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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

It’s best not to look at Madonna’s career in terms of actual music, but as one long and often successful battle against obsolescence. And it’s truly remarkable how long she has been waging this war. There was the Sex book of 1992, the pairing up with electronica whiz William Orbit in ‘98—hell, even the Britney smooch of 2003 succeeded in keeping her on the collective pop radar.

Those examples show that Madonna typically wages this battle in one of two ways: She either pushes the boundaries of sexual titillation (this goes back to her floor-humping “Like a Virgin” performance at the inaugural MTV awards in 1984), or she pads out her identity with a fringe hip phenomenon (Kabbalah, voguing, the aforementioned Orbit). And what a genius move to ward off derision regarding her Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction by having Iggy Pop and the Stooges perform “Burning Up” and “Ray of Light” at the ceremony. (Your moment of zen: Justin Timberlake in the front row, bopping his head and trying to act into it.)

But the Parises and Britneys have pushed Madonna’s sexual-titillation approach beyond the envelope’s outer edge, in effect neutralizing it. (What did Wallace Stevens write? “That generation’s dream, aviled/In the mud, in Monday’s dirty light.”) It’s strange then to see Madonna on the cover of Hard Candy in scanty S&M gear (yawwwn), surrounded by garish pinks. As to the album: It’s simply another Timbaland (abetted by protégé Danjahandz) and Neptunes album with yet another woman singer plugged into the equation. The former crafts the best track here: the lead single “4 Minutes,” a snappy, horn-flecked romp through dance-funk terrain, with Justin Timberlake proving to be the more prominent singer. As I said, it’s not about the music; nevertheless, this formulaic, obligatory album shows that this might be a Waterloo in her battle against obsolescence.

Mariah Carey, an actual singer, rode in on a whole other agenda years ago by showcasing octaves designed for both canines and humans, and by occasionally digging into impressive gospel terrain. On 2005’s hardly impressive The Emancipation of Mimi, she turned to hitmakers the Neptunes, Kanye West and Jermaine Dupri (you’re seeing the theme here, right?), and on E=MC2 she turns to Danjahandz (yes, the guy from Madge’s album) and Swizz Beatz as well. “Touch My Body,” a bright, pleasing dance-pop single, made news by hitting No. 1 and outdoing Elvis Presley’s record of hits (a meaningless distinction in such a weak market). Strangely, Carey is still martyring out her long-gone divorce (from record mogul Tommy Mottola) on “Side Effects” (it ain’t pretty as she nears 40), and she staggers a bit on the dance-club numbers. But on stripped-down, yet expansive ballads, she is still master of the form, as the final track, “Wish You Well,” attests. A true singer is refreshing in a desolate pop landscape.

A long time ago, before I was born, Tom Petty formed a country-rock band called Mudcrutch. Petty took along two members of that band to create music history as a solo artist, and the other two guys, Tom Leadon (brother of former Eagle and Flying Burrito Brother Bernie) and Randall Marsh, sat around developing deepening empathy for Pete Best. Getting the old unit back together is far from an act of philanthropy, though, as a dead-serious, blistering version of “Lover of the Bayou” attests. The song was a standout on the Byrds’ 1970 Untitled album. That scorching country-rock era of the Byrds points to the intention of this album, and longtime ally Mike Campbell sounds like he’s unbound as he levies smoldering psych-rock solos against the roots-rock. Feeling his way back to the hippie country-rock of a long-time-ago California inhabited by the Burritos and Byrds (Mudcrutch cover “Six Days on the Road,” if that’s any indication), a bass-playing Petty finds delightful new purchase.

Portishead, along with Massive Attack and Tricky, were a defining band of the mid-’90s trip-hop sound of Bristol, England. On Third, they pretty much fly in the face of the upper-class, ambient noir they created, as the deadly drone of “We Carry On” and rapid-fire Krautrock of “Machine Gun” attest. Third confronts, challenges and forces the listener into difficult places: the morose and spooky “Small,” the dungeon-rattling prog-electronica of “Silence.” This is the sound of seaside Bristol after all of the hipsters have left town and the clubs have shuttered their windows. Beth Gibbons’ hollow tones provide little comfort, and Geoff Barrow’s arrangements crawl up inside you in a discomfiting manner. Like a Thomas Pynchon novel, this is a difficult pleasure at best—but pleasure nonetheless.

If you’re looking for something to lift you out of the existential trench that Portishead have cast you into, then Flight of the Conchords is just the thing. This New Zealand comedy duo are well known to watchers of HBO, and this album culls 14 songs from the first season of their series. These intelligent satirists take the Tenacious D theorem and apply it to music that is actually listenable. (It’s on alt-king label Sub Pop, which should say something about the intended audience.) And whether reveling in hip-hop (“Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymnocerous,” which proclaims: “Sometimes my lyrics are sexist/But you lovely bitches and hoes should know I’m trying to correct this”) or hilarious Franco-pop (“Foux du Fafa”), there are real songwriting chops beneath the sly humor. Just try on “Bowie” for size, and hear them explore the numerous gestures of the titular figure in dead-on, hilarious fashion.

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