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MADONNA / MDNA (INTERSCOPE/UNIVERSAL)

MADONNA is no fool. She knows her place in pop music history and her current status, which has recently been challenged by the likes of Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry (who to be fair have all been influenced by Madonna). To those newcomers she gets Nicki Minaj to deliver the message: "There's only one Queen and that's Madonna."

The line is offered on the song I Don't Give A, which addresses her divorce from Guy Ritchie, how to be a multi-tasking mom with a helicopter and where she sees herself in today's musical landscape: still on top.

Unfortunately, there is little on the album to back up that claim and instead of looking forward and establishing trends for the newcomers to follow, Madonna appears to be trying to match them beat for Eurotrash beat.

Madonna and main producers Martin Solveig, Alle and Benny Benassi and William Orbit attempt to craft a series of club-banging singles that can compete with the likes of We Found Love and California Gurls with mixed results. They come closest on the electro-pop throbbers Girls Gone Wild, I'm a Sinner and I'm Addicted, the latter ready to be re-mixed and extended for maximum dance floor impact. The majority of the album bobs and throbs along in a similar vein with heavy bass, electronic drums and glitchy synthesizers dominating until the end of the 12-track release where she slows things down and reminds us how great of a balladeer she can be on Masterpiece and Falling Free, although neither come close to matching her best work.

Despite her proclamation that, "Girls, they just wanna have some fun," everything is produced and thought out to the point of sterility and sometimes MDNA isn't much fun at all. Even the lapsed Catholic sinner shtick she offers up on two songs feels recycled. The closest Madonna sounds like she might be enjoying herself is on the cheerleader chant bubblegum-pop of Give Me All your Luvin', another song where Minaj sings Madonna's praises, this time joined by M.I.A.

For every highlight there is a corresponding filler track, but MDNA just might be Madonna's most honest album, though, with the Material Girl opening up about her divorce and her anger over the fallout. Whether the explicit revenge fantasy Gang Bang is about Ritchie is never revealed, but he should avoid being in the same place as her for the next little while. She sounds ticked. 'Ö'Ö'Ö

-- Rob Williams

ZEUS

Busting Visions (Arts & Crafts)

THE new album by Toronto indie-pop quartet Zeus is an unabashed homage to almost all things musically satisfying about flashy, late '70s-vintage power pop. Not again, you might say, but to be clear, Zeus take their love of Paul McCartney & Wings, the Kinks, and of course, Queen, to the highest level of harmonic excellence. If you remain unconvinced just listen to these sparkling 14 tracks in one sitting and try not to smile.

The songs have obviously been crafted without any barriers to imagination. If a fuzz-driven guitar solo or filigree of strings needs to be injected into a song, it's there, and is delivered with an elegance and splendor that is not often this radiant. High praise? You bet. Zeus leaves no stone unturned, and where many bands inspired by music from another era fall flat and then trot out the clichés, this band turns inspiration into perspiration and just plain rock.

Most of all it sounds like they had a ton of fun making these songs sound as epic as they do, and in the end, that's what is most charming and exciting about Busting Visions. 'Ö'Ö'Ö1/2

-- Jeff Monk

YUKON BLOND

Tiger Talk (Dine Alone Records)

ON the jangly rocker Radio, Yukon Blond frontman Jeff Innes tries to get a dance party going with the pickup line, "There's nothing on the radio, so on your feet." In a perfect world, there might be more dancing going on if this Vancouver quartet was blasting out of radio stations across the country.

The band's sophomore effort is a mixture of sunny '60s pop, '70s shaggy-haired dude rock and early '80s post-punk with a heavy focus on melody and harmonies and nods to everyone from the Kinks to Elvis Costello along the way. Highlights include the infectious My Girl, the anthemic Oregon Shores and joyful Stairway, the album's first single, which you can probably hear on CBC and university radio stations - it's worth moving the dial for. 'Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö

-- RW

PAUL WELLER

Sonik Kicks (Universal)

BEING that British rock "Modfather" Paul Weller's astrological sign is Gemini it makes sense that over the course of his lengthy and diverse career he's never risked boring himself by sticking to one style of music too long. With his eleventh solo studio album, he cobbles together a fine enough mix of good stuff to put Sonik Kicks at least in the Top 5 records of his career.

Weller has never been shy about taking a few chances on albums and this set contains a bit of electro-dub reggae (Study in Blue, the longest track here), jumpy Jam-informed mod-pop (Klang Klang) and dreamy ballads (Sleep of the Serene). Much of the set is delivered with Weller's trademark intensity in full effect. There is a density to the songs provided by the creative layering of the instruments and the production has the kind of bite that proves that the 53 year-old still has enough, er, jam to kick many of his contemporaries to the curb stylistically. For fans, this is an album not to be missed, and if you have been off the Weller bandwagon for a while you may find some fresh new kicks right here. 'Ö'Ö'Ö1/2

-- Monk

DEMETRA

Lone Migration (Head in the Sand)

INSPIRED by a stint living in Churchill, the debut album from Winnipeg's Demetra Penner is a suitably spare outing that evokes the frozen tundra -- it's icy and spacious, the acoustic guitar augmented with piano and shivery strings that complement her plaintive folk ballads.

Penner's voice, often in lovely harmony with itself, is a high, flutey instrument with a chilly quality that's suited to the arctic-themed material, but its ethereal side is nicely tempered with a steely backbone that keeps it from being too airy-fairy.

The same can't always be said for the songs, which sometimes seem light enough to float away -- the melodies aren't quite as grabby as they could be and there isn't enough lyrical heft to help weigh them down. Without a strong climax or an excellent, memorable chorus, they all tend to blend together. 'Ö'Ö'Ö

-- Jill Wilson

COUNTRY AND ROOTS

SEAN HOGAN

Phoenix (Lakeland Heart/EM)

SDLqI'VE learned life has speed bumps, but don't confuse them with the end of the road," says Canadian Sean Hogan in the liner notes of his aptly titled sixth album, referring to the war he waged and won with cancer prior to the disc's release.

His illness doesn't seem to have had any effect on Hogan's outlook or voice. He allows his rich baritone to spread its healthy wings on a selection of his most soulful numbers yet and brings former Fleetwood Mac belter Bekka Bramlett along for the ride on slow burner Like We Never Had To Say Goodbye, the R&B (and banjo) driven Better Angels Prevail and the funky title track. John Ellis' pedal steel, Eric Reed's electric and Steve King's B-3 makes Make It Look Easy sound easy ... and seductive. Something Beautiful effectively describes itself. Travel Plans is classic Hogan.

On the title track Hogan sings, "Like a Phoenix flying out of the ashes, I will rise," and rise he does. 'Ö'Ö'Ö1/2

-- Bruce Leperre

JAZZ

MELISSA STYLIANOU

Silent Movie (Anzic)

THIS is a seemingly simple, yet full sounding disc of 12 songs by expat Canadian and New York singer Melissa Stylianou.

The instrumentation is clean and clear; an uncluttered accompaniment for Stylianou's delightful voice and delivery.

The CD is bookended by chestnuts -- Smile and Moon River -- which become highlights with her spare delivery over minimal accompaniment.

Stylianou is a very good singer without pretense, just a pure, striking voice. She is especially effective with the guitar accompaniment of Pete McCann, and drummer Rodney Green is a subtle, strong presence throughout. Anat Cohen plays soprano saxophone, bass clarinet and clarinet over five tracks. Her simple, soulful work on Folks Who Live on the Hill is superb.

You don't have to be a jazz fan to enjoy this, just a fan of great singing. 'Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö

-- Chris Smith

CLASSICAL

JANINA FIALKOWSKA

Liszt Recital (ATMA)

LISZT'S range runs between a pianistic tightrope and trapeze act. The lyrical-dramatic element can't be overwrought if you want to avoid maudlin indulgence. The pyrotechnics need the feeling of reserves barely tapped. All must be bound in the most natural flow of narrative to get you into the music's genuine integrity which so often lives in the shadows of Liszt's flamboyance and the performer's temptation to spotlight it.

Here is one of the best Liszt recitals of the year. Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska has stormed back from an illness stronger than ever; the fierce demands of this program shining a light on Liszt as few do.

Liszt was a special paraphraser, as his Valse-caprice No. 6 after Schubert, the six Chants polonaise after Chopin and the Valse de Faust from Gounod tellingly show. Every strand of every character is superbly revealed here. Liszt's own Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude and his transcription Gretchen from his Faust Symphony are worlds in themselves under Fialkowska's command. Not to be missed. 'Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö

-- James Manishen

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 G4

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