ARTS

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February 20, 2004

Delirium Records channels Madonna with mixed-bag collection of covers

As the biggest fan of Madonna who has never actually stalked her, I usually feel that the less said about remakes of her effervescent pop tunes, the better. Madhouse's "Like a Prayer" was a modest hit, receiving play on some urban dance stations, but its relentless techno beat flattened the emotion of the original. Teenage Fan Club's "Like a Virgin" achieved innovation only by adding a squawk of feedback at the beginning of the song. And Kelly Osbourne's "Papa Don't Preach"…well, the Material Girl herself never commented on that cover. (She probably figured that if she didn't have anything nice to say, she wouldn't say anything at all.)

This means that I approached Delirium Record's The Immaculate Deception: A Tribute to the Music of Madonna with a healthy skepticism. My spirits lifted after perusing the track listing, however. No one had covered "Like a Virgin" at all and several relatively obscure tunes were listed—notably "Hanky Panky" from the Dick Tracy soundtrack and "Burnin' Up" from Madonna's self-titled debut. Most intriguing was the inclusion of "Bad Girl," which, until last year's "American Life," had the dubious distinction of being the biggest flop of Madonna's career. It was reassuring to learn, from this careful cultivation, that the lineup was comprised of Madonna cultists and not a bunch of amateurs.

The opener—the aforementioned "Burnin' Up," performed by Drag—didn't disappoint, but unfortunately, it brought back a few of my suspicions. The lead singer has a fine, sexy growl reminiscent of Courtney Love's, but the punk-rock retread feels a little obvious. Cruzer's "Bad Girl" also uses punk to transform the original tune, and while this works on some level, I can't say it makes me want to head-bang as much as Madonna's version makes me want to dance. The best punk cover on the disc is Mega Manic's "Live to Tell," but this owes less to the quality of the work than to the fact that the original is a ballad, heightening the bizarre contrast between it and the remake.

The most interesting re-imaginations are by bands whose musical styles have little in common with Madonna's own frothy blend of dance and pop. The Toast accomplish the near-impossible, reinterpreting "Material Girl" as a sleepy reggae tune while somehow maintaining the spunk and verve of the original. I even got a slight chill hearing the line "Experience has made me rich/ And now they're after me." Since this oft-overlooked lyric proves that the song is anti-materialistic, it was thrilling to hear it in a different, thoughtful context. Doom Kounty Electric Chair's "Frozen" is an ear-assaulting death metal take on a sweeping tune from Ray of Light, Madonna's most spiritual CD. It looks blasphemous on paper, which is why it sounds great when it is down and dirty in execution.

Other bands fail in trying to improve upon Madonna's original effects. According to the press release from Delirium Records, Wirebox "brings the dance beat" with their rendition of "Like a Prayer," but in reality, their generic beat hardly does justice to one of the greatest dance songs of all time. On "Justify My Love," the lead singer of the Put-Ons tries to sound both sexy and deadpan, but Madonna has him licked (innuendo intended) in both categories. The Relatives radically change the chorus of "Dress You Up," and they ought to be commended for their ingenuity. However, they feel the need to switch pronouns in the lyrics, for no discernible reason other than the fact that the lead singer must not want to sing about another guy. As a Madonna purist, I resent that tinkering.

Funk band Lift Off approaches geek nirvana with a medley of "Music" and "Ray of Light" that sounds like the song the B-52s forgot to record. Statica's "Into the Groove" adds an element of sonic distortion to the original, with the lead singer's voice wavering in and out (it's easy to imagine Madonna's Desperately Seeking Susan character grooving to this one at a party). Danny Dean & the Homewreckers bop their way through "Hanky Panky," clocking in at just over two minutes. Their fun swing style makes lines like "I won't even thank you/Just spank you" sound like sexual harassment from the Brian Setzer Orchestra—and I mean that in the best possible way.

Madonna is easily one of the most-covered artists of all time. She definitely invites this, as she has recently taken to issuing a remix-heavy "maxi-single" with the release of each new song. So what would she think of this effort from Delirium Records? I think she would appreciate the majority of the selections. These musicians are not mere publicity whores, looking to cash in with an easy cover like Kelly "Papa Don't Preach" Osbourne. Rather, they are genuine talents who offer reverent, inventive takes on the music their idol has given us. As Madonna taught us, everybody's living in a material world—and you could exercise your materialism in ways a lot worse than choosing this disc at the record store.