Thursday, April 28, 2016

"3121," Prince (2006)

Near the end of “The Big Chill,” Jeff Goldblum is sitting and talking with Glenn Close and accurately observing something along the lines of, “I’m feeling vibrations…and I’m pretty sure there is sex going on in this house right now.”  That’s sort of how I feel when I listen to “3121” – there is definitely something going on in Prince’s house on this album, and it’s not likely something that you’re going to see showing up on basic cable.

Frankly, it’s easy to make that leap even before perusing the lyric sheet that is provided with the album.  This music is nasty – and above all else, “3121” demonstrates the remarkable proficiency of Prince as a producer and arranger.  The bass and drums are turned up real loud, and there’s just something about the overall sound that distinguishes the album from just about every other Prince album I’ve heard.  I’m not even sure I can put it into words – “swamp music” comes to mind because of its near-underwater quality, but it also sounds a bit like a 21st century version of the great sound developed by Willie Mitchell for Al Green and other artists like Ann Peebles.

Also a credit to the production is the fact that it’s almost impossible to distinguish the “all instruments performed by Prince” songs from those which feature guest players.  In the past, some of his DIY records have come across sounding a bit thin, but that is definitely not the case on “3121.”  Listening without having the credits right in front of you, I’d defy any listener to tell which songs among the title track, “Lolita,” “Black Sweat,” and “Get on the Boat” are “band enhanced,” and which ones are all Prince by himself.

Also worth noting is the design of the lyrics sheets, which contain photos of a house (mansion, really) that if it isn’t Prince’s house, certainly should be.  And last but not certainly not least, a shout out to Maceo Parker, the great saxophone player who over the course of his life (73 now and still going strong) has played with James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, Bryan Ferry, and many others.  When Prince cries out, “Play it, Maceo!” during the bridge of “Get on the Boat,” you feel like you’re part of rock & soul history itself.

This, folks, is a good one.  A very good one.

Christgau: A-. It could be argued that music this masterful waives all claim to the sound of surprise – until you pay attention.  Sure “Love” and “Satisfied” and “Fury” constitute a standard sequence, keyb funk to torch r&b to u-got-the-rock – but only by genius standards.  Sure he overdubs all the time, but he risks letting the Other play bass and drums on the over-under-sideways-down title tune – and then immediately prefabs the cockeyed “Lolita” by himself.  The dubiosities he induces NPG fans to collect prove only that geniuses know who their friends are.  I’m back to suspecting that, at 47, the Abstemious One can keep laying top-shelf stuff on the public for as long as he’s in the mood.  Even if he gets on your nerves, treat him nice.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Emancipation," Prince (1996)

I’m sure that I’m not alone in this, but nearly all the music I’ve listened to (or even wanted to listen to) since the news of his death last Thursday is music by Prince.  The soundtrack for cleaning house on Saturday was comprised of the vinyl editions of “Controversy,” “1999” and “Purple Rain.”  And playing non-stop in my car this week (for once, a reason to savor the morning and evening commute) has been “Emancipation,” the gargantuan 3-disc, 36 song set that Prince released in late 1996 to celebrate his departure from Warner Bros. Records.

It may not have been clear to me at the time, but “Emancipation” is a remarkable achievement.  Not once over the course of the album is there is a bad song, and I’m not sure I can think of another artist who could pull that off with anything close to the level of consistency that one finds on this record.  And better yet, the album is a collection of nearly everything that Prince does well.  So you’ve got your raunchy/steamy songs, you’ve got your homages to 1960s/70s soul, you’ve got some outstanding cover versions, and you’ve got the typically amazing instrumental performances that are always a highlight, even on Prince’s “lesser” work.

Unlike Christgau, whose full review appears below, I don’t think the covers are the best thing on the album, although his version of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” is amazing, as well as totally unexpected.  For me, the highlights are “Slave,” which may be the most minimalist song on the album – not much more than Prince and a driving beat accompanied by some nifty synthesizer work – and “White Mansion,” which stood out for me then and continues to do so nearly 20 years later.  It’s hard to pick a favorite disc, but I guess I’d lean towards #3 – but maybe that’s only because it’s the freshest one in my mind.

My memory isn’t what it used to be, but I don’t recall “Emancipation” setting the world on fire when it was released in 1996.  Maybe part of the reason is the sheer volume of the material – good as they are, 36 songs are still a lot to make your way through, and it requires more commitment than one might normally devote to a single album.  But one thing is for certain – anyone making that effort won’t be disappointed, and is bound to find a few gems that they’ve never heard or fully appreciated before.

Christgau: A-.  Writing the book for the young turks of a reborn, historically hop R&B – three discs and hours of liberation, hubris, divine superfluity, and proof that he can come all night even if by six in the morning it takes too long and he never actually gets hard.  Yet although there’s not a bad track in the 36, I bet he himself would have trouble remembering them all, and hear nothing that tops the Delfonics and Stylistics covers, which latter wasn’t the debut single for nothing and flopped anyway.  Great grooves abound, however.  As does great singing.  Harmonies too.  Did I mention that the horns are surprisingly cool?  And hey, the little guy has a sense of humor.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

"Controversy," Prince (1981)

"If anybody asks you, you belong to Prince."

"Controversy" was the first Prince album that I obsessed over...or I should say, "we" obsessed over, because on the second floor of Cheney Hall at UC Berkeley in the winter and spring of 1982, it probably got played more than any other album (the other contenders I can think of are Roxy Music's "Avalon," Psychedelic Furs' "Talk Talk Talk," David Lindley's "El Rayo X," and the debut album from Tom Tom Club).  There was one memorable evening when a couple of Cal football players partied with us in my neighbor's room, and someone asked "what should we listen to?" and I blurted out, "Controversy!," for which I was later chastised ("...dude, don't you think that was a little too obvious?"). may have been too obvious, but it was still the obvious choice.

About the album, Stephen Holden wrote in Rolling Stone, "Prince's first three records were so erotically self-absorbed that they suggested the reveries of a licentious young libertine.  On Controversy, that libertine proclaims unfettered sexuality as the fundamental condition of a new, more loving society than the bellicose, overtechnologized America of Ronald Reagan."  Well, OK.  At the time I think we were more into the sound, although it was admittedly difficult not to notice the lyrics on the title track ("...People call me rude, I wish we were all nude/I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules...) and songs like "Ronnie Talk to Russia" and "Annie Christian," two of the most overtly political statements he ever made.

And then of course, there was the usual dose of sexuality, both in the song with that title and on "Do Me, Baby," "Private Joy" and "Jack U Off."  And as an added bonus, there was the poster of the almost nude Prince in the shower, which we threatened for months to lacquer onto the door of one of our unsuspecting dorm mates but never quite mustered up the courage or reached the level of inebriation required to carry out that feat.

What we didn't know in 1982 was that Prince was on the cusp of a level of greatness that few artists have ever achieved.  What we did know was that "Controversy" was a damn good album.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


In 1995, Prince released an album called "The Gold Experience." More than a decade removed from "Purple Rain," the album didn't get a lot of airplay; I'd be willing to bet that most of his legion of fans never even heard it.

And it's a masterpiece.

I don't know how many more musical deaths we're going to be confronted with this year, but this is the one that hits hardest of all.  And when I finally had a chance to sit down tonight and listen to some of his music, the first song I wanted to hear was "P Control," the "Gold Experience" opener.  To this day, it's one of the most outrageous songs that he's ever recorded; in comparison, Kanye West's "Golddigger" sounds like something The Archies might have recorded.
I don't want to say a lot about the song because it would be really cool if lending it a sense of mystery would lead some folks who've never heard it to seek it out, but suffice to say it's of a sexual theme (shocking, I know) and it's accompanied by a beat that even Christgau thought slammed "harder than any hip hop I've heard in years."

And that's the thing about Prince.  A couple of decades after the work for which he'll be most remembered by the general public, he was still producing great music.  And a lot of it - for crying out loud, "Emancipation" in the late 1990s had 36 songs on it, and there really wasn't a clinker in the entire bunch.  That's sure a lot more than The Clash could say about "Sandinista," and that thing won the Pazz & Jop Critics poll, for crying out loud.

Like some of his fellow musical geniuses, Prince never felt the need to provide the public with everything that it wanted, and so there would be times when a stone-cold masterpiece ("Purple Rain") might be followed by an album that was pretty lousy ("Around the World in a Day") followed by an album of maddening inconsistency ("Parade"), capped off by another stone-cold masterpiece ("Sign O' the Times").  And his approach to social media, particularly his obsession with keeping his music off of YouTube, was hard to describe as anything other than self-defeating.  And I suppose that one could argue that in his latter years, he got a little self-indulgent.

But in the end, SO WHAT? We forgive artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young for the dozens of lousy albums that they've made in the course of their careers, and we don't seem to care that the last meaningful music the Rolling Stones made was more than 30 years ago.  And hell, the only reason The Beatles never made a lousy album was that they quit while they were ahead.  But trust me, it was coming.

Prince was one of the great ones.  And by great ones, I mean great like The Beatles, great like Ray Charles, great like the Stones at their best, great like Michael Jackson at his best, great like Jimi Hendrix, great like Bob Dylan, great like The Clash and Bruce Springsteen.  And yes, great like Elvis.  Really, really great.  It doesn't matter whether there was work left in him that could match the best of his work that came before.  The point is, there was more Prince music to be heard, and it would have been worth the effort to seek it out and listen.


Sunday, April 17, 2016

"Painting of a Panic Attack," Frightened Rabbit (2016)

When I was lucky enough to be invited by Jack Gallagher a couple of years ago to appear on his 5 Songs podcast, I tried to articulate my philosophy of music with the comment, "the best song ever written is still out there somewhere; I just haven't found it yet."

About a month ago, the band Frightened Rabbit appeared on Colbert, singing a song called "Get Out." I was transfixed, and I knew that as soon as the album was released, I'd be picking it up on strength of that song alone.

Got the album yesterday, and have not wanted to stop listening yet. And while I know my tendency is to get a little too excited upon first listens, right now I won't hesitate to call "Painting of a Panic Attack" an absolute masterpiece. For those who are unfamiliar with the band, think The National - in fact, this record sounds as if it's a companion to that band's last album, "Trouble Will Find Me" (one of the best albums of the decade, so far).

There's no lyric sheet, but the song titles alone tell you the story - "Death Dream," "I Wish I Was Sober," "An Otherwise Disappointing Life," "Blood Under the Bridge," "Die Like a Rich Boy" - this is not a particularly happy album. But then again, what pulled me in from first listen is the music - beautiful and moving, it's the first record in a while to remind me that sometimes, a piece of music really can change the course of a day, of a mood.

And if I hadn't managed to stay awake that night they were on Colbert, they'd be out there but I still wouldn't know who they are. I'm glad I found them, and now it's time to start searching for the next great band, the next great song.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

"It's Only Rock'n Roll," The Rolling Stones (1974)

You're probably going to have trouble finding someone who thinks that "It's Only Rock'n Roll" is the best Stones album, or even among the Stones' best five (ten?) albums, but it was the first Rolling Stones record I fell in love with, way back in the days when Mick Taylor was still in the band and "the other Mick" was still the first name that one thought of when considering the Stones.

And you know what? It's a pretty damn good album. Except for "Fingerprint File," which I never got then and am still not sure I completely understand today, this is strong, consistent work that shows the band doing its best to stretch the very idea of what the Stones were meant to sound like, and mostly succeeding.

The most powerful tracks are not those that one would consider your standard Stones-style rockers, but rather "Time Waits for No One," the closer on Side One, and "Luxury," the opener on Side Two. Jon Landau described Jagger's singing on the former as "a controlled desperation that borders on acceptance but never quite becomes resignation...given the rock star's inherent fear of aging, the song becomes an affirmation of Jagger's willingness to keep on trying in the face of inevitable doom." About the latter, Greil Marcus wrote, "it comes on as if the Stones are trying to cash in on reggae—the pose—but by the time it’s halfway done what it really sounds like is a reggae band playing like Stones. The chords that seemed copped in the first minute are magical by the third—there isn’t a group in the world that can play like this."

Indeed, there isn't. I won't quibble with those who find it hard to take them seriously today, but it would be silly to pretend that they aren't one of the best and most important rock acts of all time.

Christgau: B. "This is measurably stronger than Goats Head Soup, and I hear enough new hooks and arresting bass runs and audacious jokes to stretch over three ordinary albums--or do I mean two? I also hear lazy rhymes and a song about dancing with Father Time and two sides that begin at a peak and wind down from there and an LP title that means more than it intends--or do I mean less?"