- - Monday, March 26, 2012

MDNA

Madonna

Interscope

★★★½

Move over, Lady Gaga. The Queen of Pop is back, and she wants to reclaim her throne.

“MDNA” is a fierce album, full of nocturnal club beats, bubbling synthesizers and frank lyrics that address two things: Madonna’s divorce from movie director Guy Ritchie and her quest to be back on top. “Every record sounds the same; you gotta step into my world,” she brags on “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” a song that features cameos by two of pop music’s biggest newcomers, Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., but relegates both girls to a cheerleading role. “L! U! V! Madonna!” they chant at the beginning and ending of the song, bookending the whole tune with their pledge of loyalty to the Queen.

Miss Minaj makes a second appearance on “I Don’t Give A,” where her rapid-fire raps (sample lyric: “I’m not a businesswoman. I’m a business, woman!”) easily outshine the euro-club hooks that fill the rest of the song. She can’t get away without showing deference to her superior, though, so the last words we hear from Miss Minaj are, “There’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna.”

At 53 years old, though, can Madonna continue to rule? She co-opts the cold, electronic sound of Britney Spears’ past three albums and relies heavily on her seven producers, who are largely responsible for creating the late-night world in which “MDNA” sets its scene. The album doth protest too much, too. How many times can we hear someone claim to be awesome before we start questioning that awesomeness ourselves?

“MDNA” has rare moments of tenderness, though, from the flamenco-influenced “Masterpiece” to the ethereal “Falling Free,” a song built on pretty piano arpeggios and melodies instead of throbbing dance beats. It’s songs like these that give “MDNA” depth, and the album winds up being a tour de force for the elder stateswoman of pop, who sounds just as spry as those half her age.

This is a record with an agenda, but it does get the job done. Skewer Madonna’s ex? Check. Reaffirm her royalty status? Check.

Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now

Justin Townes Earle

Bloodshot Records

★★★

Justin Townes Earle is an old soul, with a voice that creaks and croaks like someone twice his age. On his latest album, the 30 year-old songwriter downplays his country roots and reinvents himself as a disciple of Memphis soul.

The acoustic guitars and twangy melodies, two mainstays of Mr. Earle’s Americana sound, haven’t been thrown out the window. They share equal space with saxophones and muted trumpet solos this time around, though, and the overall sound owes more to Stax Records than mid-century Nashville. Even country boys need to dance once in awhile.

Speaking of dancing, “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now” shines its brightest whenever the tempos pick up. “Memphis in the Rain” barrels forward at a rug-cutting pace, calling to mind a bouncier version of the title track from “Harlem River Blues,” and “Look the Other Way” layers blasts of brass over a steady drumbeat. Mr. Earle can still deliver a sad-eyed ballad with more conviction than anyone in his age group, but it’s the faster tunes that really show off his soulful makeover.

Longtime fans will hear something familiar about these melodies, some of which seem to be recycled from earlier albums. “Unfortunately Anna” is the worst culprit, with a chord progression that copies “Christchurch Woman” and “Midnight at the Movies,” two highlights from his most recent pair of albums, almost note for note.

Still, it’s hard to find fault with the guy’s new direction, even when he’s dressing up older songs in new, soulful clothes. If you’re going to copy someone, it might as well as be Mr. Earle … even when you are Mr. Earle.

Justin Bieber releases new single

Rarely has an album been as intensely anticipated - by the world’s population of female teens, at the very least - as Justin Bieber’s “Believe.” The record won’t be out until some time this summer, but fans can get an early taste by sinking their teeth into the lead single, “Boyfriend,” which was released Monday morning at 12:01 a.m.

The song is a relaxed, airy slice of R&B, more reminiscent of Justin Timberlake than most of Mr. Bieber’s early work. Lock up your daughters, everyone.

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