Now, the bad news: The Chinese Album contains nothing as memorable as "In the Meantime" -- although the first single, "Mungo City," a flashy, big-production number in the grandiose space-rock tradition of Ziggy Stardust, comes real close. As does Lucy's Shoes, with its tinkling cocktail piano, liberal dose of wah-wah pedal and bloated orchestration. Indeed, The Chinese Album's sweeping rejection of the here and now makes little sense in today's modern-rock environment -- which is all the more reason to admire its brass. (***)

-- Hobart Rowland

Spacehog performs Tuesday, March 24, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge.

Ray of Light
Maverick/Warner Bros.

It has been a good while since anyone took Madonna seriously -- since she was depicted as a musician. For so long now, her albums have been little more than weak attempts to keep her day job going in case the acting thing fails to pan out. Her last start-to-finish perfect release, Like a Prayer, came almost a decade ago. She proceeded to follow that with missteps (Erotica), mistakes (Bedtime Stories) and misguided arrogance (Evita), until all that was left was Madonna the Mother, the last interesting peg on which entertainment writers could hang their limp stories. The radiant cultural force had become a pale, gray landmark.

Now, with the release of Ray of Light -- her midlife crisis cast in techno's dim glow -- critics once again turn their pens toward Madonna the Musician, and they scramble for the hyperbole; MTV's microphone whore Kurt Loder has treated its release as though he were Edward R. Murrow reporting on the outbreak of world war. It's easy enough to understand the rush to judgment: With its themes of sacrifice and motherhood set against William Orbit's echoes and beats, Ray of Light seems more revelatory than her previous excursions into bedroom funk and Broadway fluff. But do not be blinded by this Ray of Light, because the glare is all surface reflection.

Madonna has become an artist capable of commenting only on herself, a superstar who finds her fame the most interesting subject in the world; yet she's no Bob Dylan or even Kurt Cobain, able to turn the legend's lament into the stuff of universal verity. "I traded fame for love without a second thought," she begins, and from the get-go, Ray of Light reeks of a confessional without revelation. On "Nothing Really Matters," she apologizes for the pursuit of ambitious youth ("When I was very young / Nothing really mattered to me ... I was the only one"), seeking penance for the celebrity she sought so recklessly, so brilliantly. Madonna, born again in religion, wants forgiveness, which itself is a crime; to disavow her career until this moment only sells short her accomplishments.

It's also unfortunate that Madonna chose Orbit when she decided to go "techno." He's not an innovator so much as a remixer who turns radio hits into dance-floor fodder. Were Madonna truly seeking inspiration, she would have sought out Aphex Twin, someone who knows how to draw blood from a keyboard. Instead, Orbit and Madonna have concocted a dreary effort that wastes Madonna's newfound vocal chops -- where she was once a dancer with a singer's aspirations, now she's a singer with a vocalist's prowess -- and confuses effects with affecting.

Ray of Light isn't the intimate, detailed portrait of the artist as grown-up mother; it isn't even a charcoal sketch. Rather, it's just another attempt by its creator to keep up with a Top 40 world passing her by. That's not the sputter of electronica's machinery you hear. It's Madonna, running and out of breath. (**)

-- Robert Wilonsky

Jerry Cantrell
Boggy Depot

If grunge was supposed to be the marriage of Mother Punk and Father Metal, on Boggy Depot they've had a child, and it doesn't sound much like Mom. With this muddy souvenir from the same dark, dense swamp where his band's releases commonly reside, Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell steps out from the sidelines, and his baby owes more to Black Sabbath than to Black Flag.

But that's to be expected from Cantrell. Here, fierce guitar arpeggios crescendo frequently, and oddly timed distortion slashes against lead-footed, Zeppelinesque grooves. For added drama, quiet passages weighted down with self-involved sentiment give way to the requisite extended jams.

As for the songwriting, suffice it to say that two of the strongest tracks on Boggy Bottom bear an uncanny resemblance to Guns N' Roses. One, "Between," is a power ballad that uses a cross-country trip as its soul-searching metaphor -- catchy, but nothing that hasn't already been done to death. The other, an eight-minute-plus opus called "Cold Piece," features bassoon, piano and saxophone, and sounds a heck of a lot like "Rocket Queen," the final track on the Gunners' Appetite for Destruction. As for the rest of the album: Well, there's no shortage of guitar solos.

In fairness, while Alice in Chains lead singer Layne Staley has received most of the attention from fans and the media, Cantrell has always done the lion's share of the creating. Boggy Depot is his chance to step out of Staley's considerable shadow. In the process, he's stepped smack into a quagmire of excess.

Of course, that's why guitarists do solo albums in the first place: so the rest of the band can't stifle such indulgences. Just ask the Smashing Pumpkins' James Iha. (* 1/2)

-- David Simutis

Press Ratings
***** Historic
**** Great
*** Worthy
** So-so
* Lame

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