Universal Madness

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Spurred by the late-'90s ska explosion in America, most of Madness re-formed in 1998 to play a brief tour. Their sole Top 40 smash in the States had been 1984's "Our House," but thanks to acclaim from a cult audience and musicians like No Doubt's Gwen Stefani, Madness always had an influential presence on U.S. shores. Universal Madness is a live document from Los Angeles' Universal Amphitheater. While it doesn't disappoint too greatly, it rarely captures the giddy glee Madness can pull off. Assembling most of their U.K. singles -- which, by coincidence, means most of their best songs -- Universal Madness ultimately serves as mere nostalgia: not quite a hollow experience, but not an epiphany either. The band sounds fine in a workmanlike way, but listening to this you'd never guess that Suggs McPherson was one of new wave's most intriguing and likable lead singers; you'd have to replay the "Our House" video to glean a sense of his charm. The most spine-chilling moment on this album, not unexpectedly, is the opening "One Step Beyond" and Chas Smash's famous spoken intro ("Hey, you! Don't watch dat! Watch dis!"), with every audience member chanting along. It's a validating experience for anyone who loved Madness in their original incarnation: 15 years after fading into the background, they're finally the most loved band in America. For that one moment, anyway.

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