Reviewed: Madonna's "Confessions" and behind the scenes with "Born to Run." Plus Big & Rich, country jesters?

Published November 15, 2005 9:25PM (EST)

Madonna, "Confessions on a Dance Floor"

It really hasn't been that long since Madonna released her last record -- 2003's "American Life" -- but it somehow feels much longer, possibly because that album ultimately fared so poorly among the music press and consumers alike. In any case, it's been a while since a Madonna release was as big an event as "Confessions" is turning out to be -- partly due to marketing genius, partly due to a catchy and ubiquitous single, the buzz surrounding it the loudest of the fall season. But that may also be because it seems like the album's focus on dance music is quite a success. At least, that's what the critics are lining up to say.

The review in the Los Angeles Times couldn't be any more enthusiastic, calling the record "disco with a vengeance, a whomping, unapologetically airheaded engine of stroboscopic beats and succulent textures that exhumes dance music's time-honored values of celebration and affirmation." Much is made of the Abba sample, from "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)," that forms the spine of her single "Hung Up." "The song is an exceedingly rare instance of the Swedish supergroup granting access to its pop goldmine," writes USA Today, "and the track sets the tone for an electronic dance-pop bonanza." Rolling Stone catches the mood, too, gushing that "'Confessions' comes on like an all-out disco inferno, and takes our girl Esther out of the English manors and yoga studios and back into the untamed club world where she made her name. This is an album designed for maximum volume. It's all motion, action, speed. The tracks are constantly shifting, with dizzying layers of sounds and samples dropping in and out, skittering and whooshing across the speakers." You almost get tired just reading about it.

The critics are generally split over the question of whether this "bonanza" marks a retrenching or yet another reinvention of the Madonna legacy. While the Los Angeles Times notes that "re-invention" must be Madonna's favorite word, Billboard calls it a "welcome return to form for the Queen of Pop." There's a similar question of whether the music is meant to be retro or progressive. "The music is passed off as 'future disco,' but it really is a vibrant flashback spiked with the contemporary precision-tooled wizardry of co-producer Stuart 'Les Rhythmes Digitales' Price." Madonna does come in for her share of criticism over the record's sometimes paper-thin lyrics: "'I don't like cities, but I like New York/ Other places make me feel like a dork.' This is not the most ridiculous lyric ever uttered in a pop song -- that remains 'Yummy yummy yummy/ I got love in my tummy.' Still, it is awfully silly," Time opines. But, the magazine concludes, "It will leave you feeling silly for all the right reasons."

So will "Confessions" enter the hallowed circle of classic Madonna albums, be left to languish like "American Music," or stay on in some unidentified middle ground between the two? The answer is not obvious, and may well depend mostly on how well the record does in clubs. As Rolling Stone notes, "While 'Confessions' absolutely hits its mark for disco functionality, its greatest strength is also its weakness. In the end, the songs blur together, relying on Price's considerable production magic to create tension or distinctiveness."

Bruce Springsteen, "Born to Run: 30th Anniversary 3-Disc Set"

The release of an artist's old material, even when spiced up with new features like digital remastering, almost always smacks of money-grubbing, but not so with Springsteen's "Born to Run." Not only was the original a seminal album during its time -- it launched Springsteen from a local star to an international one -- the new version has a noticeably improved sound, and comes with a 48-page booklet, a documentary called "Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run," and a two-hour live concert Springsteen and the E Street band performed in London not long after the album's original debut. Is it worth buying? "All but the most mindless Springsteen fans might hesitate at the thought of buying another gussied up version of an album they already own," writes the Boston Herald. "Sure, 'Born to Run' is a classic, arguably Bruce's greatest album. But can it get any greater? Short answer: yes."

The record and the accompanying DVD document a critical moment in the history of American rock. "We knew exactly what we wanted," Jon Landau, Springsteen's manager who also helped produce "Born to Run,"told the New York Times. "We were not in it to do something average. We were not in it to get any particular song on the radio. We were in it to do something great." The new package sets out to explore how the greatness came about, and Rolling Stone thinks it makes "a worthy commemoration. The album has been digitally remastered, so its textures are all the richer and more enveloping. The two accompanying DVDs each provide essential context."

Of course, with the DVDs as part of the package, Springsteen can't take all of the credit, says Billboard: "Thom Zimny deserves a special nod for his painstaking work on both films, which beautifully complement the cinematic grandeur of the original product." And if you haven't listened to "Born to Run" in a while, you're not alone. "I thought I knew exactly how it would sound, but it surprised me," the Los Angeles Times quotes Springsteen telling the Associated Press. "It was a nice moment, driving back from the city, and it caught me by surprise again. There's no other record quite like it."

Big & Rich, "Comin' to Your City"

Big & Rich made their name as country music tricksters with 2003's "Horse of a Different Color," freely mixing rap and heavy metal into their good-time music, and while it may have offended some Nashville purists, the record also sold 2.5 million copies. But despite their "radical" image for trying to expand country's borders, they're hardly outsiders; the pair are up for two awards at Tuesday night's County Music Association Awards -- vocal duo of the year and a Horizon award -- and Jon Rich is also nominated as a co-writer on Gretchen Wilson's song-of-the-year hopeful, "Redneck Woman." Their new album, meanwhile, is getting mixed reviews -- some critics see it as a natural continuation of their musical ideas, but others are just finding themselves disappointed. The "duo rocks harder, faster and louder than ever in a polarizing blend of music sure to simultaneously light up their fans and startle country music purists," Monsters and Critics is happy to report, but the New York Daily News wonders what happened to all the magic: "The heavy metal aspects aren't any more potent or convincing than those you'd find on a Shania Twain album. Their rapper, who had only a token presence on 'Color,' doesn't appear at all on 'Comin'.' And the overwhelming majority of the music sounds suspiciously like much of the rote stuff being stamped out every day on Music Row."

For its part, the Boston Globe throws up its hands trying to describe the CD. "When the music is bad, it's ludicrous, but when it's good, it shows talent that moves beyond hokum." The music is mostly of the up-tempo, bar anthem variety, as Billboard writes: "The guys make it clear they are here for the beer on barn-burners like 'Caught Up in the Moment,' 'Jalapeqo' and 'Blow My Mind,' a psychedelic affair that is the best of a similar lot. '20 Margaritas' is reasonably funny, but B&R are just not as cute as they think they are on space-wasters like 'Freak Parade' and 'Filthy Rich.'" And while several writers seem to like the record's ballads like "Never Mind Me," "Slow Motion" and "I Pray for You," the New York Times writes, "Like crunk rappers, they have songs about drinking and hell-raising  they're a lot more fun when they're gimmicky."

-- Scott Lamb

By Salon Staff

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