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.


Matt said...

Thanks for the review, and "The War" shout out.

I'm more accepting of the vocal hijinks than you seem to be, mostly because I think vocal "distortion" is one of the areas in which Prince has historically excelled. I think it's fun when he does it.

I'm not sure whether comparing it to "Prettyman" is a dismissal or not (I never much cared for "Prettyman"), but it appears I also like "Feel Good, Feel Better, Feel Wonderful" much more than you do. It's easily one of my favorite songs from this. It reminds me a little bit of "Cloreen Baconskin."

You know what, though? The more I listen to these two albums, the more I like them even if, as you say, they don't exactly break any new ground. That is, as bodies of work, I feel like they're stronger than I thought they were after my first couple of listens.

Bring on the 1-CD, edited mix!

Gonzo said...

I'm not against the principle of the vocal effects, but I think they're overused on this album, and current popular music more generally.

The Prettyman bit was a bit of a dismissal. I don't dislike either song, but I don't think they're that interesting either. Though I'm interested in hearing you connection to Cloreen Baconskin.

I think you have something in terms of the repeated listens and the strength of the songs. In related news, I've been thinking back to 3121, which as an album I wasn't all that into initially. Though not perfect, I find myself reevaluating it and enjoying it more whenever I give it a spin.

Here's my 1 disc, dubbed LOTUSound:
1. From the Lotus...
2. Boom
3. Crimson and Clover
4. Chocolate Box
5. $
6. 77 Beverly Park
7. Ol' Skool Company
8. Colonized Mind
9. Dance 4 Me
10.(There'll Never B) Another Like Me
11. Dreamer
12. ...Back 2 the Lotus

Also, ignore the voicemail I left you earlier - crisis averted!