Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Review: Prince's 'Planet Earth'

Well, here we are. A little over a year since the release of 3121, and a new Prince album is released. I wasn't all that anxious about this release. Surely, I knew I would pick it up first thing in the morning, but I guess there just wasn't much buzz as opposed to previous albums. They played it over the PA while were waiting for Prince to play at the Target Center a few weeks ago, but it was hard to really listen to it under those circumstances. Other than that, my only exposure was "Guitar" and "The Once U Want 2 C," both of which he played that night.

So anyhow, I picked up the album this morning. Let's go step by step.

Although I think the photo on the cover is a bit silly, I'm a sucker for gimmicks, and was pleased with the hologram cover. Hours of amusement! As Matt and I opened our respective copies, we were befuddled at the lack of a booklet, or even a damn tracklisting. Brilliant. Jokingly referring to the Crystal Ball fiasco, I commented that "maybe there will be liner notes online." Har har. Imagine my shock when I found a pdf of lyrics, etc. on Prince's website. Come on now, what's the logic?

Anyway, on to the music.

Upon hearing the opening title track, my heart sank. It's not the kind of song that grabs your attention at the beginning of an album. I'm ashamed to admit that I agree with this, but a friend of mine said it reminded him of mid-1990s MJ songs like "Childhood" and "Earth Song." They lyrics are also uncomfortably preachy. Maybe things will pick up.

When Prince released "Guitar" on his website this winter, I hated it. It sounded horrible, and lacked the energy that a song called "Guitar" should have. Luckily, he revamped it for the album, thickening up the production a bit, and pushing the guitars to the fore. It's an ok song, but not particularly interesting musically or lyrically.

"Somewhere Here on Earth" takes the tempo back down, with Prince in falsetto seduction mode. Another ok song, but nothing that Prince hasn't done numerous times before (and better, for that matter).

I first heard "The One U Wanna C" at the Target Center show. It was much different there, being played only by Prince and Wendy. I liked it there. The album version is alright, but in comparison, this arrangement lacks the pathos of the live version. I like it because it's uptempo - there are far too many slower songs on the album. But other than that, it is fairly unremarkable. My buddy Mike likened it to a Sheryl Crow song. Sadly, I can see the similarities.

You know what? To hell with this. I don't even have the patience to do a track-by-track analysis. As a whole, Planet Earth is utterly disappointing. It ranges from bad to mediocre. It's uncreative and uninspired. I've subscribed to the belief that even the bad Prince albums have a couple of hot tracks on them. I can't find one on this disc that makes the album worthwhile. I can tell you right now, nothing from Planet Earth will be on my 2007 mix, and that breaks my heart.

I've said it a million times - I've resigned to the fact that Prince will not put out any more mindblowing albums. He's done being creative, period. And I'm okay with that. Despite lack of innovation, I thought Musicology was a tight pop record. And there are a handful of songs on 3121 that I find legitimately interesting, although the album as a whole is not. But there are really no merits to Planet Earth. It seems rushed, the lyrics are trite, the music is uninteresting. The first record in 21 years to feature Wendy and Lisa, and this is the best we can do?

Today I came to the conclusion that Prince has entered Rolling Stones territory. He'll continue to put out lackluster albums, some might be more competent, some might have a few good tracks, but nothing touching their peak years. But he will maintain his reputation as a live performer. I'm ok with that, but then what's the point in putting out such bland material? Why not just devote yourself to performing and producing?

One final observation - there isn't a single song on here that another artist couldn't have done. That is, there isn't anything about the music here that makes me think "Ah, Prince - only you could pull this off."

In closing, I'm severely disappointed in the album, and I didn't even have high expectations for it. I made the statement to Mike that "I think it's at least better than the Stooges record." But I think I'm recanting that statement. Because my problems with the Stooges record stem from Iggy's lyrics and vocals. Musically, it's pretty good. I can't say the same for Planet Earth. Furthermore, Mike noted that I should consider that the Stooges hadn't put out a record in 35 years or so, whereas Prince has been releasing albums continuously. So we can give the Stooges some leeway for being out of the game. But Prince, what's your excuse? Why is it that while under contract to Warner Bros., Prince claimed his creative freedoms were restricted by the company, yet now he's making the most explicitly commercial pop music of his career?

(sigh) I don't know. I've listened to it two full times through, and can't bring myself to do a third right now. It's one of those rare cases that I listen to the album, and seriously feel as though I'm wasting my time in doing so. But you know I'll buy whatever he puts out next anyway.

Monday, July 23, 2007

"drums please!"

In light of having a few weeks with no major commitments (though I plan on doing a good bit of reading), and just because:

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


So it's been a whirlwind week - three shows in seven days, in three cities. Whew! I've already given the dirt on my Prince Minneapolis experience (see below). This will be less substantial, but thought I'd put some thoughts down anyway.

This past Thursday, I caught Battles at The Picador in Iowa City. I'd been anticipating this show for about a month. A friend of mine hipped me to their record, and they are doing some truly unique stuff. I have great difficulty describing them to friends. Usually I say something to the effect of "mostly instrumental rock/experimental." Yet this description fails and makes them sound like a jam band, which they are not. Here's the video for their single, "Atlas."

So that should give you some idea. Live, they are both masters of their instruments and of samplers. Note that none of the samples they use in concert are pre-recorded; they sample themselves playing live, then manipulate it as they see fit. This was seriously one of the most intense rock shows I've ever been to. Jucifer is the only other band that I can think of that matched Battles in intensity. Also, The Picador was packed, which is rare at least from the shows I've seen there. It was 8 of the best spent dollars this year. Their album, Mirrored is available on Warp Records and is a contender for album of the year in my book.


The very next morning, I made my way to the bluegrass state for another highly anticipated (albeit more expensive) show, the reunited Police. The Police are in my top 10 bands of all time. They have no flaws in their catalog in my opinion (barring "Don't Stand So Close to Me '86"). I got into them through a bandmate in high school, and along with the Talking Heads, were one of the bands I most wanted to see reunite, but knew there was no chance that it would happen. Or so it seemed.

At any rate, we got to Churchill Downs intentionally late. We were hungry and didn't care about the opener. After scoping the merchandise (again overpriced) and making a pit stop, we were hopelessly trying to find our seats when we heard "Message in a Bottle" kick in. Cripes. We made it to our seats by the end of the song.

So how was it? I was nervous, as the tour had met with mixed reviews thus far. I felt it necessary to evaluate it song by song. Many of the performances were tight and well executed ("Roxanne," "When the World is Running Down," "So Lonely," "The Bed's Too Big Without You") and others left a bit to be desired ("Don't Stand So Close to Me," "Driven to Tears"). The songs that I felt were lackluster were generally because they dropped the tempo significantly. One of the great things about the Police is the energy of their songs. Drop the tempo by about 1/8, and that energy is lost. I was also a little put off by the use of DAT backing for the vocals in "Roxanne" and percussion in I think "Walking in Your Footsteps." I understand why it was used, but not having it would not have detracted from the performances by any means.

So it was a bit of a mixed bag. I didn't leave feeling disappointed or that I'd wasted my money. But it wasn't as solid a performance as I would have hoped. But it was still the Police, fer Chrissakes.

Prince - All Mixed Up

Last week whilst still riding my Prince high, I for some reason dug through the lesser-explored end of the Prince shelf to dig out some homemade mixes, etc. I came across All Mixed Up, a 70-minute megamix of Prince (and Prince-penned) tunes artfully mashed and mixed into an impressive and continuous piece. So I thought I'd share it with y'all. It's good for running and for dancing. Of course, after I uploaded it, I realized that it's once again available on their website, but ah well.

All Mixed Up website

Sunday, July 8, 2007

"Is this my hometown?"

What a weekend! I'm back from a road trip to Minneapolis for Prince's homecoming show. As always, it was a great time and well worth the time and toil it took to get there.

First, the show at the Target Center:
I never got final word on what the cause was, but we were lined up outside of the venue until between 9 and 9:30, and the show was to start at 8:30. Prince finally took the stage at 10pm. We couldn't quite make out what they were playing over the PA, but my guess is that it was the upcoming Planet Earth album. From what I heard it sounded good, but clearly I can't make an accurate assessment. We were initially to get copies of the album at the show (a la Musicology), but for whatever reason, that didn't happen.

I didn't know what to expect from the setlist, given that he isn't touring, but has been doing the Vegas thing and had some shows in LA recently. I was a little surprised that his setlist was so hits heavy. In fact, it was fairly similar to a Musicology tour setlist (you know, the tour which was the last time he would play the hits - how soon we forget!). That was a bit of a letdown for me. But that might be simply because this was my 5th Prince show in the last 10 years, and I'm a geek. Still, some of the hits sounded really good in terms of arrangement - particularly U Got the Look and Kiss.

More importantly, Wendy Melvoin was on board, as we'd hoped. She didn't play on every song, but came and went as needed. One particular treat here was a set of just Prince, Wendy and their guitars. The version of "Sometimes it Snows in April" here was a big highlight for me.

The selist was littered with a few covers as well. The version of Gnarls Barlkey's "Crazy" was good, but one thing that always annoys me about Prince concerts is the excessive showcasing of his band members. I would much rather have heard Prince singing this tune. And I could have done without the extended Renato Neto/Mike Phillips instrumental take of What a Wonderful World. I always feel like these little excursions kill the energy of the show. At any rate, I was floored when he launched into the Cars' hit "Let's Go." First of all, this seemed an unlikely song for him to cover; secondly, The Cars are one of my favorite bands of the late 1970s/early 1980s; thirdly, it ROCKED. A great surprise, to be sure.

The other huge highlight (potentially 'the' highlight) for me was when I saw a set of timbales carted out onto the stage. Shelia E. joined Prince for a brief runthrough of Let's Go Crazy, before launching into A Love Bizarre. This is one of my very favorite Prince compositions, and my first thought was "they'll play about a verse of this." Fortunately, they ran through the entire song, and jammed out after the verses were through. This was followed up by a full version of The Glamorous Life, which was also great to hear live.

Final comments: Although the setlist was hugely predictable, the aforementioned special moments made it all worthwhile. Not the best Prince show I've seen, and not the worst.


Purple Rain
Take Me With U
Musicology/Prince & the Band
Play That Funky Music (Wild Cherry)
Let’s Go (the Cars)
What a Wonderful World (inst.)

Just Prince & Wendy:
Little Red Corvette
Raspberry Beret
The One U Wanna C (new song - liked it a lot)
Sometimes It Snows in April

Come Together (Beatles)
Do Me Baby (Prince on piano next for songs)
I Wanna Be Your Lover
How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?
Diamonds & Pearls (just a snippet)
Cream (back on guitar)
U Got the Look
If I Was Your Girlfriend
Black Sweat
Let’s Go Crazy (minus all the verses, plus Sheila E.)

A Love Bizarre (Sheila E.)
Crazy (Shelby Johnson on vocals)
Nothing Compares 2 U
Glamorous Life (Sheila E.)


Then it was on to the aftershow at First Avenue, Prince's first appearance there since the warmup gig for the Sign 'O' the Times tour in March 1987. As soon as this was announced, I knew I had to do everything I could to be there. We left Iowa City at 4am on Saturday morning to get in line for tickets at First Ave, which went on sale at 3. We arrived around 8am, and there were somewhere between 250-300 people wrapped around the building. After a long, hot day on the sidewalk, we secured tickets.

I'll preface this by saying that I've never been to First Avenue, Paisley Park, or any form of an aftershow by Prince. So this was even more exciting for me.
The aftershow was absolutely the highlight of the weekend. I was excited about this for days, but when Prince took the stage at 2:45am at First Avenue, I was dumbfounded. I kept thinking (to myself) and saying (out loud) "Holy shit, I can't believe that this is happening." I was about 8-10 people back from the stage, and we were PACKED onto that dancefloor. To utilize a relevant quote, the Kid was in rare form. Wendy and Sheila played with him for the entire set, and Larry Graham showed up as well.

I'm trying to recall a show that had the amount of energy that the crowd at First Avenue projected, myself included. Despite being tightly packed in, we were all dancing, singing, doing whatever motions Prince dictated, etc. It was really something.

"3121" sounded incredible live, and the crowd was very amped. They jammed on this for a while before going into "Girls and Boys," which was both unexpected, and probably my favorite part of the aftershow. Vous et tres belles, mama. Once Larry Graham showed up, it was obvious that there would be a string of Sly and GCS tunes. While not a fan of Graham's persona, he is an amazing bass player, and these songs sounded great (especially when Prince took the mic).

My only complaint is once again too much showcasing of band members. The brass excursion of "Down By the Riverside" was great, but the Shelby J songs were a bit of a buzzkill.

Actually, that's a lie. My biggest complaint is that it was shut down by the cops. At one point, I noticed a suit at the side of the stage signaling to Prince. After "Alphabet Street," the band left the stage. A minute or so later, Prince came out to thanks us and to say that unfortunately, the cops were making them stop. Apparently there is an ordinance which requires such establishments to close at 3, even if they've ceased serving alcohol. So that was unfortunate, especially looking at the rest of the setlist. But he got in a solid 70 minutes or so, and I have absolutely no regrets about the trip, the money or the time. And of course, it was also special seeing him in First Avenue given the history of the venue, as well as its relationship with Prince. If only everything hadn't been pushed up by the late start at the Target Center. Ah well. Hopefully there will be other opportunities in the future.

Aftershow setlist:

Girls & Boys
I Feel 4 U
"Cockeyed Woman"
Down by the Riverside (instrumental featuring horn section)
Gotta Broken Heart Again
Love Is a Losing Game (Amy Winehouse tune sung by Shelby J)
Love Changes (Mother’s Finest tune, by Shelby again)
Thank You (w/ Larry Graham on bass)
Hair (w/Larry Graham)
Sing a Simple Song (w/ Larry Graham)
Everyday People (w/Larry Graham)
Alphabet Street

What was left on the setlist, according to the Star Tribune:
Baby Love
The Dance
Let’s Go
The Question of U
Black Sweat Kiss

Monday, July 2, 2007

I feel Icky

I've sung the praises of IckMusic many times in this blog, and now you have another reason to go. (As if there weren't enough already, the recent post including a a 1978 P-Funk show among them.)

Pete invited me to be a regular contributor to his blog, and I eagerly accepted. My posts there will generally not overlap with my posts here. Redundancy is no fun. At any rate, my inaugural post is now up. Check it out, along with all of the other goodies Pete has for you.