Nightman Listens To – Madonna – Like A Virgin!

Greetings, glancers, and welcome back to another exciting entry in the Nightman Listens series. Today, we’ll be looking at one of the biggest albums of the 80s, and one which launched the career of one of the most influential women in music.

Hard to believe, but yeah
Hard to believe, but yeah

Madonna’s first album was a decent success and the follow-up was recorded and released a year later to great acclaim. With a number of high performing singles and a distinct sound, it is one of the archetypal 80s records, going on to encourage a bunch of imitators to follow Madonna’s musical approach, fashion sense, and provocative approach. Surrounding herself with some terrific writers, Madonna’s drive for success was spurred by the songs she was recording around this time. Looking at the track listing, I actually only recognise two of the names, though I’m sure I’ll know some of the others once I hear them – I’ve never actually sat down and listened to the whole thing. So let’s do this!

Material Girl: Aah, for someone my age there are any number of songs which instantly transport you back to the 80s. Big synthetic drum blasts and funky beats – as soon as that riff comes in, you’re already back there and when the vocals come in there’s no coming back. It’s all very cheesy, almost deliberately so, with Madonna both mocking and praising the materialistic lifestyle. The chorus is perfect, and the verses are pretty catchy too. Of course, we could do without all the squeaks and squawks, but it was the 80s. The production here is excellent, much higher quality. The song feels a little stretched, possibly for video purposes, but it never out stays its welcome.

Angel: Plinky plonky. Laughs. Hmm, I don’t recognise this one so far. Fairly catchy and sultry vocals. Vocals get more bizarre as the song goes on. Chorus is okay, not overly strong. There’s a nice synth break in the middle, another laugh which manages to not be as cheesy as you would think, so well done for that.

Like A Virgin: One of the most recognisable songs of the decade, and possibly Madonna’s signature song. Opening with honking synths it’s another which instantly grabs hold. Madonna sings in a high register, and both verse and chorus melodies are catchy. The lyrics fitted perfectly with Madonna’s image at the time, as an independent strong woman. Musically it crosses that line between pop and dance brilliantly – a song just as good to listen to in the bedroom, on the dance floor, on your Walkman.

Over And Over: Drums. Fast paced blaps. More synth. It’s another I don’t recognize. It’s good fun hearing all these 80s songs which you didn’t hear first time around, or forgot about as they all manage to pull back memories. I was only a toddler when this albums came out, but nevertheless, the music was replayed on TV and radio for years. Anyway, not many hooks on this one, the chorus is okay, but it’s definitely mid-album filler.

Love Don’t Live Here Anymore: Ah yes, I remember this one, and it is of course a cover. Given the synth treatment, it’s probably Madonna’s first ‘dark’ song with its desolate lyrics about loss. The vocals are fine at the high ranges, but things get a little strange for those lower notes. Nevertheless, the arrangement blending strings, synth, guitars, and booming drums gives that timeless 80s feel, and it sounds a little like something Roxette would have done. The song threatens to drag on a little bit, but Madonna brings it back by some fine yelping and howling for the final moments.

Dress You Up: Thumping drums. Disastrous synth. Nice melody. Hand clap sounds like cardboard boxes being dropped in a puddle. Silly lyrics about clothes/sex. I remember the chorus. The chorus is a little too short and whiney. Feels more like a one hit wonder than a genuine memorable Madonna track. It’s a little weak sounding with flat production, decent melodies. It’s a fun, silly inclusion that doesn’t really go anywhere.

Shoo Bee Doo: I don’t know this one. A piano led ballad with a lot of space for Madonna’s vocals. Now drums, slowly becoming more of a dance track. Some of this sounds a little familiar, but I can’t place my memories accurately so I may well have heard this in my youth, or it could simply be similar to other songs I’ve heard. Something about it is also reminding me of a Michael Jackson song, but I can’t quite determine which one. Oh dear Lord, Saxomophone. Vague, light, forgettable, overlong but aside from those points, nothing particularly poor about it.

Pretender: Weird fast noises. Synth drums and other strangeness. I don’t know this one. Attempts to be funky, but doesn’t quite work. Weird vocals, silly boo-hoo lyrics. Nothing catchy here, no matter how many times ‘He’s a pretender’ is shouted at me. Ooh, an interesting middle section. That almost went somewhere good, but didn’t quite manage it.

Stay: The final track, hmm this is a pretty short album. Then again I’m used to metal and prog albums lasting forever. More weird noises at the start. These last few tracks have been more reminiscent of stuff from the first album – middling dance pop songs with no real hooks. It’s an okay song, but not memorable in the slightest. No, not more speaking parts. When will we learn that talking during songs just DOESN’T work? EVER.

I think I was expecting that to be a bit more. Only the singles have any sort of impact, with the rest of the album being average fluff. Note – it turns out that  one of my favourite Madonna songs – Into The Groove – was added to a re-issues of this album, after being recorded for the Desperately Seeking Susan soundtrack. Ah well, we’ll have to skip that one. Hey, Crazy For You was also recorded around this time and wasn’t part of any studio album. This album would have been epic had those two tracks replaced a couple of the others! So, nothing overly brilliant here, but it’s easy to appreciate the impact and sales the album had. Next time we visit Madonna’s back catalogue, we’ll be going through True Blue which I know contains at least two of my favourite Madonna songs, and I’ll be keen to hear if there are any classics I’ve missed.

Let me know what you thought of this album in the comments – does it contain any of your favourites, or is it an aged relic of a time best forgotten?

The West Pole – Music Reviews

The question for the fans (less so the band) was how move on having lost possibly the greatest singer there has ever been. The answer for the band is to first remind yourselves that you made the music and in many ways Anneke was simply the super sweet icing on the top. Fans of the band have come and gone in stages- some when Anneke first joined, others when they changed their sound, and certainly more now that Anneke has gone. Similarly to the situation with Nightwish (but to a lesser extent) there was a lot of disapproval and many thought that this would be the end. The rest of us knew (cautiously) that this would spur the band on to new directions- would they go for a copy cat replacement? Would they go back to male vocals? Perhaps they would use a mix, or even scrap vocals altogether. What we have is a more commercial rock sound, lighter lyrics, and overall a more upbeat, faster album than the last couple.

`When Trust Becomes Sound’ opens with a distorted, angry growl- nothing like they have sounded before. It almost has a grunge feel, a simple riff building up as more instruments join in- this one gets the feet and head moving and sets you up for what appears to be an all out rock album. This instrumental piece almost seems like a joke from the band- we’ve waited so long to hear the new singer and then they don’t even put her on the first song! It works great as an opener, perhaps a similar style of song for the next track would have fitted better.

`Treasure’ opens with distinctly lighter guitars and a poppy drum beat and when we first hear Silje Wergeland’s voice we know we are in good company. There is a definite Anneke depth and great ability, but she sounds more like the girl next door while Anneke was the rebel. This track makes for a perfect single and could really have been a hit in any number of charts- the melodies are catchy and light, the lyrics are simple and have great sing along quality all building up to a sun-filled chorus. This being The Gathering, they throw in a nice bridge towards the end to stunning effect, bright and loaded with emotive strings before the calm, easy finish.

`All You Are’ opens in a similarly poppy fashion, this time with a muted guitar riff which bleeds into some Tori Amos style e-v-e-r-y syllable counts singing. This builds to a heavy, non-metal chorus giving Silje a chance to show off the power of her voice, backed again by a powerful string section. Like Anneke at the beginning the lyrics need some time to mature but they are okay for the moment. Halfway through the song the chorus extends into a long thumping section with some new melodies and bitterness. Again this is a song which will get the crowd moving.

`The West Pole’ opens with a distant, hissy guitar, a line that almost sounds dismissive. The lead chords crash in along with some sorrow filled vocals for the album’s first epic. If that had been written 10 years ago it would have had a massive production behind it with guitars and effects flying all over the place. As it stands now it is fairly basic, happy to rely on vocals and drums for the most part, things only getting varied in the chorus. This album is filled with big anthem style choruses and this is no different- it seems like the whole album was written for the fans to scream back at the band during every performance. There is the traditional sound clip in the centre of the song before a nice change comes along with some sweet, whispered singing.

`No Bird Call’ is quite a strange song, opening with flanging organs to sound like a funeral march. The first vocals make it seem like this is going to be a downbeat, `Souvenirs’ song but the problem is that never gets going. I think this one could really have been half the length and still worked as well, cutting out part of the middle and shaving the last couple of minutes, leaving the part when the glorious strings enter. As this album is quite short another song or two could have been written and used, but what do I know?

`Capital Of Nowhere’ features almost childlike singing, an offbeat accent, and giving a new twist to the sound. This is another one with a big pop style chorus, great melodies but is stretch out to epic status with some interesting, spacey interludes.

`You Promised Me A Symphony’ is a piano led ballad with a great chorus featuring classic melody and lyrics. My only problem is that the verses don’t match up to the quality of the chorus. The lyrics are nice throughout, just those verses are pretty forgettable. With stronger verses on top of the excellent chorus singing this could have been on of their best, but just misses out.

`Pale Traces’ is the longest song on the album, opening in atmospheric style with strange sounds, deep vocals, and a good melody. The song then picks up pace with one of the best bass performances from Marjolein and steady drums. I’m not sure what is missing from this one- maybe some of the early parts seem bare, but this is as good as anything on the album and has some of my favourite singing. In my more contemplative moments I wonder what Anneke would sound like covering this but it doesn’t really matter. This is a great song that I hope they play live because it’s bound to have an emotional response.

`No One Spoke’ speeds things up again with a faster rock song. This one has a nice building up atmosphere which is sure to make it a live favourite, catchy verses and chorus and some effective piano parts. There are a few bass and guitar moments thrown in to spice things up making it another commercial sounding song with a rock twist.

`A Constant Run’ finishes the album at high speed, an ominous, urgent bass line, galloping drums, and some atmospheric synthesizer. The vocals here are strong, but it is again the chorus which stands out- anthemic, a joy to sing along to, and of course it all makes you wish you were watching them in an adoring, dancing crowd. This leaves you begging for more, for an encore at the end of the album but unfortunately none comes. As I type I wish they would come to Britain again. The ending stretches out to over 7 minutes (but it seems much shorter) with speeding drums and keyboards in true Gathering style- they are still here and they still have it.

This may be the band’s most simple album so far in terms of how it sounds and how the songs are structured. The new line-up (if it remains) will take some time to gel, hopefully after some touring and writing together they will come back with another classic. This album is a good new beginning- lots of great moments, a few forgettable ones, but it is still the band we love and we should rest easy in the knowledge that after all this time they can still do little wrong. Silje does a great job under a lot of pressure (as do the guest singers) and the rest of the band are as good as always. Rene doesn’t get much time to show off- there aren’t really any trademark moments- just the occasional Johnny Greenwood style fast playing. I think this still gets fairly mixed reviews, I would say that while it isn’t one of their best it is certainly very good (though painfully short) and as it is The Gathering it still reigns supreme over most other bands.

*Written at time of release