Tuesday , May 28 2024

Music Review: Sheena Easton – ‘Madness, Money and Music’ (Deluxe Edition)

The latest installment in a series of expanded Sheena Easton reissues from London-based Cherry Pop is a deluxe CD/DVD set of the ’80s songstress’s 1982 album, Madness, Money and Music. By the time of that album’s release, Easton had established herself as a reputable balladeer and purveyor of vocally dynamic adult-contemporary numbers ranging from the emotionally charged James Bond theme “For Your Eyes Only” to the chipper “Morning Train (Nine to Five).” A number of critics praised the versatility of the album upon its release—the music spanned light new-wave, yacht-rock stylings, and Easton’s signature ballad fare. Commercially, however, it paled in comparison to her first two albums.

A worthy Sheena Easton reissue

While not as instantly recognized as recent Easton reissues like her self-titled debut and A Private Heaven, the re-release of Madness, Money and Music is warranted by a satisfying selection of B-sides, unreleased vault tracks, alternate takes, extensive liner notes, and the inclusion of the singer’s 1983 TV special, Act One. A review copy of the latter component (also to feature the promotional music videos for three of the album’s singles) has not been provided as of this writing; thus, the focus of this review is the 20 tracks contained on the CD. (Reviewer’s note: Having owned a VHS copy of Act One for several decades, suffice it to say that the program is a colorful, musically diverse, and often humorous one graced by guest stars including the late Johnny Carson, Al Jarreau, and Kenny Rogers.)

As with Sheena Easton and You Could Have Been with Me, the production of Madness, Money and Music was helmed by Christopher Neil. A reputable slate of songwriters—some of who would go on to become consistent hitmakers—contribute to what is, for the most part, a conceptually and sonically consistent set of tracks. The opening, Sue Quinn-penned “Weekend in Paris” is a striking convergence of reality-check lyrics and impassioned vocalizing heightened by Whitesnake guitarist Mick Moody’s stirring riffs. The catchy and danceable jaunt “Are You Man Enough” follows, providing a contrastingly softer stance that nonetheless finds Easton packing an apropos vocal punch. The quietly reflective and poetic “I Wouldn’t Beg for Water” (a top-20 adult-contemporary hit in the U.S.) showcases Easton’s ease in veering from gentle and vulnerable to empowered and unshakable.

The album’s lead single, “Machinery,” is the odd man out on Madness, Money and Music. An attempt to give Easton a more youthful slant in the market (understandable, as she was only 23 at the time), it’s the only track on which Neil’s arrangement feels a bit aimless. The juxtaposition of synths and horn effects with Easton’s playful and artsy delivery ultimately is more of a curiosity in the scope of her work than a standout. With slightly cryptic lyrics, the single didn’t help make the case for her as a purveyor of cutting-edge pop fare. She achieved a better balance of that over the next several years with more accesibly hip dance-pop concoctions such as “Telefone (Long Distance Love Affair)” and “Strut.”

Worthwhile extras

“Ice out in the Rain,” distributed as a single only in several European markets, is one of the album’s most poignant moments. The spare arrangements are sweetly dark and atmospheric, meshing fluidly with Easton’s pensive tone. The compelling metaphors of the melancholy verses and yearning chorus make for one of her most remarkably understated recordings of the decade. Neil’s full-length 1988 remix of the track (first issued on the 2021 compilation The Definitive Singles 1980-1987) is included here. The synth flourishes and vocal effects of this version add an ideally engaging aura to the song’s enigma.

“I Don’t Need Your Word,” which was omitted from the American issue of the original LP, is a profoundly romantic ballad composed by Mick Leeson and Peter Vale (writers of “I Wouldn’t Beg for Water”) which is notably affecting in its quiet tension and elegant intensification. On the other end of the tonal spectrum, the title cut, fashioned in the vein of classic Elton John or Billy Joel material with a modestly Meat Loaf-esque pattern of rises and drops, makes the case once again for Easton’s marked elasticity and unfettered approach to interpretation.

Yet, it ultimately doesn’t stand the test of time as durably as the brilliantly composed and powerfully executed “There When I Needed You.” The standout chord structure, jazzy nuances, and candid meeting of soul-baring passages and height-scaling phrasing arguably make it the album’s centerpiece. 

One of the most surprising entries for listeners not widely familiar with the Easton catalog will likely be her reading of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” recorded more than half a decade before Bette Midler made it famous via the soundtrack to the film Beaches. Easton’s sophisticated yet pointed conveyance of the vulnerable words is demonstratively incisive yet classy, where Midler’s can come across meandering and abrasive. Much more obscure, but also recorded by several other heavyweights (namely, Diana Ross and Rita Coolidge), the supplely enticing “You Do It” once again establishes Easton’s effortless ability to shift gears from powerful to sensitive with a meaningful presence. The closer, a cover of Janis Ian’s “In the Winter” (resequenced on the original U.S. LP) is an unexpected selection which Easton takes on with grace and clarity.

The liner notes in the set’s accompanying booklet note Easton’s desire during recording sessions to cut extra tracks specifically to serve as B-sides. While the four here have resurfaced on several occasions over the decades, it’s nice to hear them alongside the complete original LP. The emotional scope moves from the straight talk of “Please Don’t Sympathise” to the wistful “Loner” and “Some of Us Will”—a compelling examination of human nature set to a sublime chord structure and soundscape. Even deeper treasure is found in two recently uncovered vault tracks: the beautifully conversational and melodically dexterous “Woman” and magnetic “The Lonely Stay Alone,” which stacks humbling lyrics against a rollicking rhythm arrangement.

The Madness, Money and Music deluxe edition is rounded out with alternate takes of “Weekend in Paris” and the title track, both noted in the booklet as likely originating from soundstage recordings made during the taping of Easton’s 1982 concert special Live at The Palace, Hollywood. While only subtly different from the studio versions, they’re sweet icing on the cake. The 73 minutes of listening afforded by the audio component of the set contain some of the most exceptional—and overlooked—moments of Easton’s recorded output. By and large, the album and supplementary tracks are vividly interpreted statements of memorable and thoughtfully conceived material which remain relevant four decades later. 

About Justin Kantor

Justin Kantor is a music journalist with a passion for in-depth artist interviews and reviews. Most of his interviews for Blogcritics can be heard on his Blog Talk Radio program, "Rhythmic Talk." Justin's work has been published in Wax Poetics, The All-Music Guide, and SoulMusic.com. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Music Business and Management program, he honed his writing chops as a teenager—publishing "The Hip Key" magazine from 1992-1996. The publication, which was created out of his childhood home in Virginia Beach, reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time he was 16. At Berklee, Justin continued to perfect his craft with a series of 'Underrated Soul' features for The Groove from 1997-2003. This led to a companion TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in 2002, as well as writing for the national Dance Music Authority (DMA). A self-described "obscure pop, dance, and R&B junkie," Justin also has penned liner notes for reissue labels such as Edsel Records and FunkyTownGrooves. He's excited to be a part of the BlogCritics team and indulge his musical fancies even further. Connect with him at his Facebook page, or via [email protected].

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