MDNA Madonna (Interscope)
"MDNA" finds Madonna once again in charge and apparently motivated, producing her best album since "Ray of Light" in 1998, an album that balanced introspection and pop dazzle in collaboration with U.K. electronic artist William Orbit. Not coincidentally, Orbit returns for the first time in a decade to play a key role on the new album.
Orbit splits most of the production with Italian DJ Marco "Benny" Benassi and French techno maven Martin Solveig. Benassi and Solveig focus on the dance floor, and they service the machine while recycling Madonna-isms from decades past.
Benassi's "Girl Gone Wild" starts with a confession: "I detest all my sins/ I want so badly to be good." The singer was flirting with the naughty Catholic girl imagery in the '80s, and she doesn't take it anywhere new here, unless the vocoder-soaked vocals count as progress. The disappointing Solveig-produced single "Give Me All Your Luvin' " turns on a silly cheerleader-style chorus (Toni Basil got there first, 30 years ago), and brief cameos from Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. "Every record sounds the same/you got to step into my world," Madonna sings, without giving us a single compelling reason why.
The Madonna-by-numbers up-tempo romps ("Addicted," "Turn up the Radio") dominate the first half of the album, but she excels on the Orbit tracks. "Gang Bang" is a slice of Tarantino-like Grind House spectacle, with Madonna as an abused lover-turned-avenger. The ominous, minimalist soundscape, flavored by whipcracks and screeching tires, makes for top-tier club drama.
Like few Madonna albums in the last decade, the album has an emotional center, informed by the latest upheaval in her personal life. In 1998 for "Ray of Light," it was the birth of her first child that colored that album's more open tone. On "MDNA," it's the dissolution of her marriage to director Guy Ritchie.
"Falling Free" ends the album on a bereft note. "We're both free to go," Madonna sings. Unlike anything in her catalog, it's a woozy, almost psychedelic slice of chamber pop. At points, Madonna sounds like she's channeling the '60s Brit-folk ballads of Sandy Denny or Anne Briggs. It's a contemplative wind-up to an album that starts in the disco and finishes at home, in solitude.
-- GREG KOT, Chicago Tribune
THE MUSIC INSIDE: A COLLABORATION DEDICATED TO WAYLON JENNINGS, VOL. 2 Various Artists (Scatter Records)
This is the second in a three-disc series paying homage to the late Waylon Jennings. As with last year's release, a broad assortment of music industry veterans and newbies try their hands at 11 numbers originally done by Jennings. For about 40 minutes, they offer up their versions of the sort of country music that Jennings fashioned out of rock and blues.
The result is a mixed bag of slightly better quality than last year's first tribute. While there have been numerous albums of cover versions of Jennings' hits, this project has the blessings and some input of his widow, Jess Colter, and son, Shooter Jennings, both singers of modest abilities.
A few of these songs rise to the level of decent, but still suffer a bit in comparison with the originals. Jennings' mostly mediocre stuff rarely elevated itself from the mundane as a result of his narrow range and forgettable vocal talent, but his songs seemed fresh at the time. If anything, the better numbers here get a slight boost from the vocal talents and improved instrumental work applied to them.
These songs, however, remain unexciting with arrangements similar to Jennings' originals, raising the question: Why bother?
Notable artists include Dierks Bentley on "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean;" Hank Williams, Jr., on "Waymore's Blues," and Montgomery Gentry on "Good Ol' Boys." Colter sings a barely passable version of "Mama." Highlights are Pat Green's lively take on "Rainy Day Woman" and Jewel's impassioned "Dreaming My Dreams with You."
-- KEN ROSENBAUM
REDEMPTED SINNERS The Americanos (Rocker Shop)
The test for whether Americana and roots music works should be whether it feels -- and sounds -- a little dusty. There should be a patina of dirt and sweat that comes out of the speakers and wafts around the room, sprinkling a little authenticity on the listening experience.
The debut album by Toledo band The Americanos passes the test, thanks to some excellent playing and harmonies by leader AJ Szozda, bass player Steve Knurek, guitarist and vocal arranger Mick Mason, and the jack-of-all-trades instrumental work of Tom Goodwin.
"Redempted Sinner" feels like a group of excellent musicians jamming on a back porch, loose and tight at the same time, delivering songs that don't require any amplification or fussy production. Country, blues, singer/songwriter confessionals, and jazz suffuse the arrangements, echoing John Hiatt, Bob Dylan, and acoustic Grateful Dead.
The Americanos stretch out instrumentally on a number of the songs, launching into acoustic jams that occasionally extend a bit too long. But those excursions are complemented by some fine melodies on tracks such as "Nashville Rose" and "Everyone Keeps Asking Me," a pair of excellent, soulful country laments that deserve a home on someone's radio station.
Here's hoping there's a second Americanos album in the near future.
-- ROD LOCKWOOD