A little over 20 years ago, it was Sonic Youth, along with Mike Watt, who ventured into, shall we say, the wilderness with their side project Ciccone Youth. Experimental absurdity, pop music and hipster irony collided into one gigantic red dwarf of alternative alternative. Thurston’s deadpan vocals scratching against the silver surface of actual clips from “Into the Groove” on “Into the Groove(y)” seem so fitting and even prescient. This, mind you, was just on the cusp of Daydream Nation and more than a stone’s throw away from Goo. The bands on this compilation, it is clearly understood, have much to live up to.
I personally was never a fan of Madonna. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, I’m not a musician and hence find it a challenge to appreciate both Madonna’s near-perfect pop persona and her later metamorphoses of sonic and aesthetic experimentation. Two, it’s just plain bad timing. Madonna was more of an abstract state of mind than a performer, something that lesser pop divas of the late-’90s sought to aspire to—which they, as far as I can see, have all failed to do. Also, I thought many of her causes, opinions, religious conversion(s), brief but unforgivable Anglophilia, acting and other such ventures a little on the ridiculous side—Camille Paglia be damned! But I’d be retarded to deny her impact on pop. She had the fortitude to outlast short-sighted flakes like Cindy Lauper and, if only for a brief period, did some interesting things that flipped the Top 40 world on its ass—before Nirvana kicked it in the balls causing irreparable damage for better but mostly for worse.
This collection, made to raise money for one of Madonna’s African aid charities, doesn’t span Madonna’s career on a whole. Rather it takes the most recognizable, most danceable and, perhaps, most irony-laden songs from her canon. This includes hits from her earlier period such as “Get Into the Groove,” given a slacker scuzz rock makeover by Jeremy Jay, Mountain Party’s spacey, stream-of-consciousness rendering of “Material Girl” and the quirky but pretty “Boderline,” done by the Chapin Sisters with silky vocal harmonies, hushed percussion and…banjos?
Okay. Some of these versions are—and do pardon the pun—borderline impressive. While there’s a good deal of actual tribute, there is a lack of coherence. The attention to the hooks and peppiness of Madonna’s early work is formidable. Yet, be it because their sound is not right for covering such an act or because they let their imagination run a little too wild for the sake of the art of reinterpretation, the creativity is vulnerable to quickly becoming a gimmick.
From the variety come highlights however — two, in fact, are most resonant. One is the final track which has Lavender Diamond covering one of Madonna’s first controversial songs “Like a Prayer.” The considerably deep attention to Madonna’s general vision, both vocally and instrumentally makes it all the more a tribute. The twist here, however, is that the bombast of the original is traded in for a more low-key, intimate tone. With this creative contribution, a balance is made. The same can be said for Giant Drag’s version of “Oh Father.” This might not ring true to those who know of the Drag. Yes, Annie Hardy’s voice is a little mousy and she lacks the main woman’s bottomless charisma. But she’s also a terrific songwriter, one of my favorites in fact. And this is not to say that Hardy is without a powerful voice and a personality that livens up songs. It just so happens that Hardy was able to perform a song that suited her pop sensibilities and reflected her sincere emotional depth. She does little to overwork the song and sticks to the basic structure and sound. But Giant Drag is no longer a two piece and has the handy help of piano, bass and even chimes which do enhance the cover, but in ways that are not unnecessary or extravagant. She really needs more attention for her creative treatment of pop, for her covers and her original music and not just her eccentricities.
The flaws of these songs might come off more as weaknesses than they should. It is important to not forget that this is a tribute album—a charity tribute album at that—and while there are viable gems here and there, tribute albums are without worth if they are devoid of the amusement and curiosity of an artist covering a song that they like personally even if their own sound is a mismatch for the song itself. Yes, provocative…sort of.
Ciccone Youth – The Whitey Album
Various Artists – Guilt by Association
Various Artists – A Tribute To Joni Mitchell