Pop stuff: What I'm hearing, watching, reading, etc.: New Madness LP; Dark Shadows movie; Alter Ego mag!

Madness - Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da: Best-known to most Americans for their 80s hit "Our House," Madness is an always surprising, frequently rewarding band. 

Starting out as a ska/pop group with great tunes such as "One Step Beyond" and "Baggy Trousers," they transformed into one of Britain's best pop groups, turning out catchy/poignant tunes with incisive lyrics that captured elements of English life. Their best work is comparable to Ray Davies' songs for the Kinks. 

"Our House" is more than just a a great 80s hit, it's a funny, loving look at family life. In "House of Fun," the group even managed to produce a hit song about a teenage boy trying to buy condoms. Their 1982 album featuring both those songs,  Rise and Fallis one of pop's neglected masterpieces.

A couple years after that LP, the band broke up and -- apart from occasional reunion gigs and one album -- stayed that way until 2005, when they released a decent covers LP of ska/reggae favorites, The Dangermen Sessions Vol. 1. Nice enough, but there was no expectation that they'd ever return to glory. After all, what band does at this point in their careers? Yet, another surprise, Madness did.

The Liberty of Norton Folgate, released in 2009, is one of the last decade's best pop releases, a concept album of sorts about life in a particular part London. The record is packed with great lyrics and melodies. What band releases their best LP 30 years after their start?

Now comes a follow-up album of original tunes, and Madness is still on a roll. Not as ambitious as Liberty, this new one is still a gem, launching with the very catchy, 60s soul-sounding "My Girl 2," (a reference back to one of their early 80s hits), and containing a number of other equally memorable and likeable tunes. 

Highlights include "Never Knew Your Name," the story of a lost night in the clubs set to a disco-style beat (albeit, Madness-style disco); "How Can I Tell You," an endearing and super-catchy song that's a message from a parent to his child;  "Misery," which is a return to their ska roots, and "Death of a Rude Boy," which is a tribute to the Specials' classic single "Ghost Town." The distinctive Madness sound, hallmarked by great, intricate arrangements, tasteful string parts and punchy horns is present throughout the LP.

The album ends with an alternative, slightly tougher-sounding version of "My Girl 2" produced by longtime associate Clive Langer. 

While Madness will be forced to play "Our House" until they finally break up for real (they played it atop Buckingham Palace at the Queen's Golden Jubilee last summer), their recent work shows they aren't trading on nostalgia. They are turning out some of the best work of their career. Other middle-aged bands should do so well.

Dark Shadows. My family rented this one the other night and came away from it  pretty much as I'd expected. It's a typical Tim Burton film, holding out tons of promise, but failing to deliver even moderate entertainment. 

Why do we keep expecting more from this director who never seems to deliver? If only he could make a movie half as interesting as his hair-do.

Anyway, should've known better. I figured at least Johnny Depp would be fun to watch as Barnabas Collins. I love watching Depp as much as my wife does, but for entirely different reasons (yeah, I understand how smolderingly hot he is). And, it turns out that Depp as vampire is pretty fun. 

Not being a fan of the original TV series, I wasn't offended that this is a send-up. In fact, it would've been better had it been a send-up that was actually funny. 

As it is, nothing much funny or surprising occurs. Michelle Pfeiffer is put to little productive use. Eva Green is moderately entertaining. Even Helena Bonham Carter comes off as bland, as she's the director's partner! 

Apart from Depp, the best performance comes from Chloe Grace Moretz as the rebellious, gothy/grumpy teen-age daughter.  But she and Depp don't justify the flick.



 Alter-Ego, October 2012 issue. I'm always pleased when the new issue of Roy Thomas' comics history fanzine shows up at the door.

This was a good one, featuring a nice cover interview with comics scribe Marv Wolfman, tracing his career from fanzines to his pro work at Marvel and DC, including details of his work on the beloved Tomb of Dracula series with Gene Colan. Appropriate, as this was the Halloween issue. 

Also, there's the conclusion of a long interview by Jim Amash of cartoonist Leonard Starr. Great artwork throughout.

Roy tells us his editorial that Jim, who has turned out dozens of excellent interviews with Golden Age artists and writers for the mag over the past several years, plans to cut back on his input for various reasons. I'm very sorry to hear that.

Through his work, Jim has chronicled history that otherwise would be lost. Many of these creators have passed away in recent years and their stories would have gone with them but for Jim. 

Roy also notes that other historians and writers have lifted tons of information from Jim' interviews without properly crediting them. I've noticed this, too, and it's shameful.

Thanks Jim, for your tremendous contributions to the history of American comics! And thanks Roy for the continued work on Alter Ego.