Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

Madonna -- Confessions on a Dance Floor
Warner Brothers; 2005

Before Ashlee, before Kelly, before Christina or Britney, there was the Material Girl. Becoming the queen of pop by deftly ignoring rules about content, context and sound, Madonna firmly planted herself as an icon of American pop music. And though her kung-fu grip on that sacred title has held strong for 20 years, the very performers she's inspired have started to make attempts on her thrown. Her last album, American Life, did little to fend them off, barely even making a blip on pop radio’s radar. A little scared about her own relevancy and unsatisfied with the already substantial impact she's had on music, Madge has put up her dukes on her latest record, Confessions on a Dance Floor. No one will fill her boots without a fight.

If blood is going to be spilled in the battle for pop queen-dom, it'll be on a dance floor. More of a clubbing soundtrack than a collection of Madonna's been up to musically, Confessions is ballad-free and constantly in motion. Its tracks are seamlessly blended together so the fun, in theory, never has to stop. Long in form and often repetitive, the tracks on Confessions come together more like a house DJ's set than 12 independent songs. An album as cohesive as this is hardly for the faint of heart or those lacking stamina.

That being said, Confessions contains some incredible ass-movers. Noted producer Stuart Price is largely responsible, as he co-wrote (read: he wrote, Madge co-signed) the majority of the record. The album starts with the galloping "Hung Up," the massive first single. Built around an ABBA sample, the dark and pulsating disco-house aesthetic is as much 1979 as 2005. The Mirwais-penned "Future Lovers" is burbling and subtly ferocious, and also one of Madonna's best dance songs. It's guaranteed to get boys and girls sweaty, but only if they can ignore the breathy babbling that haunts the first minute and a half. "Jump," "I Love New York" and "Forbidden Love" are all likewise excellent, uplifting and smile-inducing. Of course, Madonna's vocal work is flawless (thanks, Auto-tune!) and full of her bubbly personality.

Only a small handful of tracks fail to meet Madge-level expectations. "How High" is greatly nuanced, but strikes the ear in a hardly-tuneful way. "Isaac" does a poor job of balancing Eastern flair and Western pop sensibilities. While props are due for the effort, it's not nearly strong enough to be included on Confessions. The undulating "Push" is also a misstep, sounding like a Gwen Stefani castoff.

What keeps the delectable portions of Confessions from overshadowing the gristle are the lyrics. Although the Material Woman (let's be real here) has never been a pop Shakespeare, it's unusual that her words are such a stumbling block. The worst offender is "I Love New York," a track that's otherwise fiyah. Only two years after penning the U.S.-deriding album American Life, here's Madge trying to cozy up to her homebois in NYC. She also sings awfully juvenile lines like "Other places make me feel like a dork" and "If you don't like my attitude / Then you can F off / Just go to Texas / Isn't that where they golf?" Who let Madonna's kids have so much input? The overtly Kabbalah-influenced "Isaac" is like an awkward commercial for the celebrity-filled religion. Some songs like "Get Together" and "Push" say almost nothing worth listening to, bilking content for ignorability. Madonna’s past lyrics used to be as much a part of her as the music. Now it feels like she’s on auto-pilot, coasting her way through songwriting.

As a grab at the reins of relevancy, Confessions on a Dance Floor manages to hold on, but the grip is rather loose. Madonna's time left wearing the pop queen tiara is running out, and Confessions merely slows the process. As an album, Confessions is entertaining and will keep rumps shaking, but not among Madonna's best. Her reign has been incredible, genre-defining and an inspiration to many. As long as she acknowledges that and bows out gracefully, that’s how she'll be forever remembered.

Hometown Heroes To Whom?

We've all heard the stories about celebrities who think they're better than everyone else. The sense of accomplishment that comes with defeating the overwhelming odds against "making it" can be like a bicycle pump, inflating the ego with each further achievement. Not to say the famous are bad people for letting this happen, especially when we ourselves haven't a clue what we'd be like with a little fame. Nonetheless, it's always the hope that successful people will remember their less glamorous upbringings when dealing with us plebeians.

Mudvayne sprung from the loins of the Peoria area in 1996. The group toiled in town, gigging and doing all the things that a local band should. One bassist and four years later, the band released its major label debut, L.D. 50, which was lightly embraced by metal fans. The band's sound was part chug-metal, part technical riffing and a whole bunch of screaming about depression, mental anguish and everyone who’d ever wronged them.

Mudvayne scored its first single with "Dig" and received some radio love. Since then, it's made a bigger splash in the metal scene, playing the first stage of Ozzfest and the "Summer Sanitarium" tour with Metallica and Linkin Park. The group has also released three more albums, including its latest, Lost and Found. The band made its biggest impact this year with "Happy?," the second single from the same album. The song is a vitriolic retort to detractors and enemies, but maintains a highly radio-friendly vibe. In fact, it's Mudvayne's most accessible single yet, as it all but eschews screaming and technical skill for utter blandness. It's a shocker coming from Mudvayne, considering the group's past and the rest of the record. But "Happy?" has done wonders for the group, whose album sold more than 150,000 copies in the first week. One would imagine that yes, they are happy.

"We're the band that everybody wants to be," said Ryan Martinie, Mudvayne's bassist. "We do what we want to do, when we want to and how we want to." Martinie said he is acutely aware of how lucky he and his bandmates are. What's missing is humility. Coming from a city that's not exactly a hotbed for creative minds (Richard Pryor notwithstanding), it seems reasonable to think the band's members may still remember what it's like to be one of us. One conversation with Martinie and you'll find he's forgotten.

Martinie speaks as if being in a popular-yet-musically-uninteresting band affords him the right to be stuck up and dismissive of influences. His interest in his hometown is minimal at most.

"Coming from Peoria really didn't affect us all that much," he said. Martinie said he thought the band's development and growth was typical of most other locations. It seems curious that Peoria didn't play a major part in shaping its dark, aggressive sound. Martinie didn't even know when the group would be playing in Peoria next. "I don't really care about dates," he said, only moments after disclosing when the band would be in Kansas City. "You can find that out on the Web site," he suggested. Sure, that information is available online, but it would be germane to know when your highly-hyped homecoming show will take place.

What brings out arrogance in Martinie also brings out defensiveness: the suggestion that the members of Mudvayne try to draw attention to the group. It wasn't until last summer that the band put away its claim-to-fame make-up and costumes. Members also simultaneously ditched their goofy pseudo-names – Martinie used to go by Ryknow and R-uD. Why would the band do any of these things unless it wanted people to notice?

"or people to think, 'this is the new Mudvayne,' or 'Mudvayne is trying to reinvent themselves,' I think that's an oversight. I think that's been fueled by the media," Martinie said. What exactly does that overlook? In terms of appearances, the band’s members have made extensive changes -- changes that can easily be construed as attempts to both be taken seriously and to draw eyeballs in Mudvayne's direction. Try as Martinie might to blame the media for people’s interest in the band’s appearances, Mudvayne drew the attention to itself and loved every minute of it.

Another change that has garnered Mudvayne attention is its willingness to write rock radio-friendly material. While most of the songs on Lost and Found aren't exactly something you'll find soccer moms buying their kids, "Happy?" certainly is. It's three minutes and 37 seconds of mindless mush that fits well between Nickelback and Disturbed, but not among Mudvayne's back catalog. Perhaps the group was tired of waiting for fame to come to it.

"I think that's assumptive and narrow [to say]," Martinie said. "If people are familiar with the band, they would hear songs that have a lot of melody and different arrangements." But the proof is in the pudding. No other song from Mudvayne's repertoire has been as appealing to rock radio's palate or has sold as many records for the group. "If you have some idea that you're going to please the public with a way of writing a song, I think you’re going to miss the point altogether," he said. And maybe they have, too.

Between trying to defend its single, Mudvayne's image-consciousness or its lyrics -- check out the cliche "screw the media" rant in "TV Radio" to hear Mudvayne ask listeners to turn off the media that advances the group -- fame has made the band a mess. With hard work, members worked their way through the chutes and ladders of the music industry. And through Mudvayne's success, the group's members have taken on a holier-than-thou mindset, denying any credit to their hometown and their tricks of the trade.

"Maybe we take ourselves too seriously," Martinie said. Considering he thinks enough of himself to brag about his lack of television-viewing or to refuse to disclose his Halloween costume, it seems fair to agree with him. Mudvayne has become a commercial success and one of the new stars of radio metal, but it's resulted in swollen egos and a detachment from the truth for the band.

Test Icicles -- For Screening Purposes Only
Domino; 2005

How do you feel about your eardrums? Would you prefer them battered and raw from breakdowns and shrieks, or lovingly kissed by melodic butterflies? How do you feel about referential transparency? Would you rather bands pay obvious homage to their influences, or are you a fan of subtle acknowledgment?

"Well hey! What's the deal with all these unnerving questions?"

Hold tight, Cochise. When dealing with a band like Test Icicles, one has to be careful. Packaged as the latest and greatest spew from the U.K., it's easy to let down your guard and buy into the baffling hype gushing from fad-loving music blogs.Test Icicles is a difficult band to listen to. Each of its three members have their feet deeply entrenched in different genres, making for a jagged cut-and-paste compilation of everything they can get their hands on. These young dudes are proud of this, too; it's evident in their arrogant delivery and spelled out on Domino's (the band’s label) Web site.

Their sound starts as Blood Brothers worship -- discordant and screamy with noses upturned. Dual guitar lines crash against each other like pissed-off swarms of bees. Despondent yelps, howls, squeals and other forms of vocal shreddage launch apocalyptic lyrics at a discomforting regularity. It seems like a fairly standard take on nu-screamo until the second track of For Screening Purposes Only.

All of a sudden, there's a silly melody akin to The Unicorns or Single Frame. Later tracks channel the hateful aesthetics of The Locust, the bratty-yet-morose nihilism of Public Image Limited, the dance steps of The Faint and Liars, the noise fascination of Sonic Youth, the horror love of The Misfits, industrial bombast from Big Black and the art school desires of Talking Heads. It may be a wicked mess, but the album does manage to cram all of the trio's touchstones into their tunes.

And yet, it's not enough to musically namedrop whatever occupies the band's record collection. The members of Test Icicles act more like mother birds than musicians, hurling up whatever they've ingested into our ears without ever absorbing a drop. There are no lessons learned with very little to add, just imitation.

There are two factors that will keep Screening Purposes from being released straight into the discount bin. One, Test Icicles chose a decent set of bands from which to cull its ideas. If nothing else, it might get kids to pick up something like P.I.L.'s Metal Box instead of whatever unfortunately-named band Pitchfork had decided to endorse that week. More importantly, Test Icicles manages to create a few great moments instead of fully satisfying songs. "Pull the Lever" and "Boa vs. Python" both have endearing choruses for audiences to shout along with. Moments like the ripping guitar line here ("Circle Square Triangle," "Dancing on Pegs") and fine vocal part there ("Maintain the Focus") keep listeners wondering what they're holding back.

Unless you're looking for a beating, it's hard to walk away from For Screening Purposes Only without feeling ripped off. Test Icicles offers a few scraps of shiny creativity crusted over with "fuck the Man" attitude almost as a taunt -- a jab at those who don't want to sift through their garbage. Until these young turks get over their already-bloated egos and put out something at least less derivative, theirs is not a trashcan worth digging in.

I Got Love For

ATOM 0.3

Establish Contact:

Last posts


Add to your Kinja digest