Madonna Hard Candy (Warner Bros.)
Most embarrassing album cover of the year? It may only be spring, but Hard Candy’s up-front image of Madge flashing her leather-clad crotch and opening her lips like the inflatable co-star of Lars and the Real Girl will be tough to beat – and that’s not the only error in judgment she makes here. But she’s a smarter, more formidable artist than her critics generally care to admit, and by bringing her well-honed instincts to bear, she manages to turn out an intermittently enjoyable disc.
Madonna’s eagerness to share the spotlight works to her disadvantage – a rare sign of insecurity on her part. “4 Minutes,” the lead single, features way too much Timbaland, whose production work on the album suggests that he’s spreading himself too thin. (Exception: His agreeably off-kilter efforts on the alluring “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You.”) And if Justin Timberlake’s presence on that song and “Dance 2Night” isn’t quite as intrusive, neither does it add much bang beyond the commercial type. Ditto that for Kanye West’s rap on “Beat Goes On”; it feels casually tossed off, which diminishes Madonna even more.
The Neptunes’ productions are better all-around. “Candy Shop” sports a synth line compelling enough to momentarily distract from the song’s conceptual lameness, and “Give It 2 Me,” “She’s Not Me” and “Spanish Lesson” compare favorably to her more memorable late-period offerings. Just as important, the decision to focus on body music, with lyrics to match, as opposed to spiritual questing, overseas adoptions or any other yadda-yadda makes even the sillier stuff easier to accept.
With the exception of the cover, that is. -- Michael Roberts
The Replacements Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash Stink Hootenanny Let It Be (Twin/Tone/Ryko/Rhino)
During the ‘80s, the Replacements’ development mirrored singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg’s artistic growth, for better or worse. In the beginning, his songs were funny and raucous but a bit samey and unsophisticated. Then, as Westerberg became more ambitious, the albums struck a brilliant balance between the old, balls-out style and a less jokey, more revealing approach. But the scales eventually tipped too far in the latter direction, robbing the group’s last couple platters of the glorious rawness that had been a big part of the group’s appeal from the beginning.
Fortunately, the first four discs in Rhino’s enhanced reissue series represent the first two periods, when Westerberg and mates Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars were positively overflowing with youthful energy. Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, from 1981, includes a few hints of Westerberg’s nascent sensitivity – notably the last of the bonus tracks, “If Only You Were Lonely,” an acoustic ramble (albeit with a vomiting reference) that served as the b-side of the combo’s first vinyl single, the terrific “I’m in Trouble.” For the most part, though, it’s blues-rockin’ proto-hardcore – plenty entertaining, sure, but with less nutritional value than a lot of what followed. Stink, a 1982 EP, follows pretty much the same pattern, but it’s still mighty enjoyable thanks to ditties like a Howlin’ Wolf-meets-Iggy opus dubbed “White and Lazy” and 91 seconds of mayhem called “Dope Smokin Moron.” Hootenanny, a 1983 full-length, represents the next step, with more typical airs like the title track and the hard-driving “Run It” sitting alongside more emotional widescreen efforts such as “Color Me Impressed,” “Within Your Reach,” which still works despite the use of a mondo-retro drum machine, and the countrified lament “Treatment Bound.” Yet the topper is 1984’s Let It Be, arguably the group’s finest album – although the following year’s Tim is so close in quality to make declaring a winner unnecessary. The rockers are just as potent as ever (“Gary’s Got a Boner” earns one penis up), but there are also great mid-tempo cuts like “I Will Dare,” effective weepers such as the genuinely moving “Unsatisfied,” and, believe it or not, an excellent cover of Kiss’ “Black Diamond.”
Presumably, the rest of the Replacements catalogue will be on the way before long, and there are certainly some prizes among it, as well as a couple of disappointments that prefigured Westerberg’s less than thrilling solo releases. In the meantime, enjoy the immaturity and semi-maturity in advance of the excessive maturity that followed. -- Roberts
Dead Meadow Old Growth (Matador)
Aficionados of stoner rock will find a lot to like about the latest from Washington, D.C.’s Dead Meadow, but perhaps not a lot to love.
All the elements for a trippy classic are present on Old Growth. Jason Simon’s vocals are appropriately cloudy and he hits all the right notes on his guitar – and the rhythm section of bassist Steve Kille and drummer Stephen McCarty travel at an appropriately sludgy pace. Somehow, though, the tunes only occasionally advance from good to better than that. The lack of production effects has something to do with it; for a recording that aspires to psychedelia, the sound is awfully dry. However, the performers’ lack of intensity is even more troublesome. Despite the genre’s laconic nature, the tunes tend to flag if musicians don’t bring a powerful focus to their playing. Yet Simon and company are more laid back than necessary on deliberate numbers such as “Down Here,” and even rockers like “Till Kingdom Come” tend to lag far too often.
There’s no telling if the men of Dead Meadow smoked one joint too few or one too many while cutting Old Growth. Whatever the case, they didn’t quite hit the sweet spot. -- Roberts
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Various artists Soul Messages From Dimona (Numero Group)
Over the past year or so, the Numero Group has come up with several extremely eccentric compilations – among them The ABCs of Kid Soul: Home Schooled, which gathered together tracks from obscure bands that unsuccessfully aspired to be the next Jackson 5. The label’s latest, Soul Messages From Dimona, turns out to be just as weird yet equally satisfying.
According to the liner notes, a handful of music makers from Chicago and Detroit relocated to Dimona, Israel in the mid-‘70s, producing recordings that mingled American soul, R&B and jazz with nods to the Black Hebrew culture, and the evidence they left behind proves compelling. The Soul Messengers get most of the spotlight time, beginning with “Burn Devil Burn,” which includes guitars that alternately offer fuzztone and chicken scratching, Afropop rhythms, horn blasts from the id, and massed vocals that suggest the Polyphonic Spree covering Earth, Wind and Fire, followed immediately by “Our Lord and Savior,” which pivots on a melody borrowed from, of all things, Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” But there’s also the creamy groover “Hey There” by Sons of the Kingdom, Tonistics’ “Dimona (Spiritual Capitol of the World),” which comes across as an echo-laden public-service announcement, and the Spirit of Israel’s “Daniel,” a reggaefied ode that traces the line between Jerusalem and Jamaica.
Peculiar? Yep – in a way that’s as inveterately funky as it is wholly holy. -- Roberts