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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Cream of The Crate: Album # 144 – Madonna: Ray Of Light

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cream of the crate: album # 144 – madonna: ray of light
Cover – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

  This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.

 

 

"Ray of Light is her maternity album as well as her avant-dance album.” - (Rolling Stone April 1998) . . . "I think this album is the best written lyrically; it’s very colorful and brilliant, like a "Ray of Light." - (music-critic .com)

This is album retro-review number 144 in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl and Cd albums in my collection.

The series is called
“Cream of The Crate” and each review represents an album that I believe is of significant musical value, either because of it’s rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of music or because there is something unique about the group or the music.

The first fifty reviews were vinyl only, and the second fifty reviews were CD’s only. Links to these reviews can be found at the bottom of this page. From review 101 onward I have mixed vinyl and CD albums and, try and present an Australian album every fifth review!

This is album retro-review number 144 in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl and Cd albums in my collection.

The series is called “Cream of The Crate” and each review represents an album that I believe is of significant musical value, either because of it’s rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of music or because there is something unique about the group or the music.

The first fifty reviews were vinyl only, and the second fifty reviews were CD’s only. Links to these reviews can be found at the bottom of this page. From review 101 onward I have mixed vinyl and CD albums and, try and present an Australian album every fifth review.

This weeks retro-review is on an artist that recorded the album in the late 1990’s, a period I don’t examine very often.

The artist is Madonna and the album is Ray of Light.

The album is on a CD format and was released in 1998 on the Maverick label under the Warner Music label, and it has the identifying code of 9 362468472.

cream of the crate: album # 144 – madonna: ray of light
CD Label – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

The album has 13 original tracks, all written by Madonna in conjunction with others.

Singer, performer and actress Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone was born in Bay City, Michigan, on August 16, 1958, to parents Silvio “Tony” Ciccone and Madonna Fortin.

Tony, the son of Italian immigrants, was the first of his family to go to college, where he earned a degree in engineering.

Madonna’s mother, an x-ray technician and former dancer, was of French Canadian descent.After their marriage in 1955, the couple moved to Pontiac, Michigan, to be close to Tony’s job as a defence engineer.

Madonna was born three years later, during a visit with family in Bay City.

The third of six children, Madonna learned early on how to handle her role as the middle child, admitting that she was “the sissy of the family” who often used her feminine wiles to get her way.

Her parents’ strict observation of the Catholic faith played a large role in Madonna’s childhood. “My mother was a religious zealot,” Madonna explains. “There were always priests and nuns in my house growing up.”

Many elements of Catholic iconography—including her mother’s statues of the Sacred Heart, the habits of the nuns at her Catholic elementary school, and the Catholic altar at which she and her family prayed daily—later became the subject of Madonna’s most controversial works.

Wanting to undertake a dance career Madonna moved to New York in 1978 where she met the head of a vaudeville review that was working in France. She headed for France working as a showgirl where she discovered she had a talent and a love for singing and performing.

Returning to the USA in 1980 she joined Gilroy’s Band as its drummer and later became its lead singer.

Madonna formed several different bands of her own over the next few years, including Madonna & The SkyThe Millionaires and Emmy

In 1981 she went solo and in 1981 had a hit with “Everybody“. Using that hit as leverage she encouraged the record company, Sire, to produce the full length album Madonna.

The year was 1983 and despite the slow sales her unique fashion sense had girls everywhere imitating her wearing fishnet stockings, lace lingerie, fingerless gloves and large crucifix necklaces.

This intensity and determination was apparent in her 1985 follow-up album, Like A Virgin, which hit #1 on the Billboard Chart and went platinum within a month. From that point the “Material Girl” was really off and running and there was no holding her back.

It has often been said that Madonna’s constant ability to reshape and reinvent herself not only kept her act fresh, but kept her in the headlines. The fact that the music she produced was of a high quality did nothing to slow the Madonna runaway train down.

There is so much to her story, but to get to this album we jump to 1998 and Madonna did it again!

She dove headfirst into electronica and her ‘spirituality” was shaped to dovetail neatly into her change of direction and the result is the album – Ray of Light!

There is no doubt that the album has had mixed reviews, some reviewers at the time acclaimed it as brilliant, others were bored. I have several Madonna albums but I don’t overindulge and maybe that’s the secret of appreciating her music. When the album came out, it stunned me.

Does it still do that today? No!

Do I think it is a very good album? Yes!

cream of the crate: album # 144 – madonna: ray of light
Centre picture from the booklet – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

Let me start this retro-review with the inserted booklet, the cover of which forms the cover for the CD.

It is a quality production!

It consists of quality gloss paper, full colour, although it is predominantly in the same shades of aqua throughout.

As we might expect of Madonna, the pictures of her throughout it are excellent quality and very flattering.

It contains the lyrics to all the songs. It fails to provide information on those backing her and this is one of my two criticisms of the booklet. The other criticism is – It’s so damn hard to read. 

The print size is about as small as it could be reasonably made, and printed in white. It is a challenge to read and why?

I like a good challenge but not in my music album liner notes.

cream of the crate: album # 144 – madonna: ray of light
Booklet plate – [CLICK to enlarge]
Actually another thing I think she missed out on was some words on her concept behind the album, which in my mind was for Madonna, quite groundbreaking at the time.

Sure when we examine the lyrics a theme reveals itself, but when you provide a quality booklet – use the opportunity to share some of the story! 

In regard to the music, well when this album was released in 1998 I had been immersed in electronic / electro music for over 22 years.  So when it was released I bought it and started listening with some trepidation.

Was it going to cut it musically?

Oh yes! was my immediate response.

Weary of the “doof doof” approach to music through the use of electronic instrumentation, and having been totally bored, I was delighted that some 90% of what I had heard on this album was indeed, refreshing.

There was a really good reason, independently or conjointly, she and her English producer William Orbit – have pulled back on the unbridled and unfocused approach in regard to the use of electronic instrumentation and processing.

In fact have used these devices tastefully and perhaps, better than anyone else in regard to commercial pop music, up to this point.

Track Listing:

1. Drowned World / Substitute for Love 5:08
2. Swim 5:00
3. Ray of Light 5:20
4. Candy Perfume Girl 4:36
5. Skin 6:21
6. Nothing Really Matters 4:26
7. Sky Fits Heaven 4:47
8. Shanti / Ashtangi 4:29
9. Frozen 6:12
10. The Power of Goodbye 4:12
11. To Have and Not to Hold 5:22
12. Little Star 5:18
13. Mer Girl 5:31

 

cream of the crate: album # 144 – madonna: ray of light
Rear Cover: Including Track listing – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

As I usually do, I like to look at the first track as I believe it should be a pointer, an indicator to what we can expect from an album.

Track 1 really is the “calling card” of the artist and Track 1 is Drowned World/Substitute For Love.

The track has a very ethereal opening, almost unworldly as we are faced with some gentle and subtle synth washes, with a male voice announcing – “You See!”

The electronic wash continues as Madonna’s voice comes in, and is both gentle and as I said, ethereal.

Around a minute thirty, the male voice again announces, “You See“, the drums come back in with an effective reverse guitar line.

The track is not an “arse-kicker, but a declaration by Madonna. Even the tempo picks up toward the end the track which is cleverly arranged to suck us right in. It worked with me.

It seems as though the “Material Girl” was taken into a better place with motherhood, it’s almost like she is declaring that motherhood has “rescued” her from her uncaring material world.

Drowned World/Substitute For Love

By the time we get to track 3 we have been introduced to a pallet of electronica, restrained and seriously effective. 

When I first listened I was beginning to wonder if the album was indeed, going to be made up of gentle ballad type material. It sure isn’t!

From the moment a very nicely constructed guitar line comes in supplemented with a gentle synth, we begin to wonder – and then we find out.

This is the power track!

Ray of Light is not a “get you by the throat” power track, in fact it is a damn fine dance track. In my mind it is the track that defines the album and where Madonna was at.

cream of the crate: album # 144 – madonna: ray of light
A Ray of Light – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

Coming across as they “featured” track is not surprising given the track and the album share the same title.

It’s a track that demonstrated at the time that Madonna still could still command an audience. The work of those engineering and producing is stunning.

The placement of the instruments is really good and despite a collage of electronica, guitars and drums and Madonna’s soaring vocals, nothing is cluttered, nothing get’s in the way of anything else.

Ray of Light

Track 4 is Candy Perfume Girl.

William Orbit’s fantastic contribution really shines through with the weird and wonderful Candy Perfume Girl. This is one track where Madonna’s vocals are almost irrelevant, they pretty well play second place to the wonderfully warped beats, crashes and techno blips.

Orbit also contributes the excellent guitar work to this oft-ignored gem. The track is not the most challenging on this album but the construction, arrangement and production are undeniably effective.

You would just have to love the utterly angry bass line that perfectly supplements the aggressive development within the song’s content.

Candy Perfume Girl

Tracks like Shanti / Ashtangi are a love / hate for me.

I love the music, I think it’s well played and certainly well conceptualised. But the incessant chanting by Madonna just takes her newly found “anti-material” persona a tad too far.

It lacks passion and sure as hell lacks the feeling of truth. If you like chants – it’s ok, I guess.

As Rolling Stone said of this track, “It sounds like Devo’s version of “Working in the Coal Mine.”

I wish I’d said that first!

cream of the crate: album # 144 – madonna: ray of light

 

However track number 9 is different, and greatly different!

Frozen has a really, really interesting set of percussion lines.

The use of the strings throughout the track far from making it “icky sticky” have blended in well with another array of great techno/electro effects. It’s not an uptempo track, and in fact at times the slow but passionate drive of the track can leave you quite breathless.

It is quite possibly one of her finest “pop” songs despite her having had many such successes.

There are times when you can feel the cold up the nape of your neck. The track is a classic example of fine delivery, fine production with a restrained approach of electronic effects.

You only see what your eyes want to see
How can life be what you want it to be
You’re frozen
When your heart’s not open

You’re so consumed with how much you get
You waste your time with hate and regret
You’re broken
When your heart’s not open

Mmmmmm, if I could melt your heart
Mmmmmm, we’d never be apart
Mmmmmm, give yourself to me
Mmmmmm, you hold the key

Now there’s no point in placing the blame
And you should know I suffer the same
If I lose you
My heart will be broken

Love is a bird, she needs to fly
Let all the hurt inside of you die
You’re frozen
When your heart’s not open

Mmmmmm, if I could melt your heart
Mmmmmm, we’d never be apart
Mmmmmm, give yourself to me
Mmmmmm, you hold the key

You only see what your eyes want to see
How can life be what you want it to be
You’re frozen
When your heart’s not open

Mmmmmm, if I could melt your heart
Mmmmmm, we’d never be apart
Mmmmmm, give yourself to me
Mmmmmm, you hold the key

If I could melt your heart
Mmmmmm, we’d never be apart
Mmmmmm, give yourself to me
Mmmmmm, you hold the key

If I could melt your heart

Frozen

Power of Goodbye opens up with a delightful sequencer piece and while not the best track on the album, it holds its own and deserves its place on the album.

I love the acoustic guitar lines in this track, among all the electronica, it stands out!

To have and Not To Hold has a brilliantly strong bass line and is a really, really good track.

Is it about forbidden love/wanting someone you can’t have… She can be with him, but not properly…they’re having an affair. “To kiss, but never be”.

One of the good thing about well written lyrics is that they tell a story, but it’s a story that each of us can put our own interpretation on. The blending of the instrumentation and the voice yet again shows the strength of the production.

With what is almost a latin-american beat, it has the feet dancing and yet it beguiles the heart.

Like a moth to a flame
Only I am to blame
Ba ba da ba ba ba
What can I do?
Ba ba da ba ba ba
I go straight to you
Ba ba da ba ba ba
I’ve been told
You’re to have, not to hold

To look but not to see
To kiss but never be
The object of your desire
I’m walking on a wire
And there’s no one at all
To break my fall

Power Of Goodbye

The penultimate track Little Star, once again has some nice riffs some evocative effects and some quite pleasant music but really it’s a sickly ode to her daughter, and Madonna could have done better than that.

Finally the last track, Mer Girl.

Well, this is indeed a strange track, it’s almost a musical collage. Containing elements of the track Space, by Hungarian jazz guitarist Gábor Szabó.

It is not the weakest track on the album, nor is it the strongest. In psychology they say you need to take into account the “Primacy/Recency effect when you want anyone to remember your performance.

In essence this means that people generally tend to most strongly recall that which they hear first and, last.

This is not a track that I would have placed last.

So how to sum it all up? The strange thing is, despite my praise for this album I don’t consider myself a fan of Madonna.

I have a few other of her albums including I’m Breathless, and what I found was there was always one or two tracks that stood out and grabbed me.

This album was the first album by Madonna where I could openly declare that there were multiple tracks that I really liked, six in fact!

cream of the crate: album # 144 – madonna: ray of light
[CLICK to enlarge]

 

I do admit that the constant cosmic references to ‘god’ get a bit wearing, but when the “Material Girl” started seeking something with a bit more meaning, it was inevitable I guess.

I found when the lyrics started to annoy me, I just listened to tonality of her voice, and the music. That worked!

What else is interesting is that it was also the last Madonna album I ever bought so maybe in my mind this album represented the pinnacle of her recording.

I know others will not just disagree, but do so strongly. That’s fine but the introduction of digital technology and digital instruments, in fact even analogue synths, had as profound effect upon contemporary music, as did the introduction of the electric guitar and then, multi-tracking.

cream of the crate: album # 144 – madonna: ray of light

 

Sadly what digital multi-tracking and digital instrumentation did do, was to release upon the market a ‘shit load” of crap masquerading as music.

However, an album like Ray of Light showed what could be done using digital multi-tracking and instrumental with the right artist, the right material and the right production team.

This is a highly recommended album for music collectors. It’s not expensive either, there are many copies on Ebay, from only $3.00 upwards.


VIDEOS:

It is hard to conceive that we would think of Madonna’s music without thinking video clip. In fact the majority of live performance clips have had the audio track muted by madonna’s recording company, and frankly, that sucks!

However I have a few that have so far escaped this stupid censorship!

 

Ray Of Light

 

Mer Girl / Sky Fits Heaven

 

Nothing Really Matters

 

Ray Of Light


Previous Cream of The Crate Albums:

 

To view/listen the first 50 vinyl album reviews just click the image below –

cream of the crate cd review #2 : robert johnson – the complete recordings

 

To view/listen the first 50 Cd album reviews just click the image below –

 

Click to open the following Vinyl reviews from 101 onward:

#101:  Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley’s Beach Party (Live)

#102:  Les Paul and Mary Ford – The World Is waiting For The Sunrise

#103:  Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica

#104:  Los Fronterizos – Misa Creole

#105:  Bobby Bright – Child Of Rock And Roll

#106:  The  Nylons – One Size Fits All

#107:  Jimmy Cliff – The Harder They Come [Soundtrack from the film]

#108:  Paul Simon – Graceland

#109.  The Ventures – The Very Best Of

#110.  The Pardoners – Indulgences

#111.  Atlantic R&B: Volumes 1 – 3 [1947 to 1957] 

#112.  Atlantic R&B Volumes 4 & 5 [1957 – 1965]

#113.  Roots of Rock: Vol.12 – Union Avenue Breakdown

#114.  David Fanshawe – African Sanctus

#115.  A Reefer Derci – Various Artists

#116.  Dr. John – Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch

#117.  The Walker Brothers – The Walker Brothers

#118.  Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel

#119.  Curved Air – Airconditioning

#120.  The Delltones – The Best of The Delltones

#121.  Hound Dog Taylor – Hound Dog Taylor and The Houserockers

#122.  Bessie Smith – Queen of The Blues

#123.  The Shadows – The Shadows Greatest Hits

#124.  Gil Scott Heron – Reflections

#125.  The Dingoes – Five Times The Sun

#126.  Bert Jansch and John Renbourn – Bert and John

#127.  Nat King Cole – The Complete After Midnight Sessions

#128.  Various Artists – The Rock and Roll Collection [A Box Set]

#129.  Sam Cooke – 16 Most Requested Songs

#130.  Various Artists – Australian Rock Heritage Vol.1

#131:  Wilson Pickett – The Exciting Wilson Pickett

#132.  Martha and The Vandellas – Greatest Hits

#133.  Van Morrison – The Best Of

#134.  The Marvelettes – Greatest Hits

#135.  Various Artists – So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star Volume 1

#136.  Various Artists – Zydeco [ The Essential Collection]

#137.  King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King

#138. Slim Harpo – The Best of Slim Harpo

#139. Mary Wells – The Best Of

#140. Various Artists –  So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star Volume 2

# 141. Lou Reed – Walk On The Wild Side [Best of Lou Reed]

# 142. Leadbelly – The Library of Congress Recordings

# 143. Various Artists – The British Pop Collection

Rob Greaves
I have been with the Toorak Times since April 2012. I work as Senior Editor of the Toorak Times, but I also think of myself as senior contributor. I've been in the Australian music scene as a musician since 1964, and have worked in radio and TV and newspapers (when they were paper ), serious experience in audio editing, and a lot of video editing experience. Currently I'm working as a radio program producer for a national interview program as well as my work with the Toorak Times
      This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the...Cream of The Crate: Album # 144 - Madonna: Ray Of Light