Prince and The Revolution – Purple Rain

Purple Rain

Prince and The RevolutionPurple Rain Warner Bros. 25110-1 (1984)


In the All Music Guide, Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that David Bowie‘s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars had a “grand sense of staged drama” and that “Bowie succeeds not in spite of his pretensions but because of them . . . .”  The same could very well be said about Prince’s most acclaimed and best-selling album (over 20 millions copies), Purple Rain.  This was the soundtrack to a movie of the same name, which some say was inspired by Samuel R. Delany’s novel Dhalgren.  Some of the songs were recorded live (“I Would Die 4 U”, “Baby I’m a Star” and “Purple Rain”), with later overdubs.

Purple Rain just appeals to so many people.  There is something for the freaks, something for the squares (aside from the prudes).  That wide appeal should not come as a surprise.  This is basically a perfect album.  Sure, it might be hard to find anyone picking “The Beautiful Ones” as his or her favorite, on an album that also boasts “Let’s Go Crazy” (a rock-gospel party anthem), “When Doves Cry” (an abstract, minimalist pop stunner without a bass line), and “Purple Rain” (a monster ballad to end monster ballads).  Not only is there is no filler here, every song is great.  It certainly helped that Prince was a prolific songwriter.  He had about 100 songs lined up for the film, according to director Albert Magnoli, who had to cull that down to what worked best.  The photographer Robert Mapplethorpe once mentioned in a 1977 interview, “It takes me a good week really to decide what negatives and that’s half of taking pictures, is the selection.  *** And the framing is very important.”  These are analogues to song selection and album sequencing for music.  These things do put in perspective what it takes to make something like Purple Rain.  A handful of decent songs is simply not enough.

Prince wasn’t exactly an unknown before this album and the movie — from 1979 to 1983 he had even appeared on television a few times — but they were what made him a worldwide superstar.  His band The Revolution also played a significant role, with Wendy & Lisa noted for making key contributions.  Prince became something of an egomaniac as a result of his fame.  Mapplethorpe also said in that interview that all artists he knew were egotistical.  This perhaps says something about what it takes to want to put one’s self in the spotlight.

There isn’t much to say about the music itself that hasn’t already been said so many times over.  But this album still holds up decades later.

Albert Ayler – New Grass

New Grass

Albert AylerNew Grass Impulse! A-9175 (1968)


A divisive album from a figure who seemed divisive in other ways from the start.  Ayler rose to some level of renown among jazz heads as a pioneer of free jazz.  But he got his start in R&B bands, and New Grass is an early attempt, of sorts, at jazz/R&B fusion.  The album opens with typical Ayler free jazz wailing, then a brief spoken introduction, in which he states with radical earnestness that he hopes listeners like the album, and then it is on to the real surprise: R&B tunes laced through with solos far more skronky than any sort of King Curtis or The 5th Dimension mainstream R&B/soul track.  The real problem with the album is how it gets going.  “Message From Albert/New Grass” implies the album is something other that what it turns out to be — some kind of misguided attempt to ease listeners expecting “conventional” free jazz into the album.  But “New Generation” and “Sun Watcher” really do get the album going, with great grooves, shimmering keyboards (on the latter), and what are actually smoking performances on sax by Ayler.  Everything finishes strong with the sublime rave-up “Free at Last” too.  But it is hard not to think that the album would have been much improved by dropping the first track and squeezing in the outtake “Thank God for Women” (posthumously released on the Holy Ghost box set).  Anyway, while the album sequencing is too awkward to be entirely successful, this album deserves much credit for its radical concept alone.  Jazz, and free jazz especially, was generally a pretty elitist musical form by the late 1960s, while lite R&B/soul was on the complete opposite side of the spectrum, with more plebeian appeal.  Ayler throws them together without any regard for the social distinctions erected between those genres.  While Miles Davis gets more credit for his approach to jazz/rock fusion, it is worth keeping in mind the way Miles leaned on esoteric and elitist forms of rock (not to mention the work of avant garde European composers).  So, while some people saw this album as Ayler selling out to commercial tastes, a different, perhaps better, way to look at it is as an attempt to transcend the social confinement represented by narrow genre categories.  And Ayler approaches that challenge with his usual open-hearted, emotive, and guileless version of what everybody typically expects to be purely cerebral, technically and conceptually challenging virtuoso performance.  Contrary to its reputation, New Grass is slowly gaining more currency as a pretty decent album.  It isn’t Ayler’s best.  Yet it works.  Anyone who does dig this should also check out Archie Shepp‘s similar effort For Losers.

Prince – Come

Come

PrinceCome Warner Bros. 9 45700-2 (1994)


A misfire according to critics, but still a moderate commercial success, Come was disregarded by Prince himself in favor of the contemporaneously recorded The Gold ExperienceCome was created at the beginning of Prince’s notorious feud with his record label Warner Bros., when he changed his name to the unpronounceable “love symbol” which looked something like “O(+->” and he was referenced as “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”  Stripping away all the hoopla and critical perspectives of the day, in hindsight this isn’t a bad album at all.  It is not particularly ambitious, and there aren’t any obvious hits here, the album nonetheless is consistent from beginning to end.  There is a “Poem” cut up into interludes between songs throughout the album that should have been dropped (especially the closing “Orgasm”).  But the title track, “Papa,” “Dark” (check those horn charts! and guitar solo!), and “Letitgo” are all solid performances in the smooth soul style that Prince has toyed with going back to songs like “Slow Love” and “Adore” on Sign “O” the Times.  Venturing a guess, critics probably disliked Come because of its refusal to cater to the fads of the day (like the hip-hop/R&B melange of “new jack swing,” etc.), thereby suggesting that the music industry (which included the critics) was promoting inferior music.  Hindsight suggests Prince was right.  While this won’t be anyone’s favorite Prince album, it is a decent one that has surely held up better than, say, Batman, and even Diamonds and Pearls.

Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres

Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres

Matana RobertsCoin Coin Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres Constellation CST079-2 (2011)


Well, this might well be the epitome of how identity politics represents a dead end.  Coin Coin Chapter One is a concept album that develops a stigmatizing identity of the oppressed that (here’s the rub) polarizes others into either racist oppressors or friendly consumers of exotic otherness made possible by an enriching sense of difference (though primarily directed to the latter as an audience).  It shuts the door to universality.  It also pines for a false authenticity.  Rather than working to create a kind of genuine, material emancipation in the present, this music dwells on the loss of the past and the wounds of history.  Set aside slavery, and weren’t white women routinely oppressed in the antebellum era too?  Aside from the obviously horrible brutality of human bondage, the problem of slavery was not the denial of the rights on the basis of skin color but the vacuousness of the “free” people who accepted (or even tolerated) oppression and considered themselves society’s “betters” under such circumstances.  And does this all overlook how the cultures destroyed by slavery (as much as any others) were meaningless, arbitrary human constructs?  And isn’t condemning slavery kind of an easy thing in modern times?  Even if it does still exist today in the dark corners, who really openly argues for it?  Today the more appropriate question is to ask why more resources are not devoted to completely eradicating such an acknowledged evil.  More broadly, the task is to struggle to make concrete the freedoms everyone acknowledges as essential but are hypocritically denied in fact in so many ways.  Short of those specifics, even looking to the “free your mind and your ass will follow” approach, what is needed, as Alejandro Jodorowsky once wrote, is “to undergo a mental cataclysm that causes our worldview, our psychic stance, and any sort of self-concept to crumble, precipitating us into the void — a void that engenders us, enabling us to be reborn freer than before and, for the first time, to be in the world as it is instead of as we have learned it is.” This is not accomplished by Coin Coin Chapter One.  In fact, it pursues something quite the opposite — isn’t at some level this commercially released album a way of profiting off (the history of) slavery and oppression?  Is the past not being called up to reinforce a feeling of victimhood as the essential element of a lasting identity?  Give that some thought.

Anyway, the album itself is part free jazz part hard bop jazz, part singing and part spoken word, all rendered in a dramatic way.  In fact, a useful reference point would be the “audiodramas” of Julius Hemphill (Roi Boyé & the Gotham Minstrels, etc.) — to a lesser extent also the jazz operas of Fred Ho.  The thing is, those things have been done, and, even including her specific performance styles that look to other influences, Roberts is merely approximating styles of her forebears.  So in spite of the generally excellent execution, this album is a giant, smug pat on the back to the friendly consumers of exotic otherness who pride themselves on endorsing freedom and such feel-good principles — the same approach taken by groups like Sweet Honey in the Rock, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, etc.  Coin Coin Chapter One isn’t a failure, entirely or exactly, but it is appropriately a compromised, self-contradictory mess, and in many ways presents a seductive trap of suggesting that all that is possible is to feel sorry about the wrongs of the past (from a rather insular and singular perspective) to eliminate only the very worst atrocities, quietly shutting the door to opportunities to provide and expand more general emancipation today (in the sense of Fanon).  This has a Foucault-ian, “there is no alternative” kind of vibe lurking just outside its own frame.  So, strangely, this is an album that feels like it wins every battle, song by song and note by note, yet loses the war — because it fights the wrong war.

Prince – The Rainbow Children

The Rainbow Children

PrinceThe Rainbow Children NPG 70004-2 (2001)


Kind of a forgotten Prince disc, unfairly, because The Rainbow Children is really one of the best from his later years.  With the exception of some weird concluding outtro tracks sequenced strangely on the CD and perhaps the novelty song “Wedding Feast,” this is an album that is solid all the way through.  The musicianship is top shelf, without succumbing to pandering or self-indulgent showiness.  To the extent this was the launch of a more mature sound for Prince, it succeeds completely.  Although it is fair to call this contemporary R&B/soul, much of this follows a kind of light soul jazz/jazz-funk approach (reference, for example, Dave DouglasLive at the Jazz Standard from a few years later).  It also leans toward gospel-style vocals, which is a big bonus.  Of course, there is more than just that here.  “1+1+1 Is 3” is very much a throwback to Prince’s iconic style of the mid-1980s, done quite convincingly.  It highlights just how versatile his guitar playing is across the album.  When people speak, generally, about what a talented performer Prince was, the evidence is right here.  This album is kind of like being at the best possible intimate, private concert you cold imagine from Prince around the turn of the Millennium.  It was around this time too that Prince appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on May 3, 2001 and played a couple songs, including “The Work, Part 1” from this album and a great version of his classic “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” (originally on Sign “O” the Times) with many jazzy keyboard flourishes.  The album as a whole is close to the sound of that televised performance.  He came back in December of 2002 to perform “The Everlasting Now” on the show too.  Now, some people don’t seem to like the album, often because of the religious content.  But, really, that is only on a few songs (“The Everlasting Now” etc.) and unless you focus on lyrics to the exclusion of almost everything else, the few religious messages are general enough that they don’t hold this back much.  Songs like “Family Name” — one of the funkiest on the album — are political/social commentary anyway.  The real reason this isn’t better known is that it wasn’t heavily marketed and was independently distributed.  It did set up material for the tour that produced One Nite Alone…Live!  Nonetheless, this might be the single most overlooked Prince album. 

Prince – The Black Album

The Black Album

PrinceThe Black Album Warner Bros. 2-45793 (1994)


When Whitney Houston died, there was much talk about how she was long ridiculed by some for appealing too much to white audiences.  That unfortunate sentiment — that only insular identities based on differences were valid — looked down on what has long been called “crossover” appeal.  It is the idea that different musical styles that appeal to different groups can be synthesized into a hybrid that appeals to audiences for all its sources.  Prince in his prime years of 1981-87 was every bit a crossover success.  But some unfortunate pandering reared its head toward the end of the 80s.  So he made “The Black Album,” with some overt attempts to appeal to black audiences.  For whatever reasons, though, the album was aborted in late 1987 after a few promo copies were given to industry insiders — replaced by the adequate but by comparison inferior Lovesexy album, which had a more mainstream pop sound.  Due to its dubious status, this was a much bootlegged album until a belated official release in 1994.

In the mid-/late-80s Prince was working on an album project tentatively titled Crystal Ball, which was never released (another collection later adopted the same name) but evolved into Sign “O” the Times.  One of the tracks (“Rockhard in a Funky Place”) intended for Crystal Ball that was dropped from Sign “O” the Times ended up here.  Other songs still have a bit of the sonic flavor of Sign too.  That is a positive, in that Sign was Prince at his best.  But the opening few cuts (“Le Grind,” “Cindy C.”) are made for dance clubs.  There are other songs that suggest how “Slow Love” from Sign would be more representative of things Prince would do in the 1990s.

The weakness of the album is the middle section.  The P-funk workout “Superfunkycalifragisexy” gets monotonous quickly.  “Bob George” is a skit-like song with Prince playing the role of a macho critic of himself.  It’s a strange, unsettling performance, much talked about by critics and fans, but also a bit disturbingly violent and the backing track drags on like an afterthought.  It is a fascinating song in concept, but actually listening to it is kind of secondary.

The album picks up mightily at the end.  The jazzy instrumental “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton” is a highlight, complete with chaotic group segments, stinging synthesizer, and a lengthy bass solo that actually propels the songs forward.  The closer “Rockhard in a Funky Place” is also unstoppable.  It’s a funny song too.  The lyric “I just hate to see an erection go to waste” seems like the same sentiment from Leonard Cohen‘s “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-on” (Death of a Ladies’ Man).

In the end, The Black Album is weighted down by some filler, and it lacks an obvious candidate for a hit single.  Still, it is mostly really good stuff from the tail end of Prince’s finest years.  Anyone who has exhausted Prince’s greatest material of the 80s (and that should include, well, everyone) but still wants more should consider checking this out.  In spite of the inconsistency of The Black Album, the Purple One scarcely mustered this intensity again at album length.

Jackie-O Motherfucker – The Magick Fire Music

The Magick Fire Music

Jackie-O MotherfuckerThe Magick Fire Music Ecstatic Peace! E# 70c (2000)


Much like Earth gained notoriety on Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version (1993) playing heavy metal rock at a glacial pace, to the point that the same chords take on a different character, Jackie-O Motherfucker played long jams that vaguely resembled so-called post-rock acts of the preceding decade (Dirty Three, Gastr del Sol, Godspeed You! Black Emperor) but slowed down and with jazzier improvisational choices.  The opening song “Extension” is like “Blind Willie” from Sonny Sharrock‘s Guitar (1986), played at a snail’s pace, with an amiable, meandering progression like Sharrock’s “Portrait of Linda in Three Colors, All Black” from Black Woman (1969).  The slow tempos also give this album an atmospheric quality, not quite to the point of being ambient, “furniture” music, but to the point that the percussive and rhythmic qualities of the playing subside.  The band’s later recordings leaned further toward both folk music and juxtapositions of disparate genres.  The way this music takes its time to unfold is refreshing.  It is also cautiously optimistic.  Worth seeking out.