Madness (1983) ****
Oh, ska - one of the few musical genres where I feel fully justified in completely loathing 95% of it, with its polka-bounce seemingly designed for smarmy frat-boy drunken singalongs. Second-wave ska focused around Two-Tone records in "Ghost Town"-era Thatcherite Britain was something of an exception, with the political edges mitigating a lot of the inherent drunken smarminess of the medium and the New Wave influence helping make some of the music somewhat musically interesting. Anyway, the main reason I like Madness has nothing to do with ska. It's because they sound like the Kinks. Of the early '80s U.K. ska bands, they stood out by clearly owing far more to Ray Davies than Prince Buster, making them come across as much whiter if not quite more Anglo-Saxon than the Specials or the Beat (U.K.) - which, while it may or may not be a good thing in itself (it's quite neutral), it does mean that the focus of their craft is crafting catchy singalongs. Oh, wait a minute, that's the purpose of all ska. Anyway, this is a mess of a compilation consisting of about half of the previous year's Madness Present the Rise and Fall LP and assorted singles from the previous three or four years; it was designed as an introduction for the American market after the fluke success of "Our House," a totally rollicking smash of a barrelhouse tune that endeared us Yanks because not in spite of its deeply, deeply Englishness. A totally rollicking, barrelhouse tune defines around half of this twelve-track disc, and it's delightful despite the true lack of sonic variety (there are a few ballads, and they're surprisingly good, but most of this is upbeat, jolly singalongs - you know, ska). OK, there's one Rat Pack-esque swing tune to close the album, "Madness (Is All in the Mind)," but it's the album's sole bummer - the other eleven tunes are all more or less ace. And I notice upon glancing back over the tracklisting that they followup "Our House," with three slower-tempoed ballads in a row. Oh well, a surfeit of ballads doesn't alter the main impression: Madness obviously don't possess the genius of the Kinks, but they work hard (play hard?) in their limited, chosen genre and succeed with a string of jolly musical hall singalongs that I'd easily get seasick from if extended far too long, but in small doses (i.e., the length of this disc) are quite F-U-N. Just think of them as the ska Ramones, except that would imply wilful stupidity, and Madness' lyrics are anything but D-U-M-B - in the Ray Davies/Squeeze tradition, they're sharply detailed, wittily ironic yet empathetic portraits of working and middle class British life. Except for "Night Boat to Cairo," which is an instrumental. "House of Fun," in which a 16 year old lad naively ventures into a condom shop, may be the wittiest, unless you mention the string of blameless excuses in "Shut Up." Anyway, this is a very, very, very FUN album that should delight any pop consumer unless the words BOUNCY and LIGHTWEIGHT and POP and ROLLICKING and BRITISH make you cringe.