otherwise had a hand in many British and transplanted Jamaican rapping/reggae/dancehall hits in the islands and in Europe. When the Prof. heard Macka B's rap, he thought they should collaborate, and here it is. This disc is a superior mixture of the older, cooler, hipper, reggae beat sound with some rhythmic updates; it most definitely has the real deal feel. Macka B's "rap" is very, very powerful and full of the kind of social/political/cultural commentary that we hear from the very best. It has the awareness of the issues, presented in a thoughtful but not heavy-handed manner, and much of it is done with a wry humor that offsets the seriousness of the content. There is more "singing" here than I expected, and it's good, too, Class A stuff all the way. If you're going to add one CD to your collection to represent the new sound of reggae, it should be this one. (BW)
(Beatville Records -- P.O. Box 42462, Washington, DC. 20015; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.beatville.com/)
GHV2: Greatest Hits Volume 2
Nobody ever said Madonna was stupid. Shallow, perhaps. Washed up, a bunch of times. Manipulative, certainly. But it is her very calculation that nettled those who would tag her as a bimbo and release her back into her natural habitat. The damn woman wouldn't go away, and even those who couldn't stomach her reluctantly admitted that she was, if nothing else, a shrewd businesswoman. The fact that she was able to stick around long enough to keep finding new buttons to push was evidence enough of that.
GHV2 is our reward for letting her play us for the second consecutive decade, and despite the bosom-centric photo on the reverse (trés Exile in Guyville, yes, but Liz never would have gotten there first if Madonna hadn't started the race), the CD plays like the veil of misdirection lifting to reveal...um, very possibly the best singles artist of the 1990s mainstream. To complain that GHV2 consists solely of previously-released material (albeit in mostly non-album mixes and edits), unbaited by new or unreleased recordings as per the industry standard, is, quite frankly, to miss the point entirely. Madonna being Madonna, a compilation of her best and brightest demands not simply a reevaluation of her oeuvre but a recontextualization. Entering into a full semiotic analysis of the songs, the lyrics, the sequencing, even the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of photographs from all stages of her career (including years outside the bailiwick of the album) that fill up the packaging, would require a dissertation; just dealing with the song titles alone could take up a chapter.
Smart cookie that she is, Ms. C. throws the first pitch, providing the liner notes with a comical essay by her husband's associate Dan Cadan, who goes out of his way to intentionally misinterpret the songs (you know, I'm pretty sure that "Deeper and Deeper" is not about a gay miner). Having been denied a straightforward recapitulation of Madonna's '90s (though the essay's fairly informative in its way), the stage is cleared of all debris, both relevant and not, and the story she has to tell on GHV2 unfolds in more-or-less chronological sequencing. In true Madonna fashion, the only context worth a damn is her own solipsistic self.
And so it is only now, four paragraphs in, that I get to the music itself, so clearly is the public image inextricable from the performer. If the question throughout the '80s was what her next role was going to be (slut? CEO ice queen? Catholic-school lunch lady?), she must have realized as the '90s loomed that she was running out of ways to shock us, and so she latched onto the only thing she hadn't really tried: singer. On GHV2, you can hear her voice, always the weakest weapon in her arsenal, finally shedding the girliness in which she wrapped herself throughout the 1980s and maturing into a richer, more handsome instrument. The protective babydoll sheen makes its last stand in "Human Nature," which is like a belated final chapter to Madonna's first decade; it's telling that the most effective lines are the apologia whispers that seem funneled straight into our earholes and not the lyrics proper.
What's also clear throughout GHV2 is that if Madonna has never herself been an innovator, her strength has always lain in being an early adopter and effective enterpreneuse, whose acknowledgement and acceptance of her limitations is implicit in her judicious choice of material and, most of all, collaborators. Babyface's "Take A Bow" is the closest thing to a misstep here, as it sounds more like him than her, but conventional wisdom at the time suggested that she needed a hit, and by God, he gave her one, well before his tinkly-chandelier style became a time-bound cliché (which is precisely why it's the closest thing to a misstep here). Mirwais's cuts, meanwhile, fairly teem with gimmickry; it gets in the way of the song during "Don't Tell Me," but it's invaluable to "Music," where it becomes the song simply by virtue of there being nothing else there. The best in Ms. C. is brought out by Shep Pettibone and William Orbit, and GHV2 admits as much: they're the only producers, aside from Mirwais, who show up more than once (Orbit's tracks alone account for fully one third of the disc). Pettibone provides thrumping disco and sex with a beat; when Madonna sings, "I'll give you love, I'll hit you like a truck / I'll give you love, I'll teach you how to..." in "Erotica," her failure to hit that oh-so-expected rhyme isn't coyness so much as a decision on her part to dispense with the talk and just do it. For his part, Orbit takes the blips and wibbles of electronica into a pop arena that didn't know it needed them, so that even the Ace of Base groove that fuels "The Power of Goodbye" provides ample buoyancy, while "Frozen" anticipates the advent of Dido by exactly one year.
So does that mean that you should cling to copies of Ray of Light and Erotica and call it a day? No, you ingrate; there's that pesky context issue again, and trapped inside separate jewel boxes, Maddy's songs not only can't communicate with each other, but also face contamination from the rest of the decade's pop (and anti-pop) music. Collected in one spot, however, the singles form a sort of running dialogue whose very subject is pop (and anti-pop) music, which is to say Madonna, with an added subtext of the disappointment inherent in success (which is to say Madonna again). Music's wildly undervalued "What It Feels Like For A Girl" serves as both a celebration and a reprimand, while "Drowned World/Substitute For Love" laments the sacrifices made for what she now knows is immaterial. Heard back to back in a sequence that generates ten of the most intense and sheerly pleasurable minutes of pop music committed to disc, the two songs jointly confront the contradictions between image and desire, want and need, surface and substance. These are themes that repeatedly surface on GHV2; she does what she knows she shouldn't ("Human Nature," "Deeper and Deeper" and lucky Austin Powers refugee "Beautiful Stranger," which glows in sympathetic company), is punished for things beyond her control ("Don't Tell Me") and finds dissatisfaction when she gets what she wants ("The Power of Goodbye").
These themes find their fullest expression, and are most tightly intertwined, in GHV2's lone selection from Evita. The icky, Oscar-winning "You Must Love Me" is mercifully absent, perhaps because it is clearly redundant, and Madonna will not stand for redundancy. Its title taken as a command, not a revelation, "You Must Love Me" is instead utterly usurped by "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," which threatens to consume Madonna's entire catalog over the course of its 4 minutes and 50 seconds. Despite an arrangement and melody that practically begs Anni-Frid and Agnetha to leap in and ask Fernando if he can hear the drums, it slowly reveals itself as the pivot around which the entire second decade of Madonna's career spins. The linchpin song from a bad but perversely well-regarded musical, it unambiguously begs for respectability on so many levels (including the purely literal one) that it makes one woozy; in her inclusion of the song and in the lyrics themselves (which could have been tailor-made for her, just as Evita is the perfect allegory for her career), Madonna manipulates us into loving her while pretending to grovel. It is a spectacular performance. Given the calculation, ambition and -- God, yes -- talent of the woman giving it, a woman who is constantly attacked for purposeful actions predicated on an obviously keen intelligence, it couldn't not be.
With the exception of "Bedtime Story," which immediately follows it (possibly to stave off any doubts, possibly acting as a honeymoon romp), everything before "Don't Cry" concerns (or, if you're so inclined, is) sex, while everything after deals with love and empowerment. This is, I would dare say, the grand plan of Ms. C. In essence, GHV2 is a document of Madonna's perfect domestication. It's as though, having spent the '80s seducing us and demonstrating her prowess as a provider of cheap kicks, she has slowly tipped her hand throughout the '90s to reveal what an ideal lover/friend/mate she really is. We wake up one morning and realize (as she knew all along) that she is The One, familiar enough to be comfortable with and surprising enough to keep things interesting. We cannot imagine life going on without her, and this, over all else, is her art. All hail the once and, yes, future Queen of Pop, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone Penn Ritchie. Long may she reign. (MH)
(Maverick/Warner Bros. -- http://www.warnerbrosrecords.com/; Madonna -- http://www.madonna.com/madonna/)
Malkum & Chris
In one of those lame guitar magazines I remember devouring in my tender high school years, I recall the great Muddy Waters making the very un-PC but brutally honest assessment that "the white man can't vocalize like the black man," or something similar, and with the arguable exception of Spencer Davis-era Steve Winwood, I really have yet to hear him disproved. If anything, inveterate journeymen Malkum & Chris uphold this unfortunate maxim on their album, Walk On, with regrettable consistency. That may well be the problem for me with albums like this: it's not that white vocalists lack "soul" per se, it's just that they sound silly trying to imitate the vocal inflections and mannerisms of the black musicians who pioneered the blues form. Unfortunately, it's hard to avoid, and the determined duo fall prey to this problem more than a few times on this disc.
Still, the song selection is pretty good, including such rock solid blues standards as "Staggerlee" (one of the high points on the album), "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "Same Thing," "It Hurts Me Too," and the perfect vehicle for the instrumentation, the Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry stalwart "Key to the Highway," while the musicianship the two demonstrate on their respective instruments (Malkum plays harmonicas, Chris acoustic guitar) betrays their many decades on the road and in recording sessions, falling short of "inspired" but far surpassing "merely competent." The real key to enjoying this album lies in a deep appreciation of folk blues, and an understanding (possibly deduced from the somewhat giggle-inducing image of the two "getting down" on the album cover) of what this album really is: two old road veterans having fun playing the music they love most, their way. (CE)
(Buckatoon Records -- 9161 US Hwy 22 & 3, Clarksville, OH. 45113; Malkum & Chris -- http://www.malkumandchris.com/)
Maxime de la Rochefoucauld with Automates Ki
Collection Somnambule (music for sleepwalkers)
I reviewed the last album by Rochefoucauld and Automates Ki (more on that in a minute) without even knowing what the artist's name was. It was just something that I picked up and fell in love with. Because of that positive review, I imagine, we were sent a copy of the new CD -- the circle of life, as it were.
So, all the info that I didn't know last time: Maxime de la Rochefoucauld is the creator/programmer/operator of Automates Ki. (Actually, I think his real name is Maxime Rioux, but I'm confused enough as it is.) According to the "warning" on the back of the inventively designed case, Automates Ki are "mechanized acoustic sculptures animated by inaudible frequencies." Basically, imagine a bunch of mechanical sculptures designed to produce sound acting as if possessed, with an element left entirely to chance. Rochefoucauld adds to this accompanying instruments on various tracks, including accordion, organ, sax, strings, and so on.
The result is music that's based around repetitive sounds but constantly shifts. The words "trance-inducing" may be overused, but they certainly come to mind. I imagine the effect is much greater live, and I can't imagine that I'll ever need ten CDs of this, but if you have yet to discover this music and you're a fan of things that have antecedents in contemporary percussion music, ambient music, and experimental, I strongly suggest you begin paying attention here. (DD)
(Disques PoutPout -- 5432 Casgrain, MontrČal, QC. H2T 1X2, CANADA; Maxime de la Rochefoucauld with Automates Ki -- http://homepage.mac.com/automateski/)
At first I questioned what I was listening to; I didn't quite get it. Mëstar plays distorted power pop/grunge, with catchy lyrics that don't really make sense. However, their songs are just too repetitive to keep you interested throughout this six-song EP.
I'm not saying this CD is terrible. In fact, I really liked "turtle control" and "funny."; it's just that as a whole, this CD really is not that impressive. The first song is on the borderline of being way too repetitive, although if you don't like the music, you'll at least have fun reading the lyrics -- I don't think I've ever heard as many made-up words in songs as I have on this CD.
But hey, you've got to give them credit. They're from New Zealand and they're getting their music over here to the States. They have another album out, which is a full length -- maybe that one's more interesting? (TC)
(Arclife Records -- 135 High St., Dunedin, NEW ZEALAND; http://coffee.co.nz/arclife/; Mëstar -- http://mestar.digitalrice.com/)
The synthesis of varying musical traditions in an organic way is a difficult matter; for every band that makes it work (like, say, The Pogues with trad Irish music and rock), there's dozens that litter the landscape as failed experiments. Many would fail with less ambitious experiments than those found on this Mice Parade album, which pulls from everything from Brazilian music to gamelan to Gastr del Sol (at least, to my ears). That it works so well, and so organically, is a tribute to the Parade (which is, for all practical purposes, percussionist Adam Pierce). I think it comes down to two things: first, the strong rhythm orientation of all of the tracks, and second, the development of these rhythms in a compositional manner, so that they don't feel purposeless. (I'm told that there's an earlier Mice Parade record that doesn't work quite as well, so skeptics of said previous records would do well to check out this new one.) Highly recommended for any fans of percussive instrumental music. (DD)
(Bubble Core Records -- 133 W. 25th St. #8E, New York, NY. 10001; http://www.bubblecore.com/)
Spanish downbeat alt-country! Feel free to use that as a pull quote, but Migala's in a sort of interesting position of being in a genre of one. Their music bears some markers of popular purveyors of US country-tinged miserablism (think Smog, Red House Painters, Silver Jews), but also contains many Spanish-sounding influences. Being that they're from Spain and all, I guess that shouldn't be too surprising, although it's often depressing how willing artists in foreign countries are to conform to American norms. And, too, there's some other things going on here, like the quietly noisy end of "Fortune's Show of Our Last" and the car crash sounds on "Our Times of Disaster," as well as some of the creepy synth sounds that kick in and out, that point in yet another direction. Words like atmospheric, moody, entrancing can be used, and some tracks (like "Primer Tren de la Manana") even achieve an intensity uncommon amongst many of Migala's arguable contemporaries -- perhaps moving towards somebody like Nick Cave? The music makes me fumble around describing it, but it all makes sense together. (DD)
(Sub Pop Records -- 2514 Fourth Ave., Seattle, WA. 98121; http://www.subpop.com/; Migala -- http://www.migala.net/)
This features somebody from Rites of Spring? For Want Of, by that band, is one of the greatest songs ever released on Dischord Records, period, so I was intrigued. However, this album has virtually nothing to do with that -- it's tepid acoustic guitar with PowerBook backing and some vaguely pleasant vocals. Now, people grow, adapt, change, and so on, yes. But were it not for the pedigree, this CD would have been completely ignored. It's not so much that it's awful, but that it's completely inoffensive. I even tried to pawn it off on another reviewer after I realized what I had on my hands -- believe it or not, I don't like giving bad reviews -- and he gave it back to me. Two out of two SCR reviewers agree: save your money. (DD)
(Jade Tree Records -- 2310 Kennwynn Rd., Wilmington, DE. 19810; email@example.com; http://www.jadetree.com/)
Sort of like the B-52s crossed with Gary Numan, maybe? With just enough distorted guitar to confuse people into thinking it's somehow punk rock. Trust me: it's not, except in the "punk rock is things that annoy people" definition. This was incredibly painful to me. I wound up giving it away. Can I make myself clearer? I doubt it. (DD)
(Jade Tree Records -- 2310 Kennwynn Rd., Wilmington, DE. 19810; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.jadetree.com/; Milemarker -- http://www.milemarker.org/)
Sometimes you start following this band, but the band in your head is different from the band as it is, and it takes a while for you to figure it out. Take Mogwai: in my head, they were a noise-mongering group of Scots, converging the best of Slint and My Bloody Valentine into a single crushing force. Their last album, Come On Die Young, was much more meandering and much less aggressive than I recalled, but with a new album called Rock Action (complete with fewer songs and a much shorter running time), I was ready to have my ass handed to me with a pure rock assault.
I'm still waiting. And I know it's not going to happen. After trying this record five times, I went back to Ten Rapid (their first singles comp, largely responsible for my impression), and realized that it's my problem. Sure, that record has some rock tracks, but it also contains numerous slow, atmospheric numbers. Over time, it appears that Mogwai has almost entirely shed the rock side of themselves -- if anything, Rock Action reminds me of a cross of some wacky '60s psychedelic folk group and Godspeed, You Black Emperor! (for whom Mogwai admit a fondness) -- there's all sorts of wacky instrumentation over these eight tracks, not to mention the random electronic noises one would almost necessarily expect. There's even synthesized vocals. Who says that 2001 is the future?
So what does one say about a record that is good -- probably very good -- but is ultimately frustrating to listen to because of one's ludicrously inappropriate expectations? I guess, this: don't go in expecting a rock record, and you'll likely be very satisfied. (I mean, assuming you like that whole post-space-non rock thing in the first place. If not, avoid this like the plague.) (DD)
(Matador Records -- 625 Broadway, 12th Floor, New York, NY. 10012; http://www.matadorrecords.com/; Mogwai -- http://www.abandcalledmogwai.com/)
My Father My King
Touted as a "companion" to their 2001 release Rock Action, Mogwai's EP release My Father My King follows a trajectory all too familiar in the "post-rock" (whatever that means) subgenre: start quiet, with a droning minimalist riff played by a lonely guitar, then build and build, adding layer after layer, never losing the riff, until the whole thing piles up like a great big juggernaut, only to have it sucked away suddenly, starting back where it began...rinse, wash, repeat, for about twenty minutes. This isn't to say that this release doesn't satisfy; if that's what you want, that's what you're going to get, and Mogwai do it very well. And honestly, that second, longer swell is pretty satisfying when played very loudly, with the shrieking guitar feedback and the wall of noise that builds up, while the comedown is an extended workout of guitar noises, crackles, and hisses that gives proper respect to Sonic Youth's passion for all forms of odd guitar-related sounds. This is exactly the sort of thing you expect when you get a single-track, EP-length release from a band like Mogwai, and while it's not really bad or boring or anything, there's loads of this stuff out there like this, so consequently My Father My King ends up sounding like just one more, a potential purchase for the staunch Mogwai fans and people who want something like Godspeed You Black Emperor!, but with less subtlety and drama, and more big guitars. (CE)
(Matador Records -- 625 Broadway, 12th Floor, New York, NY. 10012; http://www.matadorrecords.com/; Mogwai -- http://www.abandcalledmogwai.com/)
Mongrel: "A cross between different breeds, groups, or varieties, especially a mixture that is or appears to be incongruous."
After listening to Lucy Mongrel, I was left wondering what the hell just happened. I sat breathing a sigh of relief when it was over...until I was faced with the frightening truth that it wasn't just yet -- track 14 just keeps going, and going and going.
There's no summarizing this CD. I'm quite sure choosing the word "Mongrel" was purposeful -- in fact, a visit to the Website http://www.lucymongrel.com/ confirms it. I'd be sure to emphasize the "incongruous" in the definition.
There are talented musicians involved -- I can hear them in the background on tracks like number six, "Quicksand Passion," where the guitar and other instruments make a groovy song -- take the vocals away, and it's a pleasure.
I will admit, tracks three ("Five Years Ago") and six caused some unexpected chair dancing. And, on track eight ("Next Time You Wake Up"), at least, the vocals and the music fit together. As a judge on Iron Chef might say, "they match well." Track eleven ("Papa Legba") also has some success coming together as a musical creation, with its Johnny Clegg-style African sounds.
However, there are far too many styles going on, with nothing tying any of the parts together. Some notes from my listening experience: Cyndi Lauper-esque; Saturday Night Live Skit (now that it's funny again); banjo with fun pluckin'; Medieval meets Scottish Highlands; Fleetwood Mac-style gowns; lyrics wore on my nerves -- if she says "call it..." again, I'm going to scream; sounds like Raising Arizona's soundtrack; an African sound; a bunch of drunk cowgirls singin' at a dingy bar; I'm waiting for this CD to be over; grass skirts and slowly waving arms; Ricki Lee Jones, anyone?; should be lip-synched by an enormously fat man; and, finally, for track fourteen ("Freedom"), Ill share my notes in their entirety:
"Sting? Lenny Kravitz?
Pretension has arrived.
Maybe it's just the words, "freedom" and "sacrifice" that make it seem so trite. No. It's the whole damned thing. "Ooo! Look! I'm artsy!"
I suppose if I was high, this would be fun to listen to. But, then again, what isn't if you're high?
Please make this stop." (HS)
(Lucy Mongrel -- http://www.lucymongrel.com/)
I had to get this CD because of Monster Movie's lineage: Christian Savill, one half of Monster Movie, used to play guitar with the sublime and sorely missed British shoegazer band Slowdive. Their trajectory from standard dream-pop to unbelievable heights of modernist ambient ethereal constructions is a tough act to follow, so Monster Movie can't be faulted for sidestepping that issue. Although their music, apart from the Spectrum-like instrumental track, "Rovaniemi," is of a more traditional song-based dream-pop bent, that certainly should not be viewed as a fault when the results are worth writing home about, as they are in this case. The songs convey a bittersweet sense of reality, with melancholic verses and yearning choruses overlayed with ethereal sonic devices conveying the possibility of transcendence. I'm looking forward to their full-length record. (CP)
(Clairecords -- P.O. Box 161372, Sacramento, CA. 95816; http://www.clairecords.com/; Monster Movie -- http://www.monster-movie.com/)
Mouse on Mars
I first heard the music of the German duo Mouse on Mars when their first full-length Too Pure release, Vulvaland, made it to the States. An innovative ambient techno album, it sounds much better to my ears now than it did back then, back before I had gotten past my aversion to techno beats. As a result of that bias, I haven't paid too much attention to their activities since then, but apparently they've been releasing album after album of compelling electronic music, culminating with their most recent release, Idiology. In no way can their music still be described as ambient -- there is a lot of sound going on, at all times, on these recordings.
However, unlike certain of their American counterparts, the result is highly listenable and enjoyable, rather than a masochistic exercise in attempting to digest a noxious flavor of the month. A keen sense of playfulness makes many tracks buoyant and bouncey; this playfulness is especially evident on the full-on opener, "Actionist Respoke," which manages to throw a chopped up distorto voice an unexpected pop hook. Besides the usually inventive electronic weirdo sounds, there is a refreshing amount of actual real acoustic instrument sounds seamlessly integrated into the whole. Some very odd singing can even be found on certain tracks, courtesy of the group's drummer. Having said all that, sometimes one gets exhausted from the onslaught of off-kilter, chopped-up, distorted weirdness, but a few extra listens usually cures most cases of queasiness. (CP)
(Thrill Jockey Records -- P.O. Box 08038, Chicago, IL. 60608; http://www.thrilljockey.com/; Mouse on Mars -- http://www.mouseonmars.com/)
Down for Days
Oh man, who doesn't love ska-pop radio friendly hits? Not me. I do love it... Ska-pop gets a bad rap from some quarters, but who the hell cares? It's hard to write this stuff and still sound original and entertaining. Munkafust are (is?) down wid it, happenin', entertaining, and powerful. This well-recorded CD is like a tasty stew -- sometimes you think you can hear influences and spices, and just about when you get it, it changes. Maybe it's just me, but I heard Spin Doctors influences in the guitar riffs and tones. I bet they had to pare down the songs for the CD, but the live show must kick some serious butt. Oh yeah, see 'em live and get the real flavor of this stuff. This is about the coolest "cover art" I've seen in quite a while. Excellent package in its design, graphics and presentation. First-rate all the way. I found the recording nearly first rate; it was a bit too compressed for my liking and lacked the kind of dynamics I would like to hear from this kind of music, but that's certainly not the band's fault. Otherwise, a great effort. See 'em and I bet the show will make you a Munkafustian(?). (BW)
(Pinch Hit Records -- 4001 Pacific Coast Highway, Torrance, CA. 90505; http://www.pinchhit.com/; Munkafust -- http://www.munkafust.com/)