- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003


  Stevie Nicks and Madonna are two of the most successful female artists in pop history. Both have sold untold millions of records and shown remarkable staying power.
  They have another thing in common — limited musical abilities, compelling them to rely on more gifted musicians and knob-twisters for inspiration and technical help.
  Miss Nicks was for several years linked to Lindsey Buckingham, her former lover and musical confidant, first as an obscure California prog-folk duo and then as the hit-making axis of megaselling Fleetwood Mac.
  On such Nicks-composed songs as “Landslide” and “Rhiannon,” it was Mr. Buckingam’s unique finger-style guitar playing that supplied the crucial hooky ingredient.
  During the height of her solo career in the 1980s, such producers as Jimmy Iovine and session guitarists such as Waddy Wachtel served as Miss Nicks’ musical amanuenses.
  Now, with Fleetwood Mac reformed (minus Christine McVie), she’s back in the hands of Mr. Buckingham, who, by her own admission, took charge of her stripped-down demos and added all the schmalzy production value we hear on “Say You Will.”
  As Mr. Buckingham himself once explained his collaborative relationship with Miss Nicks, he takes her songs and turns them into records.
  Madonna’s abilities as a musician are yet more primitive than Miss Nicks’. Even though she’s famously taking up the guitar these days, Madonna is basically unable to compose music.
  For that, she has relied on hit makers such as Babyface (who has also penned hits for Eric Clapton, Whitney Houston and others), William Orbit and, now, French techno-guru Mirwais Ahmadzai.
  Both Miss Nicks and Madonna, finally, share a penchant for image-making, but there’s a signal difference between the two: The former has long stuck with her Welsh witch persona, while the latter has transformed herself more times than an haute-couture house’s seasonal fashions.
  At the end of the day, though, music is more about the hearing than the seeing. So how fare our fair ladies?
  
  Fleetwood Mac
  Say You Will
  Warner Bros.
  Fans of Fleetwood Mac in their most popular incarnation — with Mr. Buckingham and Miss Nicks — are often surprised to hear that the group had a previous existence.
  Before Mac took on the Buckingham-Nicks duo and recorded its self-titled album in 1975, followed two years later by the colossal “Rumours,” it was a hard British blues band, fronted by the man who wrote Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” guitarist Peter Green.
  Hence, it is meaningless to assert what “classic” Fleetwood Mac should sound like: The Buckingham-Nicks era, now almost 30 years old, was radically different from the ur-Mac sound of the late ‘60s. No other band has survived — indeed, flourished — after such a fundamental shift in personnel and stylistic direction.
  How does “Say You Will” fit into these paradigm shifts?
  It doesn’t.
  The band’s first album with Mr. Buckingham and Miss Nicks since 1987’s terrible “Tango in the Night,” and its first without Miss McVie since 1968’s “Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac,” it marks yet another Mac era. Call it Modern Mac — Mac as captured in a home studio outfitted with all the newfangled bells and whistles of digital recording technology.
  With Mr. Buckingham firmly at the production helm, “Say You Will” combines the avant-garde experimentalism of 1979’s double-album “Tusk” with the pop sensibilities of “Mac” and “Rumours.”
  It’s occasionally great, mostly good; sometimes overly eccentric, other times just plain wacky.
  “Say You Will,” introducing nine songs apiece from Mr. Buckingham and Miss Nicks, some of it dating to material originally written in the late ‘70s, is a creative unleashing.
  Such unleashings cry out for editing, however. Like “Tusk,” “Say You Will” suffers from an acute case of bloat.
  Miss Nicks’ title track, a thumping pop-rocker with a cutesy chorus, and her New Wavey “Thrown Down,” along with Mr. Buckingham’s “What’s the World Coming To,” hark back to the formula that made Mac famous — the solid-yet-swinging rhythm section of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie; the lush, panoramic production; the irresistible chorus.
  But on “Murrow Turning Over in His Grave” (a topical anti-media rant), “Red Rover” and “Come,” Mr. Buckingham lets his eccentricities get the best of him: He sings through so many frequency-jamming filters and overdubs so many twisty guitar parts that they smack of self-stroking egotism — and perhaps a shrinking-with-age vocal range.
  This all works fabulously, though, on the penultimate “Say Goodbye,” with a rapid-fire vocal delivery set to a wall-of-sound mesh of Mr. Buckingham’s trademark finger-picking. As a producer, he has the peerless ability to make us feel like our heads are directly inside the sound hole of his guitar, and his playing here is impressively agile.
  Miss Nicks, too, often descends into self-parody, as on “Running Through the Garden,” a typical example of the singer’s ersatz Anglo-Celtic mysticism: “Until she herself / became the deadliest poison / As she grew older / until she herself / became just as fatal / as was her garden.”
  The witchy mysticism seems oddly appropriate for “Illume (9/11),” her dreamy, haunting tribute to Rudolph W. Giuliani and New York City.
  “I like the coastal cities / I like the lights / I like the way the ocean blends / into the city at night,” she sings, poetically comparing the Big Apple’s nighttime skyline to “a diamond snake in a black sky.”
  When “Say You Will” works, it works splendidly. Too bad its length couldn’t have been trimmed by, say, five or six songs.
  Lucky for us, we have the skip button.
  
  Madonna
  American Life
  Maverick/Warner Bros.
  This album should’ve been titled “Apologia Pro Vita Madonna” because that’s what it feels like — one big Clintonian midlife-crisis defense of self.
  There are so many references to Jesus Christ on this album, I suspect she may have been counseled by one of the former president’s “spiritual advisers.”
  As only Madonna could, she cops to her own excesses, and then indirectly blames the rest of us for egging her on.
  It’s all the fault of that materialistic myth called the American Dream, you see. For the vast majority of us, it means a good job, a nice home and maybe some little tykes frolicking on a lawn in a decent-sized yard.
  For Madonna, it means personal trainers, yoga, private jets and multiple nannies, according to the title track of this paltry album.
  “This type of modern life, is it for real?” she asks. In your case, Madonna, the answer is yes. In the case of the average listener, it’s strictly a dream.
  Why burden us with so many tales of woe? If Madonna finds her life — a life packed with luxuries unknown even to the Bourbon monarchy — unfulfilling and unreal, why, exactly, should the rest of us care?
  “I used to live in a fuzzy dream / and I used to believe in all the pretty pictures that were all around me,” sings Madonna on “I’m So Stupid,” having apparently seen the light on her personal road to Damascus.
  Somehow I don’t buy into her epiphanic claims. The cover of “American Life” alone belies any profession of mended ways or new leaves.
  The supposedly postmaterial, post-iconic Madonna is kitted out in a military-chic beret and a Che Guevara-style snarl. Draped across the neck with the words “American Life” in socialist red, she looks like a Latina revolutionary, taunting us yanquis for our greed and imperialism.
  So, Madonna, I gotta ask: Are you revealing the error of your ways, as the lyrical content of your new album suggests, or are you condemning us for ours?
  Musically speaking, “American Life” is a continuation of the synth-pop electronica of 2000’s “Music,” back when Madonna fashioned herself a neo-cowgirl.
  Both “Music” and “American Life” were produced and co-written by Mirwais Ahmadzai. Dubbed “electroclash” by people who think it merits such a classification, Madonna’s latest musical fetish is a mishmash of house-music warblings and staccato snippets of acoustic guitar.
  Three years ago, it seemed a fresh change of direction for Madonna; now it seems dated.
  She almost comes across as heartfelt on the sparse “Nothing Fails” — a melodically engaging ballad and love poem — but it’s one of the only tolerable moments of “American Life,” a thin, chintzy, plastic production and a disingenuous emotional unburdening from the musically challenged singer.
  “American Life” will, I’m sure, go over really well in France.
  


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