Out There

Plastic letters from home

No Exit
Beyond Music

Universal Madness
Golden Voice Recording Company

There ought to be eight people in the world who give a real hot crap about a new Blondie record all these years later--four accountants, two lawyers, and maybe a couple of shut-ins who run fan Web sites and stopped listening to music around the time Parallel Lines was released. Oh, and those radio programmers who've been spinning the single "Maria" as though a new Blondie record were an event instead of just the wheezing sound made as a 53-year-old Debbie Harry tries to wrest copper stardom from Courtney Love's sweaty palms. It's been 17 years since this outfit last surfaced with The Hunter, a bargain-bin remainder so lifeless the vinyl was ice-cold to the touch. How quickly they'd fallen even then, from art-punk to art-pop to old-fart-pap in less then a decade. And then to pick up almost two decades after that, with Harry up on stage these days rocking like your leather-bound mother after a midlife crisis and a weekend bender.

It's as though Harry, longtime partner Chris Stein, and the rest of the hoary lot forgot how to create indestructible pop out of the most flimsy pieces of plastic, how to find depth in the shallow end, how to rock by barely moving. The 1999 version of Blondie can't decide whether it's a grown-up's rock band or a diva's side project. "Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room" comes closest to letting the gray streaks shine through the bad dye job. But the rest of the disc reverberates with the sad, flabby echoes of yesterday: The rap-but-more-like-spoken-word title track proves that 20 years on, Harry's "Rapture" has degenerated into agony; "Maria" sounds like "Dreaming" played backwards at 31 rpm. A rock-and-roll laxative.

At least when Madness reunited, it had the common sense to stick to the back catalog. Give the people what they want, not what you think they need. But surprisingly, this little souvenir of a 1998 L.A. concert--presented here as the soundtrack to the long-running "musical" The Madness Show--is anything but a sham. Rather, it's a nifty little revisit to the ska-meets-pop 1980s, a backward glance at a music that still sounds relevant in the here and now--yes, even "Our House," which sounds now like some lost Kinks klassic instead of a new-wave toss-off. Maybe Madness' working-class ska just holds up better than Blondie's transparent ahhht, but half these live redos best their creaky studio counterparts, especially "The Prince" and "It Must Be Love." This is a live album, urgent and fleet. Blondie's disc is barely on life support.

--Robert Wilonsky


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