British pop-ska band Madness has been making records and touring for three decades, so it’s amazing that the band is known for exactly three songs on this side of the Atlantic: the bouncy ska number “One Step Beyond,” the treacly pop smash “Our House” and the witty “House of Fun,” which remains unsurpassed as a cautionary lesson in how not to buy prophylactics. They’re fun, karaoke-ready numbers, but they don’t even begin to reveal the full strength of the band’s songwriting—a gift that has apparently kept on giving judging from The Liberty of Norton Folgate, the band’s ninth studio album (and first collection of original material since 1999).+ + + +
Improbably for a band that’s been playing and recording for as long as Madness, Folgate is a fresh, energetic and audacious pop record, lush in sound and thoughtful in manner. One of the best songs of the set, “NW5,” neatly demonstrates everything Madness does really well: the way the band builds songs on Mike Barson’s insistent keyboard jabs, the arm-around-your-shoulder way in which singer Suggs delivers the lyrics and the swoony string arrangements and horn charts that take Madness’ music from the two-tone to the kaleidoscopic.
There are so many legitimately great songs on Folgate—the swaggering hometown anthem “We Are London,” the perfectly preserved ska throwback “Forever Young” and the epic, Kinks-like title track among them—that the record could easily hold its own against the band’s last greatest-hits compilation. It’s that familiar, and that good.
Fanboy sidebar: Earlier this week in the mail I received the 10", 7", and CD singles of "Dust Devil" (with its various remixes) that I had ordered (all for five pounds) from the Madshop in the UK. The packaging on the vinyl is particularly cool and old school (see the 10" above)--a nice addition to the record collection. Even though I'm jonesing for the new album, I think I'll wait for the domestic Yep Roc version to be released on July 7th (even though I want it now).