Posts Tagged ‘Prince’

Prince died today. What is happening with this odd year of 2016? David Bowie, Prince, Maurice White, Merle Haggard. Meanwhile, Donald Trump will outlive all of us.

A coworker stopped by my office and gave me the news. She was close to tears. She said, “He was my childhood!” Well, he was my adulthood. (Young adulthood.)

Prince Rogers Nelson was so full of life and talent. How is it that his voice has suddenly fallen silent?

I guess I can finally catch up with all of his albums, now that he won’t be recording a new one every other week.

Rest in peace, Prince, or whatever name or typographical squiggle you prefer. You said it best:

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life

 

In June I set out to review every album Prince ever made. I embarked on this project because I realized that, for me, Prince was embalmed in the ’80s – the guy I heard at clubs and parties. He was that sexy M.F. who could rock, croon, talk to God, talk for God, write weird erotic scenarios, and take goofy chances. I wanted a better idea of who he really was. There had to be more to the man than “Purple Rain” playing to a gang of us nerds in a hotel ballroom at a science fiction convention.

It’s easy to follow, album by album, a band that existed for fewer than 20 years – I’ve done that with The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Pixies, The Clash, Creedence, and several others. It’s much harder to do with an artist who’s been playing and recording for 30 years or more. They change too much. They travel down side roads while you stick to the interstate. Or you change too much. It’s been a long time since I was punchin’ a clock and listening wide-eyed to Born to Run.

It’s also hard to follow an artist with a lengthy career because every artist, no matter how talented, eventually skids into the Bad Spot. That’s the rough patch where your Muse runs off with someone younger and prettier and you’re left to grit it out on craftsmanship alone.

In the 1970s, Neil Young dissected his soul on several awe-inspiring albums. Two that’ll slay you: On the Beach (1974) and Tonight’s the Night (1975). When the ’80s dawned, Neil took a long time getting out of bed. For example, Trans (1982), which might as well have been called Tron, and Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983), his fake Fabulous Fifties record. Neil didn’t make a good record until Freedom (1989), which you’ll recall for the stunning “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

Bruce Springsteen did pretty well in the 1980s, at least until Tunnel of Love (1987). Then things went downhill. Or, in Springsteen terms, the mill closed, the state cops shut down all that street racing, and the D.A. couldn’t get no relief. After two subpar efforts, Human Touch and Lucky Town (both 1992), he recorded nothing of consequence until his reaction to 9/11, The Rising (2002), after which he reinvented himself as the Dark Knight of the 21st century.

I need a weatherman to explain to me what Bob Dylan was trying to do on Self Portrait (1970) and Dylan (1973).

David Bowie’s career after Scary Monsters (1980) is not the least bit scary.

Sadly, Michael Jackson’s career after Bad (1987) is not worth talking about.

Back to Prince. I made it through the first 14 albums. I rediscovered his ’70s disco discs. I relived my youth with Dirty Mind, 1999, and Purple Rain. I was struck as if by lightning by Sign O’ the Times.

By the time we got to the 1990s, the road Prince and I were driving developed some serious twists, the safety rails disappeared, and the paving got thinner. Loyal Reader Slave to the Garden warned me that in the ’90s, Prince, in his apocalyptic struggle with Warner Bros., dumped albums on the market that should’ve been dumped in the dump. We were approaching the Bad Spot.

The next one on my list, Come (1994), is what we critics like to call awful. I’d rather listen to a flock of trumpeter swans barking like dogs as they circle for a landing.

Prince’s 1987 bootleg, The Black Album, officially appeared in 1994. It’s not as good as black albums by Spinal Tap (1984), Metallica (1991), and Jay-Z (2003), though it’s probably better than the Marilyn Manson Black Album bootleg, if I could bring myself to listen to that one.

Looking at the rest of the ’90s, I see that Prince was either attacking the Warner Bros. Death Star or playing stuff that belongs in a galaxy far, far away. Well, what did I expect? How long can Prince go on being that sexy M.F.? (I can still pull it off, but only from a distance.) Artists have to change or they might as well be locked in a trophy cabinet. I’m convinced that Prince will emerge from this depressing era into some new and wonderful form, but I’m not going to follow every bread crumb until I catch up with him.

(There are two albums I definitely want to hear: The Girl 6 soundtrack, which is supposed to be a throwback to the ’80s, and the three-record Emancipation, both from 1996.)

What I’ve learned
Here’s what I can tell you about me: It’s hard to grow past the music that filled me with joy when I was young. Some of those artists are still recording, but they no longer speak to me. Or perhaps I can no longer hear them.

Here’s what I can tell you about Prince: Overall, no performer in the history of popular music is as talented as Prince. Some people sing better or write better or dance better, some people see deeper into the human or the national psyche. Some people are more economical (Prince does not know when to end a song).

But no one can do everything that this gentleman does at such a consistently high level. No male performer is as insistently sexy without also being sickeningly misogynistic. Carlos Santana, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Bowie, Young, and Dylan are as prolific, but even those guys never released three discs of original material on the same day.

There’s much more to Prince than “Purple Rain.” I just don’t need it.

[Editor’s note: It’s at least twice as difficult for a female singer/songwriter to survive in a decades-long career as it is for a male. It’s much easier to find male counterparts to Prince, so I stuck with the men.]

I started out liking Prince, but after listening to the first 14 albums I really like Prince. I want to keep liking Prince. So I’ll stop here. Thanks as always for reading along.

A couple of days ago I spent an afternoon listening to Pink Floyd and Justin Timberlake. I got nothing out of that. This afternoon I’m listening to Chuck Berry. Until next time, enjoy this insane video from the Neil Young of the Everybody’s Rockin’ era.

 

When my brother and I were little, we tried to rename ourselves. Two of our choices were “Moose” and “Tex.”

We got Moose from Moose Skowron, who played first base for the Yankees. I remember him as a slow-footed blunderbuss, but I just checked his stats and for a guy named Moose he sure hit a lot of triples.

We got Tex from our Grandpa Sam, who worked with cattle in the Old Country and should’ve moved Out West when he came to this country in 1912. Imagine how my life would’ve turned out if I’d grown up in the Texas Panhandle instead of some dinky town you don’t stop in on your way to Cape Cod: Instead of writing this stupid blog, I’d be happy as a clam, governing the Lone Star State and repressing the rights of women and minorities.

How happy are clams? How can you tell?

Moose and Tex didn’t stick, nor any of the other names we tried, and in our family we remained Ronny and Stevie. My various attempts at rebranding in adulthood didn’t work, either. I’m like the teenage baseball player in Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel who kept bugging his adult teammates to give him a nickname. They finally gave him one: Nickname.

Here’s how the 1% do it
Prince ran into trouble in 1993 when he changed his name to a symbol without giving anyone a clue as to how to speak this symbol.

Prince symbol
Symbol courtesy of Loyal Reader Accused of Lurking.

Naturally, everyone immediately gave the symbol a nickname. (I can’t have a nickname, but a symbol can have a nickname?) The one you see most is “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” That’s right, Prince, we were still saying your name. Prince was also called The Purple One and The Artist Never Known As Tall. I don’t want anything like those attached to me.

So why did Prince Rogers Nelson change his name? What does the symbol mean? What did his family call him? How about his lovers? And why should you devote precious synaptic energy to exploring these questions?

Why did he change his name? His war with Warner Bros. His evolution as an artist. Because he could.

What does the symbol mean? It’s a combination of the symbols for male and female. It’s officially referred to as “The Love Symbol.” It looks like something you’d tie at the end of your line to catch some trout.

What did his family call him? Moose or Tex.

His lovers? “Sexy M.F.” (see below).

I think he was just fucking with us. All he really wanted was to play a Love Symbol-shaped guitar.

Prince guitar

Now comes the winter of our disco tent
Prince and Warner Bros. fought furiously in the 1990s and eventually divorced. (They’ve since remarried.) Here is what seems to have been the flashpoint for both sides, the next album on our list, the one with the symbol slapped on the cover.

Love Symbol  Album
1992
Right off the bat, on an album with an unpronounceable name, we get a track called “My Name Is Prince.” Don’t look at me, I just work here. Prince shares his origin story: “In the beginning God made the sea/But on the seventh day he made me.” Lest you think he’s conceited (OK, he is conceited), he continues with “My name is Prince, I don’t want to be king/’Cause I’ve seen the top and it’s just a dream.” This confused song also asks whether the Lord is happy with us and states that Prince isn’t happy with Jim Crow. And, of course, he’s not planning to leave until he has sex with your daughter.

“My Name Is Prince” could fill any dance floor, and “Sexy M.F.” is the song James Brown always wanted to record. Unfortunately, even with the awesome strengths of The New Power Generation behind him, the Love Symbol Album takes a dive after the first two tracks. We get ordinary songs, generic reggae, lethargic love ballads, one song that reminded me of Billy Joel (“The Morning Papers”), another that reminded me of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” (“The Continental”), one that set a new pomposity standard (“And God Created a Woman”), and Kirstie Alley answering a phone and having one-sided conversations. What? I don’t know.

I disliked “3 Chains O’ Gold,” another ballad with nothing in the tank. I mention it only for the enchanted flute you’d expect to hear in a treetop in Rivendell or in a TV commercial starring Snuggles the fabric softener bear.

But then comes “I Wanna Melt with U” and all I have to say is wow. In fact, double wow. This is one of the best disco songs of the ’70s. Except for the swearing, this whole album feels like the ’70s.

Love Symbol staggers into the end zone with “The Sacrifice of Victor.” Sometimes you catch a whiff of 1999 or Purple Rain and you cry from nostalgia. This is a song about a black man striving against all the crap that life throws at him:

Lord I might get tired,
But I, I’ve got 2 keep on
Walkin’ down this road
Keep on walkin’ down this road
When I reach my destination
My name will be victor.

True, Prince was writing not about his struggle against a white-dominated society but his struggle with his record company, but even so, he’s speaking from his heart. And, being Prince, he opens the album named for his symbol with “My name is Prince” and ends it with “My name will be victor.”

This exasperating record was written as an opera.

Thus ends the Prince Project!
Prince gave the Love Symbol its freedom in 2000 and I’m doing the same for me right now. I’ll tell you what happened and what I learned in our next, very exciting episode.

Today’s Randoms: Favorite baseball nicknames
The Human Rain Delay: Mike Hargrove
Eye Chart: Doug Gwosdz
Death to Flying Things: Three players since the 1870s, including a current Seattle Mariner.

The late great Dave Niehaus, Mariner announcer extraordinaire, had most excellent verbal skills, except for nicknaming. He dubbed pitcher Glenn Abbott, who was 6’6” and from Arkansas, “The Tall Arkansan.” He gave third baseman Dave Edler, who was a redhead from Yakima, the moniker “The Redhead from Yakima.”

Dave Edler later became the redhead mayor of Yakima.

Glenn Abbott is one of only three men in baseball history to have three sets of doubled consonants in their names. The other two are Rennie Stennett and Dennis Bennett. The weird thing is how close they all were in time. Bennett retired in 1968; Stennett played his first game in 1971 and Abbott in 1973. They have nothing else in common, besides playing baseball and being carbon-based life forms.

 

 

Anyone can plunge into a creative tailspin, or fail to live up to public expectations, or rush off in directions that alienate your fans. God knows I’ve done all of these. I don’t know what happened to Prince in the years 1987 through 1991, but here are some clues.

The Black Album
1987
Prince decided not to release this record, which immediately became an underground bootleg sensation. The aboveground release was in 1994, so I’ll get to it there.

Lovesexy
1988
A concept album from Prince in which his love of lust battles his love of God. I don’t know if Prince ever settled this, but I can tell you he didn’t bring it up again on Batman.

“Alphabet St.” is worthy of the old Prince, but you’ll have to memorize its position on the CD because there are no $#*&^$! index marks. “Dance On,” a protest song à la “Sign O’ the Times,” is remarkable, but good luck finding it on a disc where every FN song bleeds into every other song.

The title track resembles Human League’s 1983 super explosive smash hit explosion “(Keep Feeling) Fascination.” Is that good or bad? To me it’s good, but 1983 was one of my favorite years.

I don’t understand this record.

Rolling Stone’s critics named The Black Album (which didn’t officially exist) and Lovesexy two the 10 best albums of 1988. Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust was #1 with the critics; the readers voted for U2’s Rattle and Hum. I’m with the readers on that one.

Batman
1989
Prince’s disco soundtrack is frozen in carbonite. I mean, stuck in the ’80s. You could still get people moving with “Partyman” (the Joker is the party man), “Vicki Waiting,” and “Trust,” but no one would remember them five minutes later. “Lemon Crush” has some zap to it, but only because it resembles “Thriller.”

“The Arms of Orion” is inferior to all existing songs about Orion, including “Orion” by Metallica, Jethro Tull, and Linda Ronstadt, and I don’t care for those songs, either. The 6-minute megamix “Batdance” gets this mention and nothing else.

Graffiti Bridge
1990
Objective: Write a sequel to Purple Rain.
Result: You can’t go home again.

Don’t ever say this man isn’t generous, though. He wrote all the songs but gave half of them to other acts: Mavis Staples, 14-year-old Tevin Campbell, and yet more Prince protégés, The Time. He also recorded one number with George Clinton and his Funkestra.

There’s not much to choose from here, but of the songs that are all Prince, Huey Lewis & The News would’ve sold their souls for “Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got.” “Elephants and Flowers” is about honoring God through multiple sex partners. High five. “The Question of U” reminded me of The Beatles: The music of “Come Together” and the lyrics of “Yer Blues.” Give Prince points for bowling a split.

Of the songs that are not all Prince, the one I like best is his collaboration with Clinton, “We Can Funk.” Add to that The Time’s “Shake!” (which sounds like Question Mark & The Mysterians’ “96 Tears”) and we can move on to 1991.

Bonus: Two of The Time guys produced Human League’s 1986 smash explosive super exploding hit “Human.”

Rolling Stone’s critics ignored Graffiti Bridge, but the readers named it one of their runner-up albums for 1990. Critics and readers agreed on Sinéad O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got as the best of the best.

Diamonds and Pearls
1991
This is more like it. Prince has a new backup band, The New Power Generation, and they can stomp, they can play a soul ballad, they can even play jazz. “Thunder” is his best opening track since “Sign O’ the Times.” It flat out rocks, and even though I get the feeling that the new boys are restraining themselves they still beat the couch stuffing out of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.”

This reminds us yet again that Prince can reach into the grab-bag of pop and reinterpret anything he pulls out. “Strollin’ ” sounds as if it were inspired by the 5th Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic.” “Willing and Able” is a Dire Straits song with better singing and a beat.

Because Prince is equally ready to fight record companies and his own fans, Rhapsody is only authorized to play nine of the 13 tracks on this album. I couldn’t find the rest on YouTube BECAUSE THEY’RE NOT AVAILABLE IN MY COUNTRY. For example, “Cream,” which Rolling Stone’s critics picked as one the year’s best singles. (R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” topped the critics’ and readers’ picks for best single of 1991. Prince will not reappear on this list until 2006.)

Even with that handicap, and even though the last four tracks on this disc are eye-crossingly lame, Diamonds and Pearls is easily the best album of today’s group. If you’re going to buy any of them, buy this one.

Join me next time for the moment you’ve been waiting for: Prince changes his name!

Reflections upon listening to the Flaming Lips’ With a Little Help from my Fwends a couple of times
(A guest review from longtime reader Number 9.)

When Sgt. Pepper first came out, I would put on side 2, turn out the lights, and play my violin along with “Within You Without You.” So I can understand the Flaming Lips wanting to play along also. I like what they and their, uh, fwends, have done. I haven’t heard of most of their, uh, fwends, except, of course, Miley Cyrus – who knew she could kinda sound like John Lennon (“Lucy in the Sky”)? Mostly I like the instrumental/electronic intros and interludes, the stuff that pushes at the Sgt. Pepper envelope. But my favorite track is “Fixing a Hole” by, uh, fwends the Electric Würms, a nice slowed down rendition – I hope Paul likes it too.

 

Sign O’ the Times
Prince
1987

Back when I worked for Seattle Weekly, I had a conversation with our music editor, Bart Becker, about the fragmentation of commercial radio. Each Seattle station was locked into its own fenced-off musical world. Some formats had Reader’s Digest condensed playlists – Classic Rock had compacted Creedence to about eight tracks, for example. We lamented the lack of a commercial station that dared to play rock, reggae, jazz, classical, blues, punk, and country all on the same day.

Of course we were being unrealistic. No station could turn a profit without focusing on one subset of all radio listeners like a red-tailed hawk on a meadow mouse. I bring this up now for two reasons:

1) Bart’s team, the San Francisco Giants, are playing in the World Series, and with a name like Bart Becker you know he should be holding down the hot corner or frantically calling the bullpen for a left-hander.

2) Even though I have listened to several hours of music a day almost every day since I crawled out of the ocean and learned to breathe oxygen, I had never heard a single note from Sign O’ the Times.

Yeah. Radio is fragmented.

Why didn’t somebody tell me?
Sign O’ the Times is so good that I almost didn’t write about it. I’m not worthy! But I started out to review every album Prince ever made and goddammit I’m going to review every album Prince ever made. (Unless Rhapsody doesn’t have one. Prince is not sending me free merch.)

I started by looking at what critics said about Sign O’ the Times in 1987. Everyone compared it to The White Album, which makes sense because both albums are a mess, but nobody mentioned that The White Album was created by John, Paul, George, and Ringo while Sign O’ the Times was created by Prince, Prince, Prince, and Prince. This makes Sign even more monumental.

The songs here come from three different projects. They don’t belong together, especially the songs from the project in which Prince played a woman and speeded up his voice. It never occurs to me to do projects like that. Sign has something for everyone, but much of it is not my style: super-smooth soul ballads (I’ll only accept Barry White), hip-hop (doesn’t come naturally to Prince – he’s a rocker at heart), songs that are so slow they could be outrun by the walking dead, and God. What’s left is more than enough for a wretch like me, but I’m only going to mention the title track, “The Cross,” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”

“Sign O’ the Times” is an updating of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” In fact, “Sign O’ the Times” would fit perfectly on Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece of the same name. But there is that Prince touch at the end, when he sets aside his concerns about AIDS, natural disasters, and nuclear war and suggests to his listener that we should just get married and have a baby.

“The Cross” is Prince taking on U2 at their most pompous and rocking them right out of Ireland. The song doesn’t even hit its crescendo until 2:28 and it’s over at 4:45. On this album, 4:45 streaks past like a comet. I’m staggered. And I say all this in praise of “The Cross” even though it’s more God.

“If I Was Your Girlfriend” may be the most singular song in pop music. Follow along: Prince, who has a girlfriend, imagines himself as his girlfriend’s girlfriend, because then they could be closer than they could be with him as her boyfriend.

If I was your girlfriend
Would you let me dress you?
I mean help you pick out your clothes
Before we go out?
Not that you’re helpless
But sometime, sometime those are the things
That bein’ in love’s about.

But his real question, and the heart of the song, is:

If I was your one and only friend
Would you run to me if somebody hurt you
Even if that somebody was me?

The music is distancing, almost ominous, and his voice is speeded up (in one spot he sounds like Snoopy), but this line has two points of view plus a gender switch. What is this, literature?

Oh, and the song eventually gets sexual. C’mon, it’s Prince.

Summing up
Sign O’ The Times, flaws included, rates five stars from any pointy-headed critic.

But!

This album is not fun, not like 1999 or Purple Rain or The White Album. Nothing on Sign is as plain silly as “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” I realize that I’ve been listening to The White Album for 46 years and to 1999 and Purple Rain for about 30 and to Sign for two weeks, and that artists should always try to grow, but I can already tell that I’m not going to replay Sign O’ the Times, just three or four of the tracks.

I just did…and then I listened to Ringo crooning “Don’t Pass Me By.”

1987 Scoreboard
Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love was the Rolling Stone critics’ best album. The runners-up:

The Joshua Tree – U2
Sign O’ the Times – Prince
Document – R.E.M.
Robbie Robertson – Robbie Robertson
Pleased to Meet Me – The Replacements
Bring the Family – John Hiatt
By the Light of the Moon – Los Lobos
Franks Wild Years – Tom Waits
Babble – That Petrol Emotion

The readers voted for U2’s The Joshua Tree for best album. Their runners-up:

Sign O’ the Times – Prince
Document – R.E.M.
Tunnel of Love – Bruce Springsteen
A Momentary Lapse of Reason – Pink Floyd
Whitesnake – Whitesnake
Hysteria – Def Leppard
Tango In the Night – Fleetwood Mac
…Nothing Like the Sun – Sting
Bad Animals – Heart

If you’re keeping score you may have noticed that African-Americans have been a small part of these Rolling Stone lists. We’ve had Robert Cray, Run-DMC, and Tina Turner once each and Prince three times as opposed to 33 white artists. Los Lobos are Chicano. But what I’m really mad about is that there’s only been two Jews, Paul Simon and Lou Reed. Plus now we have…Sting! You can’t get more Caucasian unless you activate the Perry Como hologram.

Today’s Randoms: WTF Edition 

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Paul Revere & The Raiders, Collage (1970)
The boys were running on fumes by 1970, plus on this set they’re playing in a higher league: Steppenwolf psychedelia and Guess Who hard rock. This album should’ve sucked the phone.

Wrong! “Think Twice” is good enough to have been the B-side of “Kicks,” “Hungry,” or “Just Like Me.” The tracks “Dr. Fine,” “Just Seventeen,” and “The Boys in the Band” are not bad. “Sorceress with Blue Eyes” is as dumb as its title, but Mark Lindsay shows what his voice can do – a sort of Mick Jagger with Robert Plant’s phrasing – and the guitar break is classic heavy ’60s.

Collage is not worth a purchase – most of it is Crud Gone Wild – but it’s definitely worth a listen.

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George Benson with the Brother Jack McDuff Quartet, The New Boss Guitar of George Benson (1964)
I only knew George Benson from his lightweight pop of the ’70s and ’80s (“This Masquerade,” “Give Me the Night,” and his signature tune, “On Broadway”). The New Boss Guitar was a happy surprise. This is jazz, alternately cool and funky.

The album was reissued in 1990 with one extra track, their reading of the My Three Sons theme. It doesn’t fit with the earlier cuts, and it sounds nothing like the music from that antique TV show, but Benson and his band were on fire when they waxed this one. All hail the drummer!

 

The Best of Rare Earth
20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection
Rare Earth
2001

[Editor’s note: Last week I took on Prince’s Parade. Next up is Sign ‘o’ the Times, which requires more thought. Also, the World Series is about to start. While I’m doing all this extra thinking about Prince and baseball let’s take a look at a much simpler topic.]

Rare Earth was a white Motown group with three superpowers:

  • They were expert interpreters of black R&B.
  • Their drummer, who was 3’ taller than anyone else in the band, was a terrific soul-shouter.
  • They began every song like they owned the world.

Unfortunately, they had a fourth power: a knack for getting lost three minutes into every song. They were like the party guest who never knows when to go home. This talent is most apparent on their cover of “What I Say.” For the first three minutes they run Ray Charles right off the road. They played another four minutes. They shouldn’t have.

The Best of Rare Earth is a disc for the most passionate Rare Earth fan. That’s why the first song is not their powerful three-minute hit, “Get Ready” (1969). No, it’s the 21-minute wall of blubber that the hit was carved from, like a burger from a buffalo. I can’t believe that anyone other than a specialist would willingly listen to this track more than once. I have – when my friend Jeff invited me over to his house one day after high school, and again last week when the CD arrived from Half.com. A 500-year interval is about right.

OK, so Rare Earth was long-winded. The late-’60s/early ’70s was a time of gusty musical winds. How do our boys stack up against their contemporaries?

  • They lack the discipline of The Byrds (the live version of “Eight Miles High”), The Rolling Stones (“Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ ”), and Santana (“Black Magic Woman”).
  • They’re loose like Creedence Clearwater Revival (“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Susie Q”), but they can’t bring things to a satisfying close the way Creedence can.
  • However, they don’t play funeral marches like Mountain (“Nantucket Sleighride”) or psychedelic plasmodium like Steppenwolf (“Magic Carpet Ride”) or Quicksilver Messenger Service (“The Fool”).
  • Their musicianship is superior to Iron Butterfly (“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”) and The Grateful Dead (just about anything).

Actually, they remind me of The Allman Brothers, even though the Allmans are closer to the blues and Rare Earth is closer to jazz. Neither group knows when to cry “Hold, enough!”

[Editor’s note: All of these bands are better than Yes.]

Racial profiling
I have serious trouble with six Caucasians singing an ode to their African-American swamp mama in the album’s closer, “Ma.” Nevermind that it’s 17 frakking minutes long. Forget the lyrics. (Ma raised 13 kids on her own, but always sent them to church because that’s what Pa would’ve wanted? Pa only showed up once a year for sex, but he was religious? Which religion? Ma should’ve shot him 12 kids ago.) The dudes in Rare Earth are white. They didn’t grow up in a shack and their lives were never restricted by the color of their skin. Why don’t they sing something from The Sound of Music?

Surely Universal could’ve used the space hogged by “Ma” for the radio edit of “Get Ready” and maybe some other track from Rare Earth’s best effort, Rare Earth in Concert (1971), which came in a cardboard sleeve that looked like a hippie’s knapsack.

Summing up
The Best of Rare Earth gives us “I Just Want to Celebrate,” “Born to Wander,” and “Hey Big Brother,” which fit just fine in any Classic Rock rotation. If you can handle all 11 minutes, “(I Know) I’m Losing You” is rewarding. It’s slower than but similar to the Temptations’ hit “Ball of Confusion.” Rare Earth’s producer, the late Mr. Norman Whitfield, co-wrote both tunes, as well as “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” (And “Ma.” Anyone can have an off-night.)

Rare Earth rocks harder than Blood, Sweat & Tears and plays better than J. Geils. You can go straight from Rare Earth to any jazz-fusion outfit of the 1970s. Give them a try. But be ready to push Skip.

Today’s Randoms: 1968 Jazz Edition
OK everybody. Here’s some vocabulary to help you talk like a jazz critic!

Set: The songs (or cuts) you intend to record.
Reading: Your cover of somebody else’s cut.
Date: If you record the cuts at a concert or all in one day, it’s a date.
Platter: The medium on which you record the set. Also called “sides.”
Wax: You wax the set onto the platter. As in “The best set he ever waxed!”
Lay down a groove: Play your part in a song so it can get waxed onto a platter.
Burner: Any Hammond B3 organist who waxes a funky platter has laid down a burner.

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Frank Foster, Manhattan Fever
Fascinating sides from Foster, who played for years with Count Basie and led the band after Basie’s death. On Manhattan Fever, you get jazz you can almost dance to, some great soloing from Foster on the tenor sax, experimental stuff I skip no matter whose name is on the cover, and amazing drumming from Mickey Roker. I want to have his baby. Foster waxed some funky titles: “What’s New From the Monster Mill,” “You Gotta Be Kiddin’,” and the killer cut “Little Miss No Nose.”

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Jimmy McGriff, The Worm
Mr. McGriff played the Hammond B3 organ, so you know how I’m going to end this paragraph. The Worm is a funky, fun platter with many highlights, particularly the cuts “Keep Loose” and their reading of “Think,” which I only knew from Aretha Franklin’s performance in The Blues Brothers. (Aretha co-wrote the song.) “Girl Talk” is a slo-mo groove that deserved a good waxing. Nine musicians contributed to this set; the cumulative effect is of a swinging jazz orchestra. Burner!

Worth a mention
Hank Mobley, Reach Out!
Mobley led hard-bop marauders in dates with names like No Room for Squares (1963). They tried a more commercial sound for Reach Out! I can’t fault musicians who want to make some money for once, but I doubt the public tossed much bacon onto this platter. Mobley’s heart wasn’t in it.

But Reach Out! is notable for the band’s reading of The Four Tops hit of the same name – the only time I’ve heard anyone else give this cut a spin. Fun but klutzy, with people getting lost in the groove, particularly the drummer, who may have believed he was in another song. Lily Von Shtupp put it best in Blazing Saddles, when she complained that men were always “coming and going and going and coming…and always too soon!”

 

Parade
Prince & The Revolution
1986

If I were a sensible person, I would’ve listened to Prince’s complete works first, identified continuing themes, drawn some tentative conclusions, and then, armed with this global perspective, returned to his debut and started the project.

NFW. I didn’t do any thinking at all, I just started bloviating as soon as I cued up track 1 of his debut, For You. Here I am eight albums later and I have outrun my personal Prince database. I only knew two songs on Parade and things aren’t going to get any better with his next 200 albums.

Parade is another soundtrack; this movie is called Under the Cherry Moon. Prince wrote the music, directed, and took the starring role as a gigolo. Of course he played a gigolo. I’ve always wanted to list “gigolo” as my occupation on my tax forms, but my tax preparer does not favor this plan and my wife has raised key objections. Under the Cherry Moon is another film that will never invade either hemisphere of my brain, although if there’s an afterlife, I suspect they show Prince’s films on a continuous loop.

Parade marks the high point for The Revolution and their influence on Prince’s records. (I’ve avoided writing about Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, and the many other talented musicians, mostly women, Prince has worked with because that would be a whole other project.) But if their influence here was to direct Prince toward a cabaret style that varies between pretentiousness and the aural equivalent of an eye test where everything is out of focus, then it was definitely time for Prince and The Revolution to break up. Which they did, after this record.

Some of these songs are boring. I had never connected the words “boring” and “Prince” until I heard “Under the Cherry Moon.” I can’t make it to the end of that one and it’s not even three minutes long. So instead let me point out the songs that are not boring, because they almost save Parade. And I don’t want to make The Revolution into the fall guys here, because they had a hand in the better tracks, too.

“New Position”
Shows what Prince can do when he strips out the orchestra and all that other frou-frou stuff. The lyrics are straight out of the ZZ Top planet, but ZZ Top could only dream of being this funky.

“Girls & Boys”
The B-52s if they’d been trapped in the wild and raised by David Bowie.

“Mountains”
This song is awesome. I’ve read that critics in 1986 complained that Parade was too “European.” What did they mean? Where were these critics from, the Ottoman Empire?

I mention this because “Mountains” reminds me of the music of a gentleman named Peter Godwin, who actually is from that place called Europe. Godwin had a couple of dance-club hits in 1982, “Images of Heaven” (banned video of naked women pretending to hang from crucifixes – that is so cool) and “Baby’s in the Mountains.” His disco, which was built on sedimentary layers of synthesizers, is not bad, though the lyrics never rise above Hello Kitty. Allmusic.com calls his first solo effort, Images of Heaven, “an interesting synth-pop artifact.” That’s what people will call me after I’m dead. Fun fact: Godwin’s voice is close to David Byrne’s.

In “Mountains,” Prince has taken Godwin’s “European,” shallow disco sound and improved it 500%, though not the lyrics, which barely budge from middle school.

“Kiss”
I have about six Prince songs that are my #1 favorite. Like this one. “Kiss” may be the best booty call of the last century – sexy and romantic. Rolling Stone ranks it 464 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. This makes me sad, because “Smoke on the Water” ranks higher on their stupid list. Once again, Prince demonstrates how to write a hit record and save money by not hiring anyone to play bass.

“Anotherloverholenyohead”
This is the funniest song here, at least to me, because “Anotherloverholenyohead” sounds like Prince making fun of Yes and their absurd dance hit, “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” OK, he probably didn’t set out to make fun of Yes and I’ll bet he hasn’t devoted more than 10 seconds of precious brain time to them in his life, which is more than I can say for myself. But this is still pretty funny.

Parade is not Prince at his best, though there are some astrophysical moments here. I give him credit as always for his willingness to try something new. I can’t imagine what he’s about to throw at me. I should’ve peeked.

1986 Scoreboard
Parade didn’t place in the Rolling Stone sweepstakes, but the critics voted “Kiss” the best single. Their readers voted for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” Here are the critics’ winning albums:

Winner:
Graceland – Paul Simon

Runners-up:
So – Peter Gabriel
Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band Live/1975-85 – Bruce Springsteen etc.
True Stories – Talking Heads
Strong Persuader – The Robert Cray Band
Raising Hell – Run-DMC, whoever they are
Life’s Rich Pageant – R.E.M.

The readers voted for Bruce for the second year in a row. Their runners-up:
So – Peter Gabriel
Life’s Rich Pageant – R.E.M.
5150 – Van Halen
Invisible Touch – Genesis

Today’s Randoms: Female Debut Edition

Thumbs-up
Keyshia Cole, The Way It Is (2005)
Ms. Cole might be the model for Ke$ha and other urban-dance-contemporary-fake-R&B horrors. She didn’t mean it! She doesn’t have Beyoncé’s voice, but how many people do? This record is not for me, but it’s definitely for someone – I can hear how good she is.

Thumbs-down
Lykke Li, Youth Novels (2008)
Some striking music here, particularly “Complaint Department,” but I can only take so much of a woman in her 20s singing like a 13-year-old. The late Amy Winehouse would’ve blown through this set like Comet Hale-Bopp.

I report, you decide
Lorde, Pure Heroine (2013)
Ella Yelich-O’Connor was 16 when she recorded Pure Heroine. The list of good teenage pop stars is short: Aretha, Stevie Wonder, Steve Winwood, the Everlys (just barely), Simon & Garfunkel (as Tom & Jerry), Esperanza Spaulding (I’m guessing here), and Mozart. The list of bad teenage pop stars is long and I refuse to type any of their names.

In which camp does Lorde reside? Her lyrics sound interesting but deliver little; that’s not necessarily a drawback in the pop music game. Musically, she’s as slick as Steely Dan, as calculated as any boy band. Everything about this record was designed to suction the money out of your PayPal account, but it’s done with such class and skill that I listened to nine of the 15 tracks before I decided it was getting monotonous. Lorde can sing, that’s for sure.

If I can stand it, you can. Play it.