Music Reviews: The Latest From Madonna, the Cast of 'Empire,' Will Butler and More

PHOTO: Madonna performs on stage for the BRIT Awards 2015 at The O2 Arena on Feb. 25, 2015 in London.
Samir Hussein/Redferns via Getty Images

This week, Madonna returns with her downright epic 13th album, which in its fullest form spans 25 songs over two discs. Also, Arcade Fire’s Will Butler goes solo, Fox’s hit show “Empire” releases its first soundtrack compilation, “The Sound Of Music” turns 50 and gets the reissue treatment, singer Donna Lewis teams with jazz band The Bad Plus to release an appealing collection of mostly covers and hip-hop collective The Mouse Outfit represent Manchester, England with pride.

It’s been another busy, diverse week full of musical exploration.

PHOTO: Madonna - "Rebel Heart" (Super Deluxe Edition)
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Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” (Super Deluxe Edition) ****

Madonna’s 13th studio album in its most expanded, 25-track form is actually a pretty astonishing piece of work. I’ll be honest. The “Material Girl” hasn’t delivered an album that has impressed me from end to end since “Music” in 2000, but this record is strikingly different.

“Rebel Heart” is a legacy record and by that I mean, Madonna is building upon her 33-year recording history while adding more to her body of work. So, you get the slick dance numbers (“Living For Love,” “Illuminati”) next to ballads (“Ghosttown”, “Joan Of Arc”) and along the way quite a few surprises are tossed into the mix. “Body Shop” somehow sounds like it could be a hip-hop remix of a lost Ani DiFranco song, while the title track is a mid-tempo adult-alternative acoustic rocker.

Throughout the set, Madonna tosses in her favorite subjects of sex (“S.E.X.” “Best Night”) and religion (“Messiah.”) Sometimes, she manages to combine the two, as she does on the “Vogue”-quoting “Holy Water.” Nas drops a verse on “Veni, Vidi, Vici,” while Chance The Rapper appears on “Iconic.” Nicki Minaj makes her second appearance on a Madonna song on the weirdly spacy and trippy “B_____ I’m Madonna,” a song which makes up for its ridiculous lyrics with its innovative sense of bombast. The album often has a sultry club sheen, as if soundtracking some futuristic discotheque. This is Madonna’s modern pop record. If autotune and vocoders bother you, this may not be your album. To be honest, these effects bother me more often than not, but in this case, I understand their use. This is a celebration of Madonna’s career in all her brash glory.

In all, “Rebel Heart” shows that Madonna is still a vibrant force. She’s not afraid of controversy. She’s not afraid to go her own direction. She’s still, underneath it all, a punk kid wanting to cause a ruckus while she makes you dance. If you get this album, this deluxe edition is most recommended. While this album does not quite match the highpoints of career highlights “Ray Of Light” and “Like A Prayer,” in its fullest version this record stands as the most ambitious and sonically eclectic album of Madonna’s career. Its nearly constant stylistic shifts make you forgive its weaker spots. This is exactly the album she needed to make at this point. This album’s impressive immensity and diversity should silence many of her doubters. There’s only one Madonna and she should never stop being herself.

Focus Tracks:

“Ghosttown” Since “Live To Tell,” Madonna has always been best at ballads. This is a stunner. I wish it didn’t have the Autotune over the verses, but nevertheless this deserves a place among her biggest hits.

“Veni Vidi Vici” (Featuring Nas) Every superhero needs an origin story and this deluxe-edition track tells Madonna’s, starting with her days tagging and hanging out with graffiti artists on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early eighties, up until the present day. You have to remember she used to be in the same circle as Jean–Michel Basquiat. Nas uses his verse to tell a bit about his own history, thus creating some cool cohesion.

“Inside Out” This is a sleek electro groove mixed with the tenderness of a ballad, even if it is full of erotic lines like “Let me love you from the inside out.” Again, this should be a single.

PHOTO: Will Butler - "Policy"
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Will Butler’s “Policy” ***

Will Butler is a member of Arcade Fire and the younger brother of that band’s leader, Win Butler. "Policy,” his debut solo release comes off as a bit of a surprise, as it consists of a mere eight songs that clock in under a half-hour, bouncing from genre to genre.

“Anna” is a slice of horn-assisted synth-rock which is marred by his assistance to make his voice squeak for emphasis. “Take My Side” is some raggedy, ramshackle electric blues. “Something’s Coming” is a twitchy, Talking Heads-esque bit of disco rock.

Throughout the set, Butler sings repeatedly about a god, but one who seems to fill him with a sense of dread. There’s an unsettling apocalyptic thread going through this set, but it is a playfully cartoon-like notion of impending doom.

While this album plays slightly better than Arcade Fire’s overcooked “Reflektor,” Butler is best when he is at his loosest. Sometimes some of his more mannered, calculated exercises can reek of the same self-conscious pretension that can often bring down his band. The previously-mentioned “Anna” and “Something Coming” both cross over into the negative column in this regard, while the Neil Young-esque ballad “Sing To Me” and the freewheeling rocker “What I Want” both come off as positive exercises.

Butler obviously wants to make something that sounds like products of the new wave and punk undergrounds of the late-seventies. There is a straight-to-vinyl sense of “cool” to this record, but it comes off as too intentional to be authentic. The sax-assisted, gospel-flavored rocker, “Witness,” sounds like something Lou Reed might have made in the early part of his solo career.

"Policy” is however a decent effort. Its brevity does make it seem possibly incomplete. (I was left wanting a couple more tracks.) It still helps establish Butler in his own light, outside of Arcade Fire. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it shows him as his own man.

Focus Tracks:

“Finish What I Started” As the shortest and most understated song on the album, this is also somehow the most satisfying song on the record, exhibiting a classic sense of song-craft. It has some nice piano-work as well.

“Son Of God” This quickly-strummed number is a winkingly sarcastic ode to the Rapture. It has a weirdly effective sense of pep and a coolly, unhinged electric guitar solo.

“What I Want” Often it seems like Butler wants to let his inner punk loose and this song plays like a laundry list of runaway thoughts and observations. This approach is ridiculously fun and it really works, even if its quirkiness sometimes goes a little overboard. It’s quite a humorous song.

PHOTO: "Empire" - Original Soundtrack For Season 1"
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“Empire” Cast’s “Original Soundtrack From Season 1 of “Empire” ***

“Empire,” Fox’s new breakout drama about a record label often plays like a hip-hop and R&B answer to ABC’s “Nashville,” showing all the behind-the-scenes drama of the music industry. The show was created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong who previously worked together on “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” Daniels is also famous for directing “Precious.” Strong is not only famous as a screenwriter (“Game Change”) but he’s also a recognizable character actor known for recurring roles on shows like “Gilmore Girls” and “Mad Men.”

In the show, “Empire” is the label run by Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) alongside his fresh-out-of-jail ex-wife Cookie, played by Taraji P. Henson. Their oldest son Andre (Trai Byers) has a leadership role, while middle son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is a gifted R&B singer. Youngest son, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) is a rapper of questionable talent. (Sadly his signature hit “Drip Drop” isn’t here.)

What is here is a glossy dose of R&B and pop mostly anchored by super-producer Timbaland. Admittedly, most of these songs work better in the show than they do once taken out of context. Smollett shows himself to be a real talent even if sometimes the needless digital effect layer over his voice undercuts the real sense of emotion. Really, this soundtrack often gets its best moments from celebrity guests like Jennifer Hudson, Estelle, Mary J. Blige and (of all people) Courtney Love.

This is an effective collection, even if it works better once you understand the context of the show. If it seems overproduced (which frankly, it often does) it is only to mirror the electro-gloss heard on modern pop radio. If you like pop-flavored hip-hop and R&B but haven’t seen “Empire,” will you like this record? Probably to some extent. But knowing the context makes these songs a bit better.

Focus Tracks:

“Good Enough” Featuring Jussie Smollett Smollett’s character, Jamal is a singer wanting to get his father’s acceptance. He’s gay and wants to come out of the closet. His father doesn’t approve. Knowing these plot-points helps this song really sink in and makes it a more powerful plea for love and understanding. Smollett also later does some quality work alongside Estelle on the standout, “Conqueror.”

“Whatever Makes You Happy” Featuring Jennifer Hudson and Juicy J It shouldn’t be a surprise that Jennifer Hudson provides two of the album’s key points during her two appearances. She is a star talent. This song is filled with so much joy, even when it manages to work “If You’re Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands” into its framework.

“Walk Out On Me” Featuring Courtney Love Courtney Love stands out on this collection of modern R&B a bit like a sore thumb, but as Elle Dallas, the label’s first major signee, trying to mount a comeback after many lost years amidst a heavy drug haze, she shines. This ballad is pretty far away from the grunge of Hole and it was produced by Raphael Saadiq. Love’s signature raw style is used to give this ballad a feeling of sadness. Some of the tension felt here is obviously coming from a real place in Love’s experience. Some of it is put on as part of the character, but it really works.

PHOTO: "The Sound Of Music" Soundtrack (50th Anniversary Edition)
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“The Sound Of Music ” (50th Anniversary Edition) *****

My childhood was often playfully tormented by this Rodgers & Hammerstein soundtrack. Whether I wanted to listen to it or not, both my Mother and my Sister loved this record and there was a period when it seemed to be constantly playing in our house.

In honor of its 50th Anniversary, the original soundtrack to “The Sound Of Music” has been lovingly reissued on CD with new packaging and an extensive liner-note essay by Julie Andrews. Love it or hate it, this musical’s cultural impact is undeniable and Lady Gaga’s show-stopping Oscars tribute not only is now very clearly put into fuller context, but also proves that this music is indeed timeless. Whether you are talking about the theme, “Edelweiss,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things” or “Maria” all of these songs are considered priceless standards.

"So Long, Farewell” will now forever be associated with sadness for me. When Phil Hartman left "SNL," the cast sang this to him and the performance ended with Chris Farley dressed as motivational-speaker Matt Foley, with his head on Hartman’s shoulder. Not long after, both men would meet tragic, premature ends and to this day I have trouble watching that performance without choking back a tear or two.

This soundtrack has been omnipresent in our culture for half a century now. It has peppered various parts of our lives in ways we haven’t expected. “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” is a youthful ode to growth, while “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is full of motivational gusto. This music is inescapably embedded in our culture and the story of a World War II era family escaping the wrath of the Nazis is one where good triumphs over evil. "The Sound Of Music” may be a hokey musical, but it is also a tremendous classic.

Focus Tracks:

“My Favorite Things” Julie Andrews This may be the song that has been the most enduring on a set full of enduring tunes. It has been covered many times. John Coltrane’s version became one of his most famous recordings.

“Edelweiss" Bill Lee & Charmain Carr This is still quite a beautiful slice of intimate folk music. It’s a beautiful serenade for a flower.

“Maria” Evadne Baker, Anna Lee, Portia Nelson, and Marni Nixon Maria (Julie Andrews) is a flighty, whimsical adventurous woman in a convent attempting to become a nun. This song is a loving ode to the other nuns’ frustrations with her, expressing both love and disdain for her ways by asking the immortal question, “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?”

PHOTO: Donna Lewis - "Brand New Day"
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Donna Lewis’ “Brand New Day” *** 1/2

Donna Lewis, as you may remember gave us the 1996 dance-pop hit “I Love You Always Forever.” The Welsh singer was really famous for a moment on that hit’s success. Unfortunately for her, in the United States at least that song remained her only significant pop hit.

Now, 19 years later (and 8 years since her last record), Lewis has returned in an unexpected way. Backed by jazz trio The Bad Plus and guitarists Ron Affif and David Torn she tackles some of her own songs and a creative array of covers. This is a jazz record and frequently a slow, moody, mannered one at that. If you are wondering, yes, she records a very different version of her big hit alongside daring readings of challenging classics like David Bowie’s “Bring Me The Disco King,” Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Neil Young’s “Helpless,” Damien Rice’s “Amie,” Bacharach and David’s Dionne Warwick-popularized “Walk On By,” Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking At Me” and more. This is a risky record and it is also an interesting mood-setter.

Lewis still has a high, clear, extremely girlish coo of a voice, so she isn’t your typical jazz singer, but that juxtaposition makes this all the more interesting a listen, even if fans of her previous pop records may find this move puzzling. The Bad Plus, too are known for playfully deconstructed arrangements, so this record may not be for mere casual listening. It has some challenging edges. Again, the odd nature of this collection and this unlikely collaboration make it all the more appealing and intriguing a listen. With “Brand New Day,” Donna Lewis proves her versatility. She also proves that she should be considered much more than a “one-hit-wonder.”

Focus Tracks:

“Walk On By” This slow, sedate reading of this song brings out the song’s true sadness. Without the typical Bacharach horn section, it sounds dire. It really is a song about being utterly destroyed by heartbreak, so this change is completely appropriate.

“Crazy” This track was covered frequently around the time of its original release. Even after having so many other artists deliver their own renditions, Lewis and the Bad Plus still manage to make their smoky chanteuse version sound fresh.

“Waters Of March” Lewis’ reading of the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic borders on chaos as it reaches its ending apex. Even as it sounds like it is about to collapse on itself, her delivery is full of warmth.

PHOTO: The Mouse Outfit - "Step Steadier"
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The Mouse Outfit’s “Step Steadier” **** 1/2

Most of you have probably never heard of The Mouse Outfit. That is because British hip-hop in the States still remains virtually undiscovered and underappreciated. Sure, over the years the labels have spoon-fed us a few morsels. We’ve heard The Streets, Lady Sovereign and Dizzy Rascal. But each one of those acts is treated like a passing fad over here for some reason. This Manchester, England crew deserves some worldwide attention. Their album “Escape Music” made my “Top 50 Best Albums of 2013” list and “Step Steadier,” its follow-up is easily equally impressive.

You should pay attention to The Mouse Outfit because their focus is obviously bringing hip-hop back to its core essence. Rappers Sparkz, Dr. Syntax, Fox, Truthos Mufasa, Dubbul O, Verb T, Ellis Meade and Jman & Tman all have some of the tightest, well-concocted flows heard in some time. Sparkz in particular has a considerable level of skill. Give him three minutes and he’ll nearly use as many words as Drake did on his entire new album. (That’s an exaggeration, but it is virtually true!) Sparkz’s flow is seamless and breathless and truly astonishing. (In fact, this week through his Bandcamp page, he also quietly issued a quality solo EP, “Angle One” that is also highly recommended.)

The band itself is pretty astonishing as well in back of the stellar MCs. Live instrumentation gives the music an organic feel. There is a considerate amount of jazzy punch to their sound. They were obviously schooled on the music of the Roots, The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest and more. There are even flecks of the cool retro-funk that fueled the Beastie Boys’ instrumental side.

If you are a hip-hop fan who appreciates lyrical skill backed by an extremely tight band, look no further. This is a group that really needs to be on your radar. Play this at a party and you are guaranteed to be bombarded by people asking you, “Who is that???” These guys are destined for greatness. “Step Steadier” is guaranteed to be one of 2015’s best hip-hop albums. Jaw-dropping lyrical acrobatics meet some of the smoothest grooves you have ever heard. Long story short, I love this record. It feels like a lost classic from hip-hop’s golden age before it was invaded by pop influence.

Focus Tracks:

“Step Steadier” Featuring Fox Unlike the rest of the lyricists here, rapper Fox has more of a reggae edge to his flow. Backed by a tight bassline and a Fela Kuti-esque horn section, he makes his presence known and owns this track. This is groove has vintage cool and a unique freshness. It sounds like it should be backing a scene in Guy Ritchie’s movie “Snatch.”

“Who’s Up Next?” Featuring Dr. Syntax, Sparkz, Truthos Mufasa and Dubbul O Every great hip-hop record used to have a “crew” song where each personality got to spit a verse. This sounds almost like a vintage Souls of Mischief jam and Truthos Mufasa’s verse exhibits a focus, tightness and tone similar to Busta Rhymes’ verse on the A Tribe Called Quest classic “One Two Sh__.”

“Credits Roll” Featuring Verb T This was the album’s first single and Verb T drops some quality verses, backed by some nice bass, drum, organ and horn work. Again, this band knows exactly how to deliver the funk. These guys understand this brand of hip-hop.

Next Week: The latest from Modest Mouse, Marina and the Diamonds and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Kelly Clarkson, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds and more.

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