Wednesday, September 2, 2015

My Amazon Reviews: Madness “Divine Madness”

Madness is all in the Mind
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Madness madness never quite caught on in the US, despite the success of "Our House." having a huge base overseas fueled the band for decades, with trippy hit after hit. "Divine Madness" catches the singles in all their glory. There are quite a few compilations of Madness out there, but this one is the keeper.

Yes, it does have "Our House," and the classic introduction of the band in "One Step Beyond," but also the goofy coming of age songs "House Of Fun" and "Baggy Trousers." There are the unique ska-ish instrumentals like " The Return of the Los Palmas 7" and "Night Boat To Cairo." But there's something else in the method that happened with the band. Lurking under the pop veneer is often a somber note. Even the big hit "Our House" has a caveat in the chorus; "something tells me that you've got to get away from it." Not all was goofy in Madness' world.

As the band soldiered on, so did the world view. "Tomorrow's Just Another Day" was so melancholy in its tone that Elvis Costello slowed it down for a remake that wound up darker than the original. The rebuke of "Embarrassment" wouldn't have been out of place on a Costello album. But the exuberance always shines through. When it came time to do a cover song as single, they chose "It Must Be Love," British singer Labi Siffre's 1972 hit. (It was also the band's second and last single to crack the American Top 40, creaking up to a #33 peak.) It's a cheery declaration of devotion, and maybe the lease 'mad' song here.

Working through the band's catalog chronologically helps, too, as the band had two distinct periods. There was the manic early days and then a mature period that left the ska behind and concentrated more on pop. "Our House" is probably the divining point, because what follows is less frantic and more measured. You have "Michael Caine," featuring a cameo from the man himself. Describing the onlooker's desire to get close to an idol, it's also about disappointment. The lounge like sounding "Yesterday's Men" postulates getting older, and "(Waiting For The) Ghost Train" contemplates death and what comes next.

But all that is part of the complete band package. Those early singles still carry a manic punch, while the later days are more layered in their approach. If there was any other complete Madness, I don't know of it. "Divine Madness" packs it all in with a 22 song salute.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

My Amazon Reviews: Foo Fighters “Sonic Highways”

Headed On The Highway
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Doing a studio tour of various cities, (Chicago, Austin, Nashville, Los Angeles, Seattle, New Orleans, Washington, DC and New York) with the idea of catching the vibe of each studio seems like a cool concept. Hauling in guests from each location would also seem like a way to make each track sound distinctive (Joe Walsh, Gary Clark Jr, Zac Brown among others). It's also a tie-in to the HBO (and now BluRay) series of the same name. But there's something a little awry with the concept. The songs all have the same vibe. The Foos may have been sucking it all in while making "Sonic Highways," but the listener doesn't get to share that experience.

There are moments when you get some of the action, like when the Preservation Hall Jazz Band contributes their sound to "In The Clear" (recorded in New Orleans). But they are pretty much buried in the mix, so you just get a minor variation to the basic Foo Fighters' sound. Joe Walsh has a cool solo in "Outside," but it doesn't burn in your mind that it's Walsh. Same for Zac Brown's vocals on "Congregation" (recorded in Nashville). If you want to hear a real Brown Collaboration, dig his work with Soundgarden's Chris Cornell on "Heavy Is The Head" from Brown's own "Jekyll and Hide." The lone exception is Clark's solo in "What Did I Do? / God As My Witness" (recorded in Austin). It's the one guest star who really leaves an impression.

And that kind of sums up the experiments. What you're left with is a pretty good Foo Fighters album. The songs still roar like they should ("The Feast and The Famine" and "Congregation"). They even try a little sonic soul with "I Am A River," "Sonic Highways" climax (which splits the difference, strings recorded in Los Angeles, the meat of the song in NYC). If you weren't aware of the concept of the album, you'd probably just regard it as the Foo Fighters doing what they do best. That's probably all you really need to know about "Sonic Highways"'s Dave Grohl and the men in their element.


Monday, August 24, 2015

My Amazon Reviews: Muse “Drones”

Gonna Make You, Gonna Break You.
4 Out Of 5 Stars

In all heir pompous glory, Muse are old fashioned prog-rock band, with the fat trimmed off and aspirations toward the big statement. With "Drones," that landed a live one. "Drones" is allegedly about the dehumanizing of men and the militarization of the world. Y'know, you're a drones, we fight with drones and don't you make me one. Packed with big guitars, flourishing keyboards and Queenly harmonies, it's just what a Muse fan would be looking for, The concept gets a little wavy at times, but it's all good music.

The best songs are where the band stretches out, like "Pyscho" or the sprawling "Aftermath," a 10-minute epic that starts with an Ennio Morricone whistle, plays into a Pink Floyd vibe before finally tearing into some muscular metal. And that's before Matt Bellamy even sings a note, which he does over another flourish of piano. It's not like Muse has not tread this turf before, there was the two-pronged title track to "The Second Law" and the three part "Exogenesis" off "The Resistance." Just this time, they crammed it all into one song and rock it into submission. Same for the album opener, "Dead Inside," which throbs like Queen's "We Will Rock You."

I'm all for bands making sloppy concept albums. Done well, the concept often takes a back seat to the songs (like "Drones") or overwhelms and makes the album fly along one big trajectory (think of the classic Jethro Tull album, "Thick as a Brick"). Either way, you'll get more bang for your buck, and Muse are such a great band that "Drones" is a big deal of fun, without the overwhelm. It's as much a concept album as a return to form. Top notch stuff.