Thursday, April 11, 2013

Duff Review: Madness "Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da"

Cooking Vinyl

(Review by Steve Shafer)

If Madness had opted to close up shop after releasing the magnificent The Liberty of Norton Folgate (read my thoughts on this album at Reggae Steady Ska, but essentially its theme is twofold: how the geography and history of a place influences generations of people who live there, and that people can only be truly free to be themselves in a diverse, multicultural, urban environment), I don't think anyone would have blamed them for going out on such an extraordinarily high note. But now comes the follow-up to that wonderfully complex concept album, Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da, whose approach is much more back-to-basics for the band: turning out masterful ska and pop gems--and the results are pretty spectacular.

The album opens with "My Girl 2," an obvious nod to the "My Girl" from the band's debut album back in 1979. Even though the 2012 version isn't anywhere near as melancholy--in fact, it's a fantastic, upbeat Motown-ish cut in the spirit of The Temptations song of the same name--the misunderstandings (and doubts) between the sexes continue 33 years on (and on):

"Lately, I've been wondering about you
and the things you do
I'm in love
But you drive me mad
Be so sad to be losing you
Last night, when had that fight
in your car, left me at the bar
And I see her talking to her friends
Acting like she just don't care...

My girl
She's done with books
My girl
She gives dirty looks
I'm going to be what she want me to be
I'm her man, doing all I can
My girl
She's above the rest
My girl
She's sure the best"

Name the person who claims not to have complicated and conflicting feelings about the person that they're deeply in love with/committed to--and I'll show you a liar. (I've been married nearly two decades now and I'll be the first to admit that my incredible wife drives me crazy in every good and bad sense of that word; and on a good day, she would probably say the same thing about me!)

A good number of the songs on Oui Oui... are concerned with love (not shocking, given Madness' past output), which makes me kind of wish that they'd named the album "The 10 Commandments" (one of the titles considered, but discarded--see the album artwork by Sgt. Pepper's designer Sir Peter Blake) in what surely would have been a(nother) nod to Prince Buster, as well as his over-the-top (and even then, incredibly misogynistic) "Ten Commandments of Man to Woman." (See The Duff Guide to Ska review of Prince Buster Sings His Hit Song "Ten Commandments" here.)

But here the Nutty Boys' advice on love and how one might go about leading a happy and contented life is much more sane and practical. They may be middle-aged, international pop stars, but (obviously) they're only human and still have the same kinds of feelings and profound issues in their lives as we all do. Lest you think this album solely consists of love songs, it's equally as much about aging--and looming mortality--and the knowledge/perspective that comes with all that life experience (good and bad) that you want to use yourself or pass along before they're putting pennies on your eyes.

In the opening verse of the magnificent ska-pop track "How Can I Tell You," Suggs sings, "Communication is a skill you must acquire/it will help you through your life/It is essential..." And then expands on this point:

"How can I tell you
You have to open up your heart
How can I tell you
Be honest from the very start
How I feel
Take a stand for what is true
Try to be decent in all that you do

How can I tell you
You've got to give to get support
How can I tell you
Check the wonder in all that you see
You've got to get loving unconditionally

You're gonna have to walk that hard road
You're gonna bear some heavy load
You'll make mistakes and you'll come close"

And in later verses, Suggs essentially posits that conveying the enormity and completeness of his love is an almost impossible task, but yet can be expressed and celebrated in everything he does for his woman, particularly the small, almost throwaway, everyday gestures:

"How can I tell you
The laughter on a crowded bus
How can I tell you
Making space when you're being crushed
How I feel
A letter I receive from you
A hug and a kiss when you're feeling blue
How can I tell you
The last chocolate in the box
How can I tell you
A pair of mittens and some cotton socks
How I feel
I'll make a fire when you are cold
Don't worry darling
I'll love you when you grow old"

(The implicit message also seems to be that these little moments of kindness/love are what makes love work in the long haul.)

Then there are the less successful attempts at making a love connection, as depicted in "Never Knew Your Name." The song starts out very much like "Embarrassment," but then kicks into "CHiPs"/"Love Boat" era schmaltzy 70s disco (dig those strings, baby!) that's all sleek, shiny surface, but full of great sadness and emptiness beneath (think Studio 54). It's perfect for this tale of failing to be brave or foolish enough take a risk at happiness and love (and hating yourself for it).

"It was very late in the discotheque
I was feeling blue as I sometimes do
I turned around, it was time to go
A face in the crowd, a face I didn't know
We got to talking for a little while
You said it's not the sort of thing you usually do
Talking to strangers so late in the night
These days, you never know

Well I thought you were nice, I even told you so
But you smiled so shyly and said to me
I bet you say that to all the girls you meet
But it isn't so

Yes, the club was closing, so we had to leave
We walked out together just a little ill at ease
I would have liked to have walked you home
But you said you'd catch the bus, so I ended up alone

I never knew your name nor your telephone number
Will I ever see you again? I wonder?

It wasn't any longer than an hour or two
That lonely street, I said goodbye to you
You glanced back at me as I turned the corner
Was the last I saw of you

Oh, I wanted to call, call out your name
But stupid pride and idiot shame
Hesitated, scared of playing the fool
So you walked away, from Mr. Cool

I never knew your name nor your telephone number
Will I ever see you again? I wonder?
No, I never knew your name nor your telephone number
Will I see you again? Oh girl I wonder?

It was very late in the discotheque
I was feeling blue as I sometimes do
I thought you were nice, I told you so
But I ended up alone"

(This must have been written about an episode from a pre-internet/Facebook time--had it been now, he at least had her name and could have looked her up, right?) Few pop bands do pain felt down to your soul as well as Madness.

In other dysfunctional relationships, the slinky reggae of "Kitchen Floor" strongly suggests that the all the talk about doing "it" in various spots around the house is sexual in nature, but a close reading of the lyrics reveals that the "it" refers to crying--she's crying for the singer, who knows that he has great power and completely possesses her (even though she strays from him, she always comes back).

If you haven't already gotten there yet, one of the strange things about aging is that there comes a time in your life when all the landmarks of your youth are still immediately familiar, but it's you that feels terribly out of place. Even though you feel the same inside (I'm perpetually stuck somewhere around 23 years old, about half of my chronological age), it seems like your teens and twenties were a lifetime ago. And now it's almost like you're walking around carrying someone else's life memories in your head. The chipper and defiant ska song "Black and Blue" illustrates this kind of alienation from one's former self that comes with age, as the singer takes up with an old girlfriend. The passage of time has beat him up a bit, but he keeps on moving forward with the knowledge that change is constant in life ("fresh wind's on the street") and there's no going back:

"Hanging round your house again
I feel so out of place
Going to the corner shop
The man from outer space
Seems so very long ago
When we stayed up through the night
Like those days would never end
And all them things would never mend

And I'm feeling kind of black and blue
But the fresh wind's on the street
Free falling through the years
But I'm still on my feet"

Yet another minor AM radio pop masterpiece in Madness' cannon is "Leon" (a story of reform school bleakness in the vein of "Land of Hope and Glory") about an alienated, institutionalized, and possibly autistic kid longing for a one-way ticket out of town to freedom. With its "Got to Get You Into My Life" horn arrangements and lush harmonies, this wouldn't be out of place on The Beatles' Revolver or Rubber Soul. Really stellar.

"Bleach, and corridors
And cold, and drafty windows
Smells that drift along
From dinner hall up his nose

Under lock, and key
His dreams, his aspirations,
One day, one man, one way
One bag, and one station

He is stuck inside his head, and in a whirl
He feels like running out, and owning all the world"

"Death of a Rude Boy" is a tribute/elegy to a real (the mention of a "stepping razor" could imply that it's about  Peter Tosh) or imagined true believer (and will probably end up being played at many a fan's funeral in future years). While it's an amazing reggae track with a UB40-ish, computer-sounding rhythm section, it's also quite unusual in that it wanders far from Madness' British, music-hall approach to ska. (So much so, that the rap/toast in the middle of the song reminds me a bit of the Gorillaz's/Del Tha Funkee Homosapien's collaboration "Clint Eastwood" or "Feel Good, Inc.") I really dig this song, but it was a strange choice for the advance teaser for the album.

"He had is own kind of flavor
He walked like a stepping razor
Man could drop a killer move
Never failed to bust a groove
He always keep a cool, cool head
Hear me when I tell you dread
Hear me when I say this friend
This man was a rude boy

It was the death of a rude boy

He told me when you feel you want to run
You have to learn to stand and fight
He told me son when all is said and done
You must stand up for what is right
Stay on the side of conscious
Make sure you live in light
Don't go down, don't fool around
Hold your ground
Don't be proud
Make sure that love is in your life"

Sounding like a cross between Prince Buster's/The Specials' cover of "Enjoy Yourself" (music by Carl Sigman and lyrics by Herb Magidson) and Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," "Misery" is a tremendous, rollicking sing-along track that probably should have closed the album instead of the remix of "My Girl 2." Its message is similar to those aforementioned songs, too: put yourself in the right frame of mind and enjoy and appreciate it all while you can--because one day you'll be six feet under, cremated, or your body donated to science, and it's all done. As Suggs sings:

"Misery loves company
That's what the wise man said
Don't come to me for sympathy
If you can't raise your head
Stand up and see
What your life could be
If you wore a smile instead
If you keep misery as your company
Then you might as well be dead"

I've written it before, but it's worth repeating for those who haven't yet taken note. While many of their 2 Tone era peers are content to mine the ska nostalgia circuit (not that there is anything wrong with that--within some limits), Madness continue to move boldly and brilliantly ahead. May their nerve stand fast and their creative well never run dry!


Anonymous said...

Ska against Live Nation! Calling all ska supporters.. Boycott all Live Nations shows in NYC.. Including the Apple stomp show coming up in nyc, Live Nation is the enemy who supports the Right wing GOP Tea party.


Anonymous said...

I Agree $55 is a Total Rip Off of the ska scene by those crooks at Live Nation. Who are only in it for the Greed and not for the scene.

Yeah Don't Patronize Live nation is Correct...We join in, in this Boycott Too.