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Wednesday, Mar 25 1998
Ray of Light

"I traded fame for love," are the first words out of Madonna's mouth on Ray of Light. Like hell she did. If she's indeed found true love, as the album keeps reminding you she has, she certainly didn't trade her fame for it. No, what she's gotten rid of is just her notoriety, the way she placed her sexuality before her music. Consequently, on Ray of Light Madonna focuses more on her pop smarts than button-pushing in a way she hasn't dared since her first record, when neither fame nor notoriety were such a sure bet. Blame it on motherhood or yoga classes (as she'd have you believe) or blame it on a sinking market share and the snickering response to Evita (more likely), but she dives into Ray of Light intent on re-securing herself as simply a pop artist.

She hasn't done anything truly unique with her music, just approached it more assuredly. Madonna hired prolific remixer William Orbit to give her songs an ethereal, richly textured sheen, with just enough added bloops and bleeps to make it sound like modern dance music, but her musical taste hasn't changed: She still loves Latin ballads ("To Have and Not to Hold"), R&B ("Swim," the first single "Frozen"), and '60s AM pop -- borrowing a few harmonic tricks from the Beach Boys' "In My Room," the closing "Mer Girl" achieves the same bittersweet feel of fear and loneliness. Madonna's true musical heart, though, has always been with '70s disco divas: The title track is a brilliant, exuberant rewrite of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," riding a heavy wave of electro-funk, just as "Skin" and "Sky Fits Heaven" slowly build their layers of sound and beat until they end as great proclamations of self-reliance.

Nobody would mistake those songs with the urgency of "Holiday" or "Express Yourself"; the music is often muted and polite, and its melodies arrive subtly, slinking around slowly and hesitantly. But Madonna's voice, flexible as it's ever been, carries them, downplaying the melodrama. There's also a hint of insecurity deep within these songs, a vulnerability that resides not just in her lyrics but in the way she sings them, a tactic she hasn't used since her finest pop moment, "Live to Tell." "I think I'll follow my heart," she sings on "Sky Fits Heaven," and it's like she's just discovered the novelty of the concept, and, more crucially, a willingness to act on it. Ignoring issues of stature and chart action, she makes a brave trade -- a pop icon's produced image for a pop artist's living, breathing soul -- and it's one of the smartest ones she's made.

-- Mark Athitakis

Various Artists
Angels in the Mirror:
Vodou Music of Haiti
(Ellipsis Arts)

Thanks to countless B movies and plenty of bad television, Americans know voodoo as a superstitious and malevolent underworld cult practiced by heathens bloodthirsty for human sacrifice. But if you expect spooky witch doctor music or swampy lo-fi rock from Angels in the Mirror, a 64-page book and 67-minute-long CD package, you should just put away the lock of hair and the pincushion doll. Angels instead showcases the sounds, stories, and, most importantly, the everyday religious significance of the often kitsch-ghettoized practice of voodoo.

The cultural archivists at Ellipsis Arts want to explain the significance of vodou (its proper Haitian spelling), a cultural practice founded by Africans under the tyranny of Christian slave owners. The package includes a hard-bound minibook filled with interviews, elegant text, and a bounty of color pictures. The CD is tucked in a small jacket within the book and contains 13 recordings of traditional singing and polyrhythmic drumming performed by various folks of Haiti, the religion's birthplace.

Here, vodou is portrayed as a belief in and a desire to shape and affect one's own destiny. To the people of Haiti, there is no secular life -- no corners of existence untouched by spiritual presence. In fact, all aspects of life are imbued with angels, or lwa (pronounced low-ah). Likewise, all individuals are as powerful as the spirits -- hence, the collection's title. Vodou practitioners do not believe that existence is predestined; they maintain the sophisticated view that all individuals are inexorable elements of all other beings and have the potential to transform fate given the desire and assistance of other spirits.

Angels in the Mirror is organized to follow the course of a traditional vodou ritual. (It was actually recorded on portable recorders in a handful of regions to reflect the variety of ceremonies practiced throughout Haiti.) The CD begins with "Legba Nan Baye-A," an a cappella call-and-response song to Legba, the lwa guardian of entryways. Following the brief introductory song, the "Port-au-Prince Drumming Demonstration" announces the ritual entry of the Rada drums, three sizes of hand drums used throughout most ceremonies. By the third and fourth tracks, the vodou rite is fully under way; several men and women sing repeated declarations while multiple drumbeats interact with one another. "Awo, I'm not walking on the ground, help me," announces a chorus of women -- called Rara queens, whose words are translated in the book -- from the group Rara La Bel Fraicheur de l'Anglade in a march of boisterous bamboo horns and crackling drums.

The CD and book do exactly what they are supposed to do. Each CD track, picture, and page presents a previously ignored side of vodou as a civilized spirituality rather than the mischievous magic long associated with the name. Rather than cowering in fear of the much-maligned religion, listeners are invited to glimpse its spirits.

-- Dave Clifford

The High Llamas
Cold and Bouncy

The worst thing that one could say about Cold and Bouncy, the High Llamas' fourth album, is one of the worst things one could say about any album: It sounds too damn much like Steely Dan. Now, sure, pop music continually cycles back to what it once loved or reviled, recycles it, revalues it, and appreciates or destroys it anew. The High Llamas have maintained this cycle since multi-instrumentalist Sean O'Hagan put together the band -- Marcus Holdaway, John Bennett, John Fell, and Rob Allum -- in 1991.

Yes, recycling is a form of creativity, but the sounds that O'Hagan recycles into Cold and Bouncy are jingly and bouncy and, well, cold. And cold is not exactly what electronic music of this ilk needs more of.

O'Hagan has written the particularly warm string and brass arrangements for several of Stereolab's recordings since the group's 1993 album Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements. (He's also played farfisa, vox organ, "filmy guitar," Wurlitzer, vibes, and marimbas.) Stereolab's relentless futurism, the intentional obliteration of past and future, fueling an ongoing romp through technology, has a way of driving O'Hagan's arrangements with that band.

On his own he's more problematic, seemingly content to uncover and unpack the old sounds without recontextualizing them. It might be that what sounds like Steely Dan, a redo of the smooth sounds of the '70s, is here just a retread -- too much like the "original" but not the original, therefore not enough. Every listen sounds like watching too many reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore show, and the instrumental track "Over the River" calls to mind the theme song from M*A*S*H, but in such an insidious way that it makes it impossible to figure out the reference for two days.

After several listens, the '70s references start to seem like something more than recycling: Similar to the '70s themselves, the album finally recalls the emotional mixture of pleasure and pain that comes from the experience of living through a period without choosing to do so. The music you heard over the radio before you had an album collection. All the songs you now know the lyrics to even though you don't remember ever liking them, an endless repetition of pre-programmed music. This is not all bad, but if recycling music is, by nature, an exercise in both appreciation and destruction, then per-haps what the High Llamas need is a bit more destruction.

-- Jill Stauffer


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