Wednesday, April 21, 2004

36. Prince - Musicology (2004)

As a devoted fan, this is what you dream about: your beloved artist, long considered past his/her prime, releases an album that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with their best work. Elton John did it a couple of years ago with Songs From The West Coast, but it's a very rare event.

So here we have Prince, who is not only content to release a good, consistent new record. No, he has mounted a full-on return to form accompanied by a performance at the Grammys, induction into the Rock 'N Roll Hall Of Fame, and an extensive tour. And he's getting more press than an elevator button (most recently and notably on the cover of Entertainment Weekly).

Of course Prince is saavy enough to know that without the critically lauded new album all of that is nothing but a nostalgia trip. So he has whipped up a seemingly effortless collection that's easily his best album in 9 years (The Gold Experience being the last, and some might argue with that). In those years Prince has followed his odd muse so doggedly (releasing some good music, but none of it without a caveat) that the first time I listened to Musicology, I kept waiting for something strange or annoying or off-putting to ruin the whole affair.

But that moment never came. This is a rock-solid record, a showcase of Prince's wide array of musical styles and abilities. Every song recalls something that you love about him, representing his best work without rehashing it. The title track and current single is modern Prince, jazzy and funky with keys that recall the 1999 era. Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance is a story-song in the Gett Off / P-Control mold. A Million Days is a guitar-hero workout that could slot easily into The Gold Experience. It's all drama and missing-you histrionics. Life O' The Party is a Diamonds and Pearls - style celebration with deep bass and shared female vocals.

And so it goes. I'm sure the Prince faithful will have a field day coming up with comparisons and touchstones. But the beauty is that this isn't just for the diehard fans. Anyone who ever grooved to a Prince song (and that has to be a lot of people) will find lots to love here.

Even with all the similarities to his classic work, there are definite differences on this album too. For one, there's a distinct sense of unguarded openness. He name-drops movie titles and other musicians (most notably in the line "I'm gonna put her on the same diet Missy went on" from The Marrying Kind... I guess he's paying her back for the "Prince couldn't get me change my name" shout out in Work It). And he's funny too. Witness: As someone speculating on himself, "he don't play his hits no more plus I thought he was gay" (from Life O' The Party) or "boy I was fine back in the day!" (from Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance). We knew that he had that fun side, especially from Under The Cherry Moon, but never before has it been so evident on record.

Additionally, three of the 12 songs (Call My Name, Cinnamon Girl, and Dear Mr.Man) mention war, with the last of the three speaking most potently and directly about society's current problems. Outside of Sign O' The Times it's something we just haven't heard from Prince.

Finally, Prince's Jehovah's Witness status has led him to cut out the use of blue language (if not innuendo), making this the rare Prince album you can jam to even if sensitive ears are listening.

All of this has the cumulative effect of making him seem damn near, well, approachable. Can you believe it?

Amidst this pleased gushing, I have only one complaint: The packaging. It's a digipak-style with a little overlapping flap that does nothing to keep the larger flap secure. Then there's a large booklet (with much-appreciated lyrics and photos) that just sits inside, with nothing to secure it, so it falls out at the slightest movement. What's up with that?!

Of course it's not anywhere near enough to dampen this accomplishment for the Artist. When I listen to this record (especially the appropriately-titled final song, Reflection), I feel like the Detroit Tigers ballcap-wearing owner of First Avenue in Purple Rain, when he gets a little misty-eyed and amazed at the end. Just like that. The Kid has done it again.

Rating: A+
Fave Song: Cinnamon Girl, for now

Fun Fact: Did you know an overwhelming majority of Prince's albums are named after a song on said album?

Sunday, April 18, 2004

First Quarter Report

Here are five bite-sized portions from the first quarter of 2004:

31. Loveless - Gift To The World

This debut effort from Boston-based veterans of the '90s rock scene (including Jen Trynin on guitar and back-up vocals) has a lot of power pop pleasure in it. Male-female harmonies, great melodies, and buzzing guitar hooks dominate. But there's an overwraught angst in the lyrics that doesn't jibe with the joyfulness of the music. I can't decide how to feel when I'm listening.

Rating: B
Fave Song: Beautiful

32. Air - Talkie Walkie

I've always felt I should like this French electronic duo, but it took three albums for that to happen. This is wonderful chillout music: spacy, interesting, inoffensive. Despite those adjectives the music avoids emotional detachment. It's perfect for going to sleep and waking up.

Rating: B+
Fave Song: Cherry Blossom Girl


33. Get-Up Kids - Guilt Show

Check out PopMatters.com for a well-written, insightful review (I hate getting trumped!). If you ever liked this band, don't believe the glib, mediocre reviews. It's right up there with their best (the Red Letter Day EP in my opinion). They took the lyrical maturity of On A Wire and married it to the songcraft of Something To Write Home About and came up with my favorite album of the year so far.

Rating: A
Fave Song: Sympathy

34. N*E*R*D - Fly Or Die

I have to say first that I wish they'd used Spymob for the recording sessions because it would have most likely made the results funkier and more powerful. But even considering that, this is a weirdly satisfying and addictive record. Mostly uncategorizable, it features little rapping and even fewer beats. There are rock guitar hooks and soaring pop vocal sections and R & B come-ons. And that's just the first song. Get rid of the Good Charlotte collabo and it's a classic (it still may be anyway).

Rating: B+
Fave Song: Maybe

35. They Might Be Giants - Indestructible Object EP

This 5 song warm up for TMBG's next full-length (The Spine, due this summer) features two Linnell songs (the new-wavey Am I Awake? and the name-dropping Au Contraire), two Flansburgh songs (the Monkees-quoting Memo To Human Resources and the dusted-off B-side Ant), and a very faithful Beach Boys cover (Caroline, No). Nothing here is ground-breaking, but it's good to hear the Johns rediscover how to be naturally quirky (it felt a bit forced on their last album, Mink Car). Maybe the title refers to the band itself.

Rating: B
Fave Song: Am I Awake?