Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: Prince - Lotusflow3r/MPLSound/Elixer

This is a little long. I tried to keep it short and sweet, but brevity is not my strong point and hell, there's a lot of music here.

After months of classic Prince hype, his new 3-disc set dropped at Target on Sunday. The albums have been available for download in the members section of his new website. Given his history with failed websites however, I remain unconvinced that it is worth $77, at least until there are tour dates. So like a good fanboy, I avoided the leaks and reviews, and hit up Target just as soon as I finished my pancakes Sunday morning.

First up in the set is Prince's new protege Bria Valente, and her album Elixer.

In the interest of time, I'll just say that Exlixer is better than I'd expected, mostly because my expectations were pretty low. Even as a Prince related project, I doubt it's something I would have bothered to pick up were it released separately. And let's be honest, that is true of most of the folks who pick up this package, I'm sure.

Now onto the main act.

I'm struggling with whether to treat Lotusflow3r and MPLSound as two distinct records or complementary parts of a whole. Neither is exactly what I would call a concept album, though they do have their own vibes. I'll comment on each individually, but also have some broader comments that apply to both.

Thankfully, Prince's latest offerings are better than 2007's trainwreck, Planet Earth. Yet neither of the new discs really shows Prince breaking any new artistic ground. And that's to be expected. I gave up on the idea of Prince putting out anything earth shattering basically around the time that I became a "serious" fan (1996-7). However, I haven't given up on the idea of Prince being able to put out well crafted and enjoyable records (see Musicology and 3121).

Listening to these two discs, I'm struck that these days, Prince is at his best when he's hearkening his classic material. That might mean breaking out the Linn LM-1 drum machine, slipping into his Camille voice, or simply getting a little naughty.
And I'm okay with that, to be honest, because he does it well. I can accept that most of my musical heroes that are still around have well surpassed their artistic peaks. Meet the new Prince, same as the old Prince.

Part of the reason that I think it works for Prince however, is that (pop) culturally, we're nostalgic for the 1980s. Having been such a pivotal figure of that decade (and of popular music more generally), Prince has been pretty strategic in playing into this - the Super Bowl, the Vegas shows, the Musicology tour, etc. I applaud him for it. Though he still can't get the Internet right and is ridiculously possessive of his intellectual property, he is otherwise aging gracefully, cementing his legacy in American popular music and culture. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the songs that I love on both of these albums tend to tie themselves to classic Prince.

But let's get to the nitty gritty.

Sandwiched between two instrumentals that recall 2003's N.E.W.S. ("From the Lotus..." and "...Back to the Lotus"), the bulk of Lotusflow3r is guitar-laden, an aspect of Prince's abilities that hasn't been the focus of an album since 1996's Chaos and Disorder, which was more chaos and disaster. Lotusflow3r is a more successful attempt, I'm pleased to report.

A general complaint I have is the overuse of processed vocal effects. On some tracks (namely "Colonized Mind") it works, but on most it just seems unnecessary and distracting("Boom," "Crimson and Clover"). Some of the tracks are simply uninteresting ("4Ever" and "Feel Good, Feel Better, Feel Wonderful," which sounds an awful lot like Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic's "Prettyman"). Others are range from good to just OK ("$," "Love Like Jazz," "Wall of Berlin").

Prince has always been into pulling out covers in his live shows. In recent years however, he's moved away from just doing classic funk and R&B tracks into other territory - The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, the B-52's, (and sadly) Jimmie Eat World. Lotusflow3r's take on Tommy James' "Crimson and Clover" fits well into this trend, also incorporating bits of Hendrix's cover of "Wild Thing" from the Monterrey Pop Festival. It's a fine cover, though I'm not sure it adds anything new to the song, aside from Prince's guitar work.

"Boom" is one of the more enjoyable tracks, with Prince alternating between a dreamy, laid-back verse and a choppy rock chorus. To be honest, it sounds like it was lifted from one of Lenny Kravitz's early albums. Of course, Prince was an influence on Lenny Kravitz. Chicken? Egg?

The two real standouts on Lotusflow3r are "Colonized Mind" and "Dreamer." Matt, a friend and loyal blog reader, noted that "Colonized Mind" recalls "The War," "which is a good thing." I agree. "Colonized Mind" can be viewed as a significantly more focused revision of "The War." Yet here, Prince isn't ranting about post-apocalyptic life, but offers a more directly political, coherent statement on race and ethnocentrism (from what I can gather, anyhow). Dark and lyrically rich, "Colonized Mind" has Prince preaching without being preachy, and showcasing his blues-rock mode of guitar playing.

When I saw Prince perform "Dreamer" on Leno last week (with Michael Bland and Sonny T backing him, no less), it was one of those jaw dropping Prince on TV moments. Similar to when Prince stole the show during the all star jam at the Hall of Fame ceremony in 2003, or that blazing performance of "Fury" on SNL in 2006. My concern was that, like the latter example, the studio version would sound thin and flat compared to the live version. Thankfully, Prince pulled it off, and "Dreamer" rocks pretty hard on disc as well. It's Prince in his most intense rock guitar mode. Aces!

HIGHLIGHTS: "Colonized Mind," "Dreamer"

The focus here on MPLSound is funk and dance numbers, though there are handful of un-noteworthy ballads as well ("U're Gonna See Me," "Here," "Better With Time"). Nay, the uptempo joints are where MPLSound shines.

"(There'll Never B) Another Like Me" is again marred with overused vocal effects, though it's a catchy dance number reminiscent of songs from the unreleased High album, and in fact has a rhythmic base very similar to that project's title track.

For all of his JW preaching, Prince still throws out the occasional innuendo, such as the hook of "Chocolate Box" - "I got a box o' chocolates that'll rock the socks off any girl that wanna come my way." Like a few other tracks on this disc ("Dance 4 Me," "Valentina"), it has a minor key synth bass groove that sounds club ready, though "Chocolate Box" boasts a much more infectuous hook. And Q-Tip! Prince's forays into hip hop historically produce questionable results (see Tony M.). Even when a stellar MC like Chuck D. comes to play ("Undisputed" from 1999's Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic), it often sounds forced. Q-Tip was a perfect choice for guesting on this particular song, and I'm reminded that this isn't even the first time they've worked together (Tip guested on a remix of "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold" in 1999).

"Dance 4 Me" brings back the Camille voice, a much more palatable vocal effect that became a Prince trope in the late 1980s (though also featured on "Erotic City.") Although in recent years it sometimes seems that Prince utilizes this effect for the hell of it, it works on "Dance 4 Me." In fact, "Dance 4 Me" wouldn't sound all that out of place on the original, aborted Camille album, alongside "Housequake" and "Rockhard in a Funky Place."

Like Lotusflow3r, my big pick for MPLSound is a track we saw on Leno last week.
"Ol' Skool Company" is a 7.5 minute mid tempo funk piece that can be read as an extension of "Musicology" in that it expresses a yearning for old school funk. It sounds like a more rounded out version of Prince's recontextualization of "When Will We Be Paid?" by the Staples Singers, and also resurrects that song's critique of the music industry, albeit in less oppressive terms. The song also includes a "holy shit" moment for me, when Prince hits on a number of my soft spots:

"Radio used to be local, untouched by the man
Songs we used to sing used to mean something
Now they just bland, Like the drummer
Where's the real drummer? Where's the real drummer?
Michael B., Mint Condition, Morris Day, Jellybean wishin', Sheila E., brother John, and sometimes me, until the dawn
If the White House is black, we gotta take the radio back
Power to the people, power to the people"


HIGHLIGHTS: "Chocolate Box," "Dance 4 Me," "Ol' Skool Company"

The Verdict:
Overall, I'm pleased. It's not breaking much new ground, it isn't terribly innovative, but Prince successfully references his peak material while with some success, updating it for the present day. I admit that I was very concerned after Planet Earth that Prince was just done. These albums show otherwise, despite the fact that they really aren't anything Prince hasn't done before. And while I generally don't buy into the arguments surrounding The White Album, Exile on Main Street etc. that they should have been one disc, my hunch is that one could make an incredibly solid disc from Lotusflow3r and MPLSound. Which I will probably do shortly.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Running Mix - March '09

A while back I shared a running mix that centered more on pop, funk, hip hop genres. I promised a follow up rooted in rock, and that is what I give you here and now. 55 minutes of rock spanning 4 decades and a number of subgenres. I gave it a test run on an 18 miler today, and it definitely got me going. So here it is:

Gonzo's Running Mix - March '09. (Sharebee appears to be all about the popups these days - sorry. Will rethink next time.)

Of course, this would work equally well for other modes of exercise - pumping iron, biking, punching frozen beef carcasses, etc. Hope you dig.

And now I will spend some time rehydrating myself, so that I may dehydrate myself again with the vodka. My weekends are a vicious cycle of hydration.

Friday, March 27, 2009

For good measure....

Last night's performance. Get 'em while they're hot - I'm sure these vids will be taken down before you can say "overzealous copyright bozos."

Friday Funk

Well funkateers, Prince's new set drops on Sunday (sunday?!) exclusively at Target. Clearly, this will be my first order of business sunday morning. As is the case with anything Prince puts out nowadays, my expectations aren't all that high, but I will say that I like what I've heard thusfar. I'm not persuaded to pay $77 for his new Internet wonderland, lotusflow3r.com. Of course, announce tour dates and ticket presales, and I'll probably recant that statement.

If you weren't aware, the little guy has been on Leno the past two nights, and will be again tonight. I will say that last night's performance of "Dreamer" WAILED. I love it when Prince rocks out on the guitar. Here's Wednesday night's performance, which gives us a taste of the funk-laden disc of the three CD set.

Have a funky weekend, and I'll see you at Target sunday AM.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Show Review: Cut Copy - 3/23, 9:30 Club, DC

I don't think I've been to a show since I saw CSS in December. That seems slightly odd, given my modest streak since moving to Baltimore (averaging a show a month, but coming from Iowa, that's A LOT!).

To be completely honest, it wasn't until Friday or Saturday that I remembered the Cut Copy show was coming up on Monday. It seems like forever ago that I bought the ticket.

In classic style, I strolled into the 9:30 Club just in time to see the openening band, Matt & Kim.

They must play in the area frequently, because I feel like I've seen their names advertised quite a bit. I wasn't totally sold on them, but I'll give their album a spin. I was totally sold on their enthusiasm and energy, however. They seemed genuinely happy as shit to be playing, which is always a welcome stage attitude in my book. And yes, I have a crush on Kim. I've always had a thing for female drummers, what can I say? Serious sidenote though, they got a really great drum sound out of that kit. The sound at the 9:30 Club is generally pretty great to begin with, but something about the drums and the way the were miked/mixed sounded fantastic. There was also a moment of serendipity when they played the intro to "The Final Countdown," which I'd heard on the radio on the way down. I also had an amusing/odd dream about Buster Bluth the other night. Why is Arrested Development haunting me? What is the universe trying to say?!?!

30 minutes and one cocktail later, Cut Copy took the stage.

I can't say that I have any real sense of history with this band, and my guess is that the same is true of the majority of folks in the sold out crowd. I really only know In Ghost Colours, which was one of my favorites from 2008.

Through the first two songs, I was a little bit worried. They sounded great, but little seemed to be happening live aside from the drums and vocals. This quickly changed however, as a bass and six string were brought out and remained for the bulk of the set. They tore through pretty much all of In Ghost Colours, which pleased me. They also had an insane light rig. Listen to their record. Imagine what the lighting might be like set to that music. Your mental image is probably accurate. It was intense and very colorful, if blinding at times. Predictably, they closed with "Lights and Music," which I thought they might be sick of by now. But I was glad to hear it.

At some point they also played "Hearts on Fire." You know how sometimes you like a song, but you hear it live and it kicks your appreciation up a few notches? That's the case here. There is a video for the song, but embedding is disabled and to be honest, I think it's kind of a hokey clip. But it's a great song:

Hearts On Fire - Cut Copy

All in all, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I won't say that I was blown away by the show, but I'm glad that I went, it was well worth the ticket price. Happy to have them be my first concert of 2009. Next up is Springsteen in May, unless something comes up in the interim.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Funk

The calendar says spring is here, the weather seems to concur (hopefully it stays that way), and a number of things are happening for me on the Prince front. New album(s) next week, Leno this coming wed-thu-fri, and to top it all off, I got word this week that my article on Prince's "slave" persona will be published in the next issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Some other Princely things are falling into place too, but I can't divulge details yet - but Pittsburgh folks should keep an eye out!

Moreover, this is one of those songs that for some reason sounds "spring-like" to me. I believe this comes from the Romance 1600 video, which I haven't watched in some time. It's Sheila's house, but Prince and the Revolution show up to take it to the next level. Sadly, this is only the first half of the song (you know how Princey likes to jam out), but alas.

Have a great weekend, all!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday Funk

I remember the first time that I saw this video. It was in a TV Crit course I took as an undergraduate, and a fellow classmate showed it as an illustration of her presentation (of course, by this point I forget completely what her presentation was about). Nevertheless, she showed this video and I was kind of taken aback. I imagine I had heard "Ms. Jackson" and "So Fresh and So Clean" by this point, but I don't think that I had any concept of who Outkast was and what they were about. So this was my first real awareness of the group. I remember having a similar reaction to this as I did to Cee-Lo's "Closet Freak" video - "It's kind of like P-Funk for the new millenium." I've also been listening to Stankonia a lot this week, so I've got Outkast on the mind. Anywho, have a funky weekend, keep it on the One.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Latest from Neverland

In all seriousness - and I say this as a fan - doesn't this look like a wax figure of Michael Jackson?

Anyway -

So Michael Jackson is going to play 10 shows at London's O2 Arena this summer, and there are rumors that he will be adding 10 more.

Wonder where he got that idea?

But hey, a man's got to repay his debts somehow. At least financially, I'm willing to bet MJ's shows are successful. I can't say I have much hope for the quality of performance though. Even if he does drop in a few songs in which he actually sings live, his voice has been shot for over a decade. And I doubt that there will be much new to add to the production than there was in say, the last two tours that he did. Sadly, I personally have little interest in seeing Michael Jackson in concert at this point. Which is sad for someone who two decades ago truly felt (along with much of the world) that MJ was the world's greatest entertainer. How far the mighty have fallen.