Madonna (Universal) ★★★
NEARING the end of her third decade in the industry, the name Madonna is still big enough to open media doors, to be an automatic subject of debate and review. Even when discussing contemporary cultural lightning rods such as Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., our discourse often turns on compare/contrasts with Madonna at her peak of performance, image, music and media manipulation. It's been a while, however, since those opened doors guaranteed any kind of stay at the centre of things. This is despite constant, some might say frantic, efforts to remain fashionable. Madonna doesn't do consolidation and examination in depth; her currency always was being smart enough to distil what's current.
Unfortunately, what worked spectacularly for the first 17 years has been wildly inconsistent this century. Given 2008's Hard Candy was decidedly rubbish, we're due a decent album and MDNA should be a refresher course in why Madonna Louise Ciccone outgunned and outlasted pretty much everyone who came up with her. But it isn't.
Not for lack of effort, though - as an extended version of this album with 17 tracks across 68 minutes shows. So, among its seven producers, MDNA finds her back with William Orbit, who helped redefine her with the very good Ray of Light; sharing vocals with Minaj and M.I.A.; leaning heavily on often thumping dance-floor sounds; and working whatever angle she can to generate some tabloid-goosing outrage.
It is the last element that is the first sign of this album's significant weakness: trying too hard. Gang Bang has a recurring, abrasive scratchy rumble that is promising but its petty-crime narrative's language (''Drive bitch, and while you're at it, die bitch'') reeks of look-at-me. More laughable, though, are Girl Gone Wild and I'm a Sinner whose Catholic-girl-in-heat lines have you yawning before you get to ''Hail Mary full of grace, get down on your knees and pray''.
And really, if you're going to use Minaj and M.I.A, you want to make sure they don't outshine you so easily and the songs aren't as trite and disposable as Give Me All Your Luvin' (saved from being the worst song on the album only by the empty Some Girls) and I Don't Give A.
Interestingly, the latter is one of three songs, including one of the bonus tracks, that address the end of her last marriage. She moves from bitterness there to reflective (the winning, lightly electronic ballad Falling Free) and even a bit of humility (the unfortunately flatlined electronic pulse of I F---ed Up). What a pity equal thought was not given to the just plain dumb lyrics of Superstar or the melody of the just plain dull Masterpiece. And what a waste that she didn't pursue more compelling pieces of hands-in-the-air dance such as I'm Addicted and Turn Up the Radio.
Moments in Time
Alex & Nilusha (Whispering Tree/The Planet Company) ★★★★
ALEX is Alex Pertout, percussionist extraordinaire. Nilusha is Nilusha Dassenaike, vocalist extraordinaire. Both are luminaries of the Australian jazz/world scene and have delivered a suite of songs that entrances the senses. Dassenaike brings a warmth to her singing; her interpretation of James Taylor's You Can Close Your Eyes is simply lovely. She and Pertout share most of the song credits and there is not a weak link in the chain. Pertout shows in sublime style how percussion is more than the drum roll, but can be a sparkling joyous rhythm. The duo is joined by Joe Chindamo and Tony Gould (piano), Miroslav Bukovsky (trumpet), Dave Valentin (flute), Craig Newman (bass), David Jones (drums) and Leonard Grigoryan (guitar).
Andrew Winton (Kamzoid/MGM) ★★★½
WEST Australian Andrew Winton, brother of Tim Winton, has been recognised, both here and overseas, as one of this country's finest lap-slide guitarists. He's so admired that Alabama's Don't Fret Instruments has made him a purpose-built Lucky 13 double-neck 13-string lap slide guitar that he features on this album. The songs range from a bouncy ditty about the joys of being Happy, through to the blues-funk of Too High to a moody reading of Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side and the seductively beautiful folk love song, Waiting. Winton is a talented singer and songwriter but his forte, not fully exploited on this album, remains his remarkable guitar playing.