What The World Needs Now...Big Deal Recording Artists Perform
The Songs of Burt Bacharach
NO DOUBT THIS is only the first of several paeans that will honor Big Burt, fueled by the same straddling of kitsch/solid writing that produced a similar Carpenters' tribute several years back. It's a good sign that late-'90s bands like Shonen Knife and Wondermints reverently interpret Bacharach's impressive output. Could be that, thanks to the lounge music scene, we'll never again have to dismiss hardcore writers of previous eras due to the originals sounding dated and cornball. Splitsville's version of "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" is the highlight of this disc, for slickly interjecting "video killed the radio star" into the tune's outro à la Sting's "I want my MTV" on Dire Straits' "Money For Nothing." The reference perfectly explains Bacharach's demise as rock music filtered out the balladry of the previous generation. Bound to be one of the most interesting albums that will come out this year.
Ray of Light
BY NEARLY ALL critical accounts, Ray of Light--Madonna's first album of new material since 1994's Bedtime Stories, and her first since becoming a mother--is her richest, most accomplished record yet. And with some qualifications, I'd have to concur. While Ray of Light is being tagged as Madonna's big leap into electronica, it's important to note two things: First, her music has always had close ties to dance culture; and second, collaborator William Orbit is no Chemical Brother. Though it has all the latest blips, bleeps and crackles electronica has to offer, Ray of Light is still largely an adult album, and completely within the realm of Madonna. Still, Orbit's tasteful sound constructions provide Madonna with her most adventurous--and hippest--musical backdrop ever. And what's more, the arrangements and production are understated enough to highlight an even bigger development: Fresh from singing lessons on the Evita set, Madonna's voice has never been stronger. But larger pipes don't necessarily make for deeper, truer music.
Never a master lyricist, Madonna's words have worked best when they're practically slogans ("Vogue," "Express Yourself").
This time she stumbles toward more emotional depth, and even tries her hand at ethno-techno mysticism ("Shanti/Ashtangi"). The tone of songs like "Nothing Really Matters"--a smug "look how wise I am now" testimonial--is a self-centered pat on the back that belies her claim of newfound altruism. It's enough to make you wonder if, now that Madonna's given up being our material girl, maybe she's set her sights on becoming the center of our spiritual world, too.
Still Wanna Be Black
PROBABLY NO MUSIC form other than Albanian bluegrass gets any less attention than hardcore rhythm and blues. Lewis doesn't even rate a paragraph in the soul encyclopedias, but he damn sure should, if for no other reason than having written hits for ZZ Hill, Bobby Blue Bland and Bobby Womack. Lewis' spoken rants convey a cadence stolen from the pulpit, proving that the non-blues half of rhythm and blues music is unquestionably gospel music. While his stuff isn't as gritty as Memphis R&B (this material was recorded on the West Coast), it's still funkier than anything Motown ever churned out. Many thanks to Ace Records in England for reissuing hot stuff like this. Natch, no one stateside considered it important enough to stick back in the racks. You'll be glad the Brits did.
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