Attack of the 5-foot-something ’80s Women
Confessions on a Dance Floor
Here’s a pop quiz about a pop icon: do you remember what 5-foot-4 Madonna’s last number one album was? Thought not. Don’t worry – most people wouldn’t have guessed it. It was American Life, released in 2003, which debuted in the pole position its first week on the Billboard album chart. Within weeks, the album and its Top 40 title track evaporated faster than the mere thought of a Frankie Goes To Hollywood reunion.
Well, relax – don’t do it. Don’t give up on Madge just yet. She’s back. She will make you say “damn” over and over again. She wants you to dance.
The problem with the American Life album stemmed mainly from Madonna force-feeding us rap and religion in almost every song. We’ve already heard her do the religious shtick. And, yeah, I enjoyed the title track of American Life and thought the rap was kinda cool. But not in almost every song on the album! It was more than I, and apparently many fans, could bear.
Confessions succeeds heavily where American Life failed miserably. This is a no-nonsense, non-stop exercise in what Madonna does best – making great dance music. Long before the album was released, I got a quick listen to the album’s first single (and opening track), “Hung Up.” From the moment I heard the sample of ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” I knew Madonna had moved on from the misstep that was American Life and was getting interesting again – brilliantly incorporating an ABBA song that wasn’t even a hit here in the U.S.
More than that – Madonna found her footing again. You’ll hear that as you move your way through Confessions – and I mean move. Check out “Get Together,” the Giorgio Moroder-influenced “Future Lovers,” the fun tribute of “I Love New York,”the Pet Shop Boys-esque “Forbidden Love” and the (already controversial) Kabbalah-flavored six-minute epic “Isaac,” featuring guest vocalist Yitzhak Sinwani from Yemen. The special edition of the CD (released earlier this week) also includes the fantastic should-have-been-on-the-original-album track, “Fighting Spirit.”
Co-produced and co-written mainly with Stuart Price (the musical director for Madonna’s last two tours), Confessions is not as brilliant as her 1998 masterpieceRay of Light, nor was it meant to be. I like to think of it as a comeback record. The 47-year-old’s tenth studio album, Confessions has already topped the charts in at least 34 different countries.
Years ago, my knowledge of 5-foot-3 Kate Bush consisted of seven words: “Running Up That Hill” and “Don’t Give Up” (her duet with Peter Gabriel). Soon it grew to “Wuthering Heights,” “This Woman’s Work,” “Love And Anger” and “Eat The Music.” Then I moved to Portland in the mid-’90s, and my dear friend Kim Sailor introduced me to all things Kate, songs like “Babooshka,” “Experiment IV,” “Army Dreamers” and “Suspended In Gaffa.” Bush’s 1985 album Hounds of Love remains as one of my all-time favorites.
So, naturally, when I found out she was releasing her first album in 12 years, this year’s Aerial, I was extremely excited.
Then I listened to it.
The first song of this two-disc concept album, “King of the Mountain,” is a decent Kate Bush song and a good choice for the first single. It’s just not what I expected after a 12-year wait. Proceeding through the seven-song first disc, titled A Sea of Honey, I couldn’t find anything remotely interesting about the songs here. After several listens to tracks like “Bertie,” “Mrs. Bartolozzi,” “How To Be Invisible” and “Joanni,” they still sound uninspired. I don’t hear any of the passion of her previous albums. The last song on this disc, “A Coral Room,” is a lovely piano piece that, for a short time, echoes “Hello Earth” (from Hounds of Love). But at this point, you’re already halfway through Aerial.
Disc two, titled A Sky of Honey, has nine songs, starting with the earthy 86-second “Prelude,” and leading into the string-flavored “Prologue.” From here, the next four songs drag along at the pace of the first disc, sadly. “Somewhere In Between” picks things up a bit, ends up being one of Aerial‘s better efforts. The eight-and-a-half minute epic “Nocturn” seems about four-and-a-half minutes too long, but the nearly eight-minute, guitar-driven title track finishes the album nicely.
Don’t misunderstand me – this is not a bad album. It’s been highly regarded by many music critics around the world. But, as an avid Kate Bush fan, I was disappointed. Her previous full-length, 1993’s The Red Shoes, wasn’t a great album either, but it’s better than this one. Perhaps if Bush had concentrated on just one album instead of a double-disc set, the “honey” in Aerial would taste a lot sweeter.
At 52, the 5-foot-3 Cyndi Lauper may have a few years on Kate and Madonna, but musically, she’s right on top of her game. Releasing the second album of her second contract with Epic Records, and with the help of many folks — from Jeff Beck to Shaggy to Puffy Ami Yumi to Sarah McLachlan – Lauper covers some familiar territory in unfamiliar ways.
This all-acoustic album opens with her hit “Money Changes Everything,” featuring guest Adam Lazzara (of Taking Back Sunday). It’s a pleasant alt-folk version of a song by someone you wouldn’t think could put together anything folky. But that’s the beauty of Cyndi Lauper. Since her heyday in the early to mid-’80s, she has been underappreciated in the music industry, but not by many of its stars, as the numerous guests on this album attest. On the next song, the Jules Shear-penned “All Through The Night,” Shaggy adds a reggae touch to another alt-folk update of a Lauper classic.
The album continues with one of the most covered songs ever, “Time After Time,” which Lauper co-wrote with Rob Hyman of The Hooters (who also appears on the album). This duet with Sarah McLachlan is moving. It sounds like they have sung together for years. The album’s fourth track, an acoustic update of Cyndi’s masterful song about masturbation, “She Bop,” is, well, a lovely, intimate version. You’ll enjoy it.
“Above the Clouds,” which features the guitar stylings of Jeff Beck, is one of two new offerings on The Body Acoustic. This song shows once again how Lauper’s vocals keep improving with each album. The other new tune, “I’ll Be Your River,” features a fine performance by guest vocalist Vivian Green (a former backup singer for Jill Scott).
“Sisters of Avalon” (featuring Green and Ani DiFranco) stands out as one of this album’s strongest tracks, but those of you who know the song as the title track of Lauper’s brilliant 1996 release already know how strong a composition this is. “Shine” may be a little-known number (it was self-released in 2002 before Lauper re-signed with Epic), but the inspirational lyrics speak for itself: “Shine/I’ll stand by you/Don’t try and push me away/’cause I’m just gonna stay/You can shine/I won’t deny you/And don’t be afraid/it’ll all be OK.”
The Body Acoustic‘s version of “True Colors” (one of Cyndi’s most-celebrated songs) closely resembles the original, but with a lovely string arrangement that really improves on the 1986 version. “Water’s Edge,” another song from the 2002 Shine EP, is one of Lauper’s strongest vocal efforts to date, accompanied by McLachlan on piano and backing vocals. “Fearless” (from Sisters of Avalon), with Lauper playing the dulcimer, is one of her best live songs, and here it’s absolutely beautiful.
The album closes out with a fun, ska-flavored version of the immortal anthem “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” featuring Puffy Ami Yumi (of Cartoon Network fame). It’s a joyous (albeit brief) end to a truly fine album.
— Ron Raymond Jr.