Madonna, Music (Maverick / Warner Bros.)

Madonna - Music Madonna
Maverick / Warner Bros.
By: Eric G.

She’s already proven that she can wrap herself in (almost) any package and the public will eat it up. Madonna plays the press better than any pop star, actor, or politician. She’s claimed from the beginning that all she’s ever really wanted is respect for her music. Sad story, huh? She knows it would be pointless to try to compete sexually with Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez because she invented the whole game- she has nothing to prove sexually or commercially, so what’s left for her to do but build up some credibility? Granted, it’s not the normal path of a pop star, but Madonna is anything but a normal pop star. Is she truly responsible for her myriad musical reinventions? Is she conniving and clever or just rich and lucky? Does it really matter as long as the tunes are good…?

For her eighth proper album Madonna once again enlists top-notch producers to sculpt her latest stab at uber-hipness in the electronic dance scene into a palpable, commercial force. The kickoff song, which is also the first single and the title track is by far the most musically adventurous thing she’s ever released, taking obvious cues from the French club sounds of outfits like Daft Punk. Her lyrics are typically insipid and ineffectual. My goal with Madonna’s lyrics has always just been to try not to notice them, but when they’re really bad (and high in the mix) it’s hard to turn a blind eye. Does everyone over sixteen know not to rhyme “heart” with “apart” but Madonna? Music, like every Madonna record, is flawed; it’s like the experimental distant cousin to Ray Of Light’s dour electronic sheen, but it drudges up enough hooks, emotion, and deviant fun to pass muster and maybe even rank as one of her best.

After re-establishing herself as the preeminent disco tramp on “Music” (which, after repeated listenings, just might be her best single ever), Madonna delves back into the darker edge that she and William Orbit explored on Ray Of Light. Music has standout songs that are certainly edgier than those on Ray Of Light, but it lacks the latter’s thematic and musical flow. The arsenal of producers gives the record a herky-jerky and random feel much like Madonna’s early records, which had strong hit singles but an equal amount of filler. “Impressive Instant” pulses with an octave-chasing bass line and a retro-techno beat. Mirwais Ahmadzai swarms Madonna with a series of distorted noises, watery bleeps, and syncopated patter. “Runaway Lover” is undeniably infectious. Madonna counters the driving beat with a slightly withdrawn vocal line. Orbit makes it sound like an aggressive Everything But The Girl song.

You know how when you hear Madonna talk she slips in and out of that fake, practiced, “proper” accent? Well, the same thing happens with her singing voice. The years of vocal training ruined her girlish charm (whore-ish charm is more like it), but sometimes she slips out of that awful, forced vibrato, allowing the real Madonna (if there is such a thing anymore) to shine through. Her behind-the-scenes musical masterminds come up with plenty of ways to dilute her vocals, but that, more often than not, ends up sounding cheesy and anachronistic. Take, for example, “Nobody’s Perfect”, which foolishly rehashes Cher’s “Believe”-vocoder technique and proceeds to run it into the ground. At least Cher had the common decency to use it sparingly.

Every misstep on Music is followed by a stroke of genius, though. “Don’t Tell Me” manages to evoke vintage Madonna charm while pushing the experimental envelope. A folky acoustic riff stutters and skips deliberately, catching you off guard until the hip-hop beat kicks in. The faux-strings give it an atmospheric polish. It’s an amazing song- clearly the album’s highlight. “What It Feels Like For A Girl” will not only remind the current crop of teen queens where it all started but also what a proper pop ballad sounds like. Past forty Madonna can still sound like a hurt little girl- even better than the real thing.

“Paradise (Not For Me)” is one of those songs that you just can’t help but notice how bad the lyrics are. It’s an indulgent ramble, wherein Madonna shows her ass lyrically, and, I promise, you don’t want to see it: “I was so blind/I could not see/your paradise is not for me.” The worst part is that Madonna for some reason decides to sing like she’s really, really thirsty and choking for air. The music is kind of eerie and moody and almost salvages Madonna’s ill-advised attempt at melodrama but ends up falling flat. Madonna has never really ended an album well. Remember “Love Makes The Whole World Go Round?” Or how about “Secret Garden?” Me neither. “Gone” is a forgettable ballad with more bad lyrics. Not even laser effects can save it from its open-faced cheesiness.

Music is a mass of cliches, bandwagon-hoppings, and contradictions, but it’s got attitude and an edge and shows that Madonna hasn’t completely put her head in the toilet. Not yet at least. If I ever hear “American Pie” again, though, I might change my mind…

Radiohead, Kid A (Capitol)

Radiohead - Kid A Radiohead
Kid A
By: Eric G.

Kid A challenges the idea that electronic music will never be as emotional as guitar music. Does it succeed? Well, yes and no, but either way it's going to be the blueprint for bands that continue the assimilation of rock and electronics. Take Radiohead's guitars away, and they're still better than everybody else. Thom Yorke expressed recently that he was embarrassed by melody, so he turned to rhythms instead. Unless, he's just being a pretentious hack (and I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he isn't), I can almost understand where he's coming from. I mean, imagine the power of the lens he and his bandmates are under after having created one of the most celebrated albums of all time. How does a band top Ok Computer?

Kid A is going to piss people off- it's standoffish and coolly electronic, but it seizes your senses with a thoroughly modern and engaging sound. Radiohead will be called artsy wankers, for sure, but they shouldn't pay any attention. This is the only answer to an album as imposing and indulgent and beautiful as Ok Computer that makes any sense. The band is set up for a fall no matter what it releases (the result of being a critic's darling), so it's best to be confrontational and confrontational Kid A is. You can count the songs with guitars on one hand. Drums are almost as scarce, and, perhaps, most adventurous is the deconstruction of Thom Yorke's vocals- the band's greatest weapon. His voice is manipulated, reverberated, and diced in so many unorthodox ways that many listeners will be puzzled. It's just another genius move by Radiohead to de-Radiohead itself. And despite the vocal experimentation and what you may have read, there's plenty of singing on Kid A- the band isn’t taking the piss out of fans with some kind of instrumental freakout.

Obviously, Kid A doesn't swell with the sweeping (traditional) emotions that Ok Computer did. How could it? It's a predominantly electronic album for one thing, and it's far more insular for another. There's a commercial shell around a record like Ok Computer now that detaches it from its initial immediacy. I can't hear it the same way I did when I first bought it. I have the same problem with all the records that blew me away when I first heard them. Kid A will soon join that list, but in the meantime, I'll soak up its every nuance until I can't stand it anymore.

Kid A comes out swinging, making no apologies for its bold experimentation and withdrawal from obvious melodies, and I am reminded of the feeling of what it was like to hear Ok Computer for the first time- the feeling that no band sounds quite like this. Kid A is the sound of a band in a creative fury. Radiohead set out to redefine itself and ended up making its bravest statement yet. It seems ironic that the band should embrace technology so freely considering Ok Computer's apprehensive attitude towards the technological revolution and society's dependence upon it.

"Everything In Its Right Place" juxtaposes musical and vocal tension more directly than any song on Ok Computer. The technology grabs you by the throat, and Yorke's voice sounds paranoid yet simultaneously gentle. The climax is overwhelming. Yorke's lyrics may look ambiguous on paper, but his voice gives them new meaning. It is a stunning opener. "Kid A" delves even deeper into electronic experimentation. The melodies may be fleeting, but they are not trivial. The plonking xylophone that opens the song morphs into what sounds like the soundtrack to an autistic child's dreamworld. The song won't hit you in the gut like a "Fake Plastic Trees" or a "No Surprises" would, but it removes you from whatever reality you might inhabit. Typically, when rock bands embrace new tools or styles they sound cliched and out of touch, but Radiohead trumps even the cutting edge of electronic music. Look me in the eye and tell me Aphex Twin ever made you feel this way…

There is no question that Radiohead has a lot of guitar geek fans. The good news is that they will stay away from this album in droves. Good riddance. If I were to see one more loser at a Radiohead show write down Johnny Greenwood's fingering for an inverted A-minor seventh (or whatever) I would surely vomit. Drum machines are any rock and roller's worst enemy, but Radiohead flaunts them proudly, daring the critics to scoff at them. Even those critics/scenesters/cynics who thought that Ok Computer was overrated (who are secretly chomping at the bit to pan Kid A) will be impressed. They'd have to be. Whether they'll admit it is another story. This is an astounding album. When was the last time a rock and roll band threw down its guitars and still outplayed its peers?

From the tragic sway of "How To Disappear Completely" to the ambient drone of "Treefingers" on to the dark descent of "In Limbo" Radiohead indulges a spectrum of moods and styles on Kid A, infusing an apprehensive pall over its jaggedly futuristic surface. "Idioteque" thumps away with a mock disco beat and ominous keyboards while Yorke's achingly beautiful voice pierces through the technological stomp and stammer. I can't even think of a current rock singer that can touch him. Even his slightly whining falsetto in "Morning Bell" raises the hair on your arms. Granted the music does play a huge part, but Thom Yorke possesses one of the most alluring and majestic voices ever to grace a mass-produced album.

Kid A is a bold move for a band with so much at stake. After three years of critical ass-kissing and mounting expectations, Kid A arrives ready to wipe the slate clean. It's like Radiohead overcompensated for being showered with praise and instead of imploding under the weight of its own hype the band pulls off another masterstroke. Some people say Radiohead is lucky. I don't think luck happens four albums in a row. Radiohead has stepped up to the challenge it set for itself with Ok Computer and managed to place the bar even higher- further out of reach of its copycats and clones. Let's see them all try to imitate this.

Soul Junk, 1956 (5 Minute Walk)

Soul Junk - 1956 Soul Junk
5 Minute Walk
By: Eric G.

When Glen Galaxy (a.k.a. Galaxalag) left Truman’s Water to start a band devoted to Jesus I just thought he was going through some kind of drug-induced, post-euphoric haze. Six albums later, I guess it’s safe to say the “born again” thing isn’t a joke. Soul Junk may technically be a “Christian” band, but no Christian band has dared ever cover this much musical ground (the Danielson Famile included). Soul Junk started off reciting Bible verse in lieu of writing its own lyrics, which seemed charming when set against its early, weird indie pop but quickly wore thin and grating on some of its full lengths. Wisely, the band abandoned that technique in favor of Galaxy’s stream-of-consciousness, Jesus-loves-me wordplay.

Soul Junk seemingly reinvents itself with every release, drawing comparisons to obvious influences as disparate as Sebadoh and John Coltrane. On 1956 the band takes on rap. That would be commercial suicide for just about any other indie rock band I can think of, but Soul Junk just shines. I must admit I’ve never heard anyone even attempt Christian rap before, but Soul Junk silences the cynics and shreds any doubt about its abilities on this phenomenal album. Galaxy may be white, but he can out-rap the cream of the hip-hop crop. I’m not kidding either. His MC skills are something to behold. Fuck Eminem. No matter how tough he talks he’s always going to sound like a prepubescent pussy-boy. Glen Galaxy should be on MTV teaching teens how it’s really done.

Check out these rhymes from “Ill-M-I”: “float like the Cassius/swing like the Clay/one day I’m’ma make the whole world pay/with K.O.’s and O.K.’s we bash clots in dot dash/got that right I’m’ma rock the Morse Code tonight.” Where’s Jesus, you say? Right here: “got succulent flavor- the uprisen savior, manifestin’ thru these mics &/blastin out your graveyard, savor every bite Glaxalag gave you, turn & tell your neighbor/this ball of dirt is going into labor.” Word. The whole song floats over a violin sample with thick, heady bass lines cracking underneath. I’d be surprised if the band doesn’t manage to convert even the most jaded of the indie rock elite with these slashing beats and rhymes.

Soul Junk sounds like Beck on Ritalin on songs like “How We Flow.” Horns crash the electronic beat-fest and banjos, rumpled sound effects, and booming bass waves make way for Galaxy’s stellar MC-ing. I’m embarrassed by how long I sat on this disc before listening to it. More amazing rhymes that demand attention: “& why is it you mannequins got no idea what’s happening/rock em all robotic cuz they more or less inanimate/inadequate to deal with all this funk within my cabinet/’s why I serve my shots in sipper cups & warn all y’all ‘bout slammin it” (“How We Flow”). Awesome. It’s aggressive and catchy without being corny, and Galaxy never fails to slip in a few clever digs at non-believers.

1956 explores more than just hip-hop, of course. Soul Junk, also like Beck, puts everything it’s ever experienced in a blender and simply watches the show. The band is beyond eccentric. The energy and utter randomness is overwhelming upon first listen. “Sarpody1” is just solid songwriting, though. It’s an acoustic-based ballad (kind of), recalling J Mascis in his heyday with its detached tension and dark undercurrent. Electronic samples sneak into the mix, and, before you realize it, the song is swarming with noises, which just makes Galaxy sing louder. “3PO Soul” kicks things back into silly hip-hop mode. It sounds like Ween after 100 whip-its and a free day in the studio, complete with vocal effects and exaggerated inflections.

Just when you think you’ve got a handle on Soul Junk’s bag of tricks, it busts out with a totally unexpected retro-garage rocker like “Judah.” Galaxy delivers his evangelical lyrics like a brash young punk bitching about the man. This album is unstoppable. Its unpredictability is its greatest weapon. Soul Junk has pulled itself out of middling indie rock obscurity with 1956. Take a chance on it. You won’t be disappointed.

Chris Knox, Beat (Thirsty Ear)

Chris Knox - Beat Chris Knox
Thirsty Ear
By: John McFadden

Chris Knox is an anomaly. While that may be easy to say for most artists whose career spans decades but barely leaves a blip on the radar screen- for Chris Knox it’s warranted. His prolific output on New Zealand’s legendary Flying Nun label rivals that of Guided By Voices and Orange Cake Mix. From his punk band, The Enemy, in the late 70’s, to the new wave pop of Toy Love in the 80’s, to his many solo albums and Tall Dwarfs collaborations in the 90’s, Knox has been a busy boy and seems to be enjoying himself along the way. How else can you explain a 20-plus-year career, toiling in near obscurity?

Beat is Knox’s 11th solo record (including a few compilations), but that hardly matters. What does matter is that Knox is up to his old tricks- like a worldly bum with a huge rose boasting from his beat-up dinner jacket, skimming his way through pop ditties with witty lyrics and manic melodies. Beat starts off with a toy piano-drum machine driven pop song called “It’s Love”, which manages to get away with using the least amount of words to qualify for a song. While that song wouldn’t win any 500-word essay contests, the next song “The Man In The Crowd” would. But just as Beat starts to morph into a folky rant, “My Only Friend” stops the show with a stunningly beautiful ballad, which shows Knox has matured quite a bit from the charming yet inept ballad “Think Small” from his ‘91 Tall Dwarfs offering, “Fork Songs.”

It’s Knox’s singing, though, that marks the most obvious improvement from his previous lo-fi outings. With grace, he croons his way through these 13 songs like a disheveled brat pack ladies’ man. Even on peppy, horn-laden pop hits like “The Hell Of It”, Knox handles his duties with the greatest of ease, finally, arriving as the complete artist: a singer, an entertainer, and a wonderful songwriter. I’m sure Knox is probably sick to death about being the Kiwi version of Robyn Hitchcock, but with Beat, he, at least, is offering us something appealing in the year 2000. Beat reads like a good book by someone who may be dreaming of different things than the rest of us, but who has the charm and approach to keep your attention for 45 minutes, which is more I can say for most artists. He got the beat, yes.

The Jealous Sound, S/T (Better Looking Records)

The Jealous Sound - S/T The Jealous Sound
Better Looking Records
By: Eric G.

Unfortunately, The Jealous Sound lets all the air out of its tires before it tries to ride anywhere. I’m so sick of fey posturing in so-called “punk” music. Is it to get laid? Is it to get on MTV? What’s the fucking deal? This is abysmal dribble. The Jealous Sound litters its debut EP with that whispered vocal technique that ruined Jawbreaker’s awful, final album. Keyboards are thrown in because, hey, keyboards are hip these days. It doesn’t matter whether the songs need keyboards or not, apparently.

There’s neither tension nor humor in this music. I can’t find a single reason to keep listening. It’s certainly not energetic as each song trudges along at a mind-numbing, mid-tempo pace. “What’s Wrong Is Everywhere” tries to rock out, but ends up sounding like Space Hog with its multi-tracked vocals and tinker-toy guitar lines. One of these songs is bound to end up on a Dawson’s Creek episode. Blair Shehan (ex-Knapsack) en-unc-i-ates everything like he’s miming in a video or has something obtrusive in his rectum.

“Priceless” is the type of nonsense that gives emo its derisive connotations. Angst-ridden, cliched lyrics drag this mopey slop into the dregs of utter mediocrity. It’s offensive that this will be aligned with punk in any way. And it just keeps getting worse. “Bitter Strings” is almost as cloying as that Semisonic song that I cannot bear to quote for you. “Quiet Life” is now forcing me to throw this disc out of the window. Good God, I hope somebody beats the shit out of this Blair Shehan guy, if for no other reason than to give him something real to sing about.

Guyana Punch Line, Irritainment For The Masses 7inch (X-mist)

Guyana Punch Line - Irritainment For The Masses 7inch Guyana Punch Line
Irritainment For The Masses 7inch
By: Eric G.

Guyana Punch Line follows up its brutal debut LP, Maximum Smashism, with this jarring 7" on Germany's X-Mist label. The band continues to balance a searing wall of noise with snatches of melody, thanks to former Antischism guitarist Kevin Byrd. Chris Bickel's (Ex-In/Humanity) vocals beat through the cacophony with an agitated and frenetic shriek. Most rhythm sections lead the direction of the music, but Byrd's guitar clearly surges ahead while the drums and bass try to keep the pace. The result is a rigid onslaught of furious guitar crunches and taut rhythms that are the physical equivalent of pounding your head on a curb.

Despite the ever-present sarcasm and harsh humor, Bickel's lyrics are caustic, taking on the fake, the shallow, and the two-faced. On "Political P.I.G." Bickel berates an unsuspecting enemy: "they may turn a blind eye/but I can't turn more than two/you're so transparent/who can't see right through?/you're so liberated/political P.I.G." "Speak Softly" confronts shifting world powers with Bickel's relentless reproach: "a new hand holds the big stick/speak softly and you won't get hit." His delivery is hurried and unmerciful. The lyric sheet is required, for sure, but there's no question as to his sincerity regardless of the actual words.

Musically, the greatest leap for the band is "Speak Softly." Underneath all the chaos, I do believe, are actual hooks. They may be bathed in brutality, but they are hooks all the same. The opening guitar riff sounds almost hopeful until the hi-hat count into the hard core fury led by Bickel's tireless ranting. "Turn You A Blind Eye" is the harshest song by far on this 7". The rage fades into a melodic bass lead only to erupt into another ferocious storm. The electronic snippets that close the songs, hopefully, hint at some new toys for the future. Hard core punk needs some new blood in its system, and Guyana Punch Line is tapping its veins.

Dennis Lyxzen: Interview, The Voice Of The (international) Noise Conspiracy And Ex-refused Frontman Dennis Lyxzen Talks Music, Politics, And Revolution (Burning Heart / Epitaph)

Dennis Lyxzen: Interview - The Voice Of The (international) Noise Conspiracy And Ex-refused Frontman Dennis Lyxzen Talks Music, Politics, And Revolution Dennis Lyxzen: Interview
The Voice Of The (international) Noise Conspiracy And Ex-refused Frontman Dennis Lyxzen Talks Music, Politics, And Revolution
Burning Heart / Epitaph
By: Eric G.

Drawer B:
With Refused your lyrics packed as much punch as your delivery, but with The (International) Noise Conspiracy you have to refine your bark into a prettier package given the more traditional structure of the music. That said- do you find The (International) Noise Conspiracy to be as potent a political outlet as Refused was?

Dennis Lyzxen:
I think that the Conspiracy is a far more potent and radical manifestation than Refused ever was. There is a certain preconceived notion about what a political band should be like, sound like, and look like, which makes the boundaries for this type of expression very limited. I think that with The Conspiracy we are playing on other emotions than with Refused, more to the point and focused, but also more entertaining and passionate. WE are also trying to inscribe into the project the idea that music is actually irrelevant and the only thing that matters, if we are speaking of a political context, is what you can do with it. WE see The Conspiracy as a project not limited to stupid youth cultures but more a project directed towards everyone that likes music and politics. Political change has nothing to do with the suits that we all are wearing.

Drawer B:
Do audiences respond to/act on your message whether they agree with it or not? Or, do they just enjoy the music and forget the point? Or do they even give a shit at all?

Dennis Lyxzen:
The important thing to ask ourselves is what else can we do and how can we best talk about political issues and not really be concerned with how people react. Some people dance, some people get pissed off, and some people get really exited, but the important thing is that no one leaves a show missing what we are all about.

Drawer B:
What is it that you hope to accomplish by inciting political upheaval in the underground/punk community?

Dennis Lyxzen:
Nothing. Punk is not really important, but a change on a wider scale is what matters. Revolution has nothing to do with life/stylistic ideas, but it should be based on there actually being people out there. So, the question is then, why play punk rock music? ‘Cause that is what we know and that is where we come from, but we are not content within the small world of petty politics and rules for freedom. We will play to anyone that likes us or anyone that we think deserves it.

TO limit yourself to one scene won’t bring about anything. But, there is also a plan to get people to realize that none of this matters (zines, records, or shows) without education, organization, and direction.

Drawer B:
It’s tricky peddling socialist and anarchistic propaganda in a medium that is as inherently capitalist as rock and roll. How do you justify being in a band that clearly has a product to sell and markets said product with live performances and videos?

Dennis Lyxzen:
Everything is up for sale and there is absolutely no way to avoid the capital, so we are trying to use the means that we have in front of us to destroy what is in front of us…

We see no real difference between working for a record label or a factory or a grocery store. We are all workers slaving away to the man.

Drawer B:
In the liner notes to Survival Sickness you undermine the effects of performing live or even recording your own ideas by saying that the true art is in creating the ideas not documenting them. Are you just playing devil’s advocate, or do you truly believe that recorded music and live concerts are stifling and stale?

Dennis Lyxzen:
Well, our whole critique was that nothing is creative after it has been created. Sure there is something nice about seeing a band play, but it has nothing to do with the creative process. Also we have to see that the emotions that we as a band are giving to the audience are used emotions that people pay to take part in. Instead of living these emotions themselves, they buy them from performers; thus, adding to the division and the myth of the creative artist and the consuming crowd. Still, if we would fully believe that we could achieve nothing with music we would do like the Situationists and stop producing art. Instead we think of it all in a very pragmatic way: we have an idea, we have a vehicle….

Drawer B:
Obviously, success was a not a big motivation for Refused, considering the fact that the band broke up on the verge of its most successful album. Do you regret not exploiting that attention more for political pursuits?

Dennis Lyxzen:

Drawer B:
The Shape Of Punk To Come sure didn’t sound like a band that had run out of steam or ideas. How could a record that powerful have a band that “wasn’t into it anymore” behind it?

Dennis Lyxzen:
That was the whole thing- the album is good because it is a band on the verge of implosion. We were all into different shit, and we managed to keep it together for that record but after that… we knew it was a dead end…

Drawer B:
You’ve mentioned in interviews before that a lot of bands are content to regurgitate other people’s ideas and then fail to push things any further. Are there any current bands that do just the opposite and push the envelope in your estimation?

Dennis Lyxzen:
Not really. There are people out there creating great stuff but nothing that really blows my mind.

Drawer B:
The (International) Noise Conspiracy’s music is steeped in 1960’s garage punk and whacked out soul. How are you pushing the envelope compared the complacency of other punk bands? Can the music itself inspire revolution, or is it all up to the lyrics?

Dennis Lyxzen:
Emma Goldman said: “if I can’t dance to it, it is not my revolution.” And The Conspiracy is a band that is all about soul and dancing and passion, and we think that any revolution without those feelings will be miserable, so if we get people to dance then we get people to live for just a short moment. That is why we play music that is happier and more positive than most punk stuff out there…. Then again we never claimed originality…