Thursday, March 23, 2006

103. Prince - 3121 (2006)

In his 2003 book Possessed: The Rise And Fall Of Prince, author Alex Hahn spends a lot of ink on Prince's supposed need for control of every aspect of his life. It's Hahn's theory that this led directly to Prince's steady decline in popularity and creativity from the mid-'90s on. At the end of the book, Hahn openly wonders if Prince will ever be able to recapture the magic of his best music.

And who could blame Hahn for wondering it? At the time, Prince seemed already a long way down the road that fallen stars like Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson had already traveled.

Then came 2004. The year started with The Artist's induction into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame, which was followed by a surprising return to recording form, Musicology, and a subsequent tour that seemed to be a triumph in every city. Even so, it didn't necessarily mean Hahn was wrong. After all, even Elvis had his '68 comeback special. The true test is the follow-up album.

What strikes me now looking back at Musicology is how in many ways it was out-of-character for Prince. For the most part the album was concerned with contentment at home (songs like Reflection and On The Couch) and discontent with the world (Cinnamon Girl and Dear Mr. Man). And while that was a nice way to reintroduce himself, 3121 seems to indicate that the Purple One used the tameness of Musicology to get himself back in the door, and now that he's in, he's ready to get freaky again.

That is to say, his new album finds Prince back on the two topics that have concerned him for nearly 30 years: Sex and God. And while 3121 is not as consistent as Musicology, it is more passionate, and hits higher highs than Prince has seen in a long while.

The album kicks off with 3121 which comes on with a long, jagged intro and kicks in with Prince's voice distorted. It was a risk for an opener, because the first song often sets the tone for the whole record. And though 3121 is initially off-putting, it grows on you. Plus, a song like this fits snugly in the context of Prince's career. 3121 is the address of the mansion he rents in L.A., and he has a history of writing odes to places: Uptown, Calhoun Square, Glam Slam, Paisley Park. Also, nearly every Prince record features a song with the same title as the album itself. Think Dirty Mind, Purple Rain, 1999, etc.

Once that's out of the way, we really get down to business.

Prince has often had God on his mind (I mean, have you seen Graffiti Bridge?), but his current affiliation as Jehovah's Witness has made him a little bit preachy. That's okay with me, if the results are as pleasant as the old school duet Beautiful, Loved And Blessed. Performed with his talented new protege Tamar, it's an optimistic ode to feeling special. However, The Word doesn't fare as well. While the groove is enticing, it's not enough to carry the scripture-celebrating lyrics. Album closer Get On The Boat is more successful for that very reason. The feel-good, dance-around-your-apartment sound of the song almost allows you to forget the missionary bent of the words.

Sex is next of course, and I have to say I'm glad to hear The Artist getting back to his main raison d'etre, after all but ignoring the topic on Musicology. First up is an unabashed love song called Te Amo Corazon. Admittedly it was a bad choice for a first single, but as an album track it's sultry and satisfying. My favorite is the line about his brown eyes being no longer blue (since he met his sweetheart).

Other songs take on the topic of romance with a little more complexity. Take Love, one of the album's best tracks. Built on a funky blippy synth groove and featuring a lovely melody on the chorus (with harmonies from Tamar), the song's lyrics seem to admonish a woman who is not only reticent about his advances, but downright belligerent! Prince doesn't see the need for drama, and reminds her that, "love is whatever u want it to be."

He's not so calm on The Dance, a minor key lament addressed to a girl he can't have. Critics who have likened it to the Purple Rain classic The Beautiful Ones are not far off. As in that tune, Prince gets himself very worked up as the song goes on, to the point that he loses his words and can only scream and moan. It's the most passionate he has sounded in awhile! But where The Beautiful Ones was somehow comforting, I have a feeling that if you were really upset about your love life, The Dance would NOT make you feel better.

Incense And Candles and Satisfied are of a piece. Both are bedroom come-ons, even if Prince claims on the latter, probably a bit disingenuously, that "I ain't talking about nothing physical." It reminded me immediately of the old chestnut I Feel 4 U where he also talked about being satisfied, but also claimed, "I'm physically attracted to you" and somehow made it seem sexy.

As for highlights, the album has 3 definite bright spots.

First is Fury, an aggressive uptempo rock track that is also the album's most lyrically intriguing. Though I haven't quite figured it out yet, the song seems aimed at a very specific person and situation. And if you couldn't guess from the title, it didn't end well. Prince rarely gets personal in his lyrics, so it's always a treat when it happens.

Then we have Lolita, which kicks in with an astoundingly catchy synth riff and never lets up. It's a dance floor number about an underage teaser. Prince is tempted, it's obvious, but in the end only consents to dance. You will too; a groove this good this deserves to be played in every dance club. The best line: "You're trying to write / checks your body can't cash."

Finally there's Black Sweat, the current single (and the strongest one Prince has made in a long time). It's minimal, just synths and a drum machine, but it's thrilling. You'd have to be a robot not to move to this, and not one of those fancy dancing robots either! Like its spiritual predecessor Kiss, the lyrics don't mean a whole lot, but you've got to love it when a song starts with lines like, "I don't wanna take my clothes off / but I do." No one ever accused Prince of avoiding ambiguity!

So bottom line time. Maybe 3121 is not as good as his stuff from the '80s, and maybe it has one too many slow songs, but is it going to squash this career renaissance? No way. If anything, it confirms that the comeback wasn't a fluke. If his book goes to reprinting, Alex Hahn might have to re-title. The Rise And Fall and Rise Of Prince sounds appropriate on more than one level.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Lolita

Note: To read my 2004 review of Musicology, click here.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

102. Rhett Miller - The Believer (2006)

Poor Jon Brion. The producer of Rhett Miller's first album took a serious hit in 2005 when critics and fans overwhelmingly preferred a different producer's version of Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine album. And now comes Rhett Miller's new one.

Though Brion shows up on a handful of tracks, he once again comes up looking worse for the wear. For one, George Drakoulias has done a bang up job of producing. The sound is richer and fuller than on Miller's first album. And the background vocals, provided here by ex-Jayhawk Gary Louris, easily best anything Brion laid down on The Instigator. Finally, Miller seems to give the knife just one more twist by covering I Believe She's Lying, a song Brion co-wrote with Aimee Mann and which appears on his 2000 solo album. I know getting covered seems like a compliment, but Miller's version is approximately 15 times better than the original, more engrossing and better sung.

Maybe I'm not being completely fair to Brion. Miller's songwriting has obviously gotten stronger. That's evident from the very first track, My Valentine, which is instantly better than anything on Miller's first album. The song is full of joyous discontent: "Won't you make up your my-my-my valentine / you say you love me but you treat me unkind." There's a great bridge, wonderful guitar solo, and easy delivery.

From there we get the appreciative and catchy Help Me, Suzanne. Do you ever have those times where a song is not only in your head, but you also have this overwhelming need to keep singing it out loud? That was me with this song last Friday.

Two other songs confirm that Miller has made the songwriting leap. On The Instigator the obvious weak spots came whenever Miller tried to slow things down. He's fixed that problem. Fireflies is a transcendant, woozy, bar-closing country duet with Rachel Yamagata. I guarantee you Ryan Adams is wishing he wrote this one. Yamagata sounds smoky and worn out, and the song's structure is just perfect, with an emotional bridge and a cylical closing.

Similarly, the title track slows it down without putting us to sleep. After Ben Folds' Late, this is the second great tribute to Elliot Smith. Like Folds' song, The Believer manages to be affecting without being sentimental: "You are here and after referred to / as someone who gave it your best / gave it a shot / gave it up / left a cruel world to us." Unlike Folds' song, the sentiment is universal enough to apply to anyone who has lost someone important. The coda gets me the most, envisioning the freedom death brought to the unhappy Smith: "You won't get nervous / you won't come down / you won't feel helpless / you won't be around anymore." Honestly, Smith's music never meant all that much to me, but he was obviously influential to a lot of talented people.

Other songs make their point quickly and get out of the way. Brand New Way has a great melody, but lacks substance. Delicate is anything but. Singular Girl is destined to be used in a cell phone commercial, even with the head-scratching line, "talking to you girl / is like long division." I'm With Her is the rare love song that puts it right on the table: "We will be wed and we will procreate." And Question is a adequately pretty closer; Miller says "I've got a question for you," but we never find out what it is.

I'll admit, often there's no rhyme or reason as to why an album speaks to me. Sometimes it's just a matter of right-place-right-time. But I'd like to think that when an artist has bested himself it's obvious. If only Jon Brion didn't have to suffer in the process.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: The Believer

101. Rhett Miller - The Instigator (2002)

My friend Eliza rolls her eyes everytime I mention that I'm interested in a movie because I have enjoyed past work by the same writer or director. She thinks that this is information the average person probably shouldn't have. But when you're a media junkie, there has to be some sort of filtration system on what you allow yourself to experience.

Pop music connesieurs also use this method, but often it's the producer we look to. We pay attention to this stuff. For example, I would have never bought Rhett Miller's first album if it weren't produced by Jon Brion.

Brion has an impressive resume. He worked briefly with Jellyfish in the early '90s, then went on to make one album with Jason Faulkner, as The Greys. His profile grew as he wrote and produced work with Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple. He has also produced music for films such as Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and I Heart Huckabees. In 2000 he put out an excellent solo album called Meaningless. This past year he gained acclaim for working on Kanye West's second album, Late Registration.

Being that I've enjoyed a large percentage of his work in the past, it's a no-brainer that my interest will at least be piqued by his involvement in a project. Brion plays, sings, produces, and co-writes on The Instigator. He aslo brings an ornate pop sensibility that suits Miller well in some places, but sinks him in others.

Turns out what Miller does best is the galloping joyous love song, and he knows it. The album's best song is This Is What I Do, a statement of purpose. Miller tells us about some of his past loves, and how he's going to write songs about them. And then he does. The album's standouts are Our Love, Four-Eyed Girl, Hover, and I Want To Live, all odes to that feeling of happiness that only romance can bring.

It's worth mentioning that Miller is a clever-couplet lyricist, throwing out memorable lines wherever he can. On Four-Eyed Girl, which will speak to any man who likes his girls myopic, he introduces the premise thusly: "Two of us / at a / double feature / I'm a rock 'n' roller / she's a / science teacher." In Hover he claims that "the city is dark / but we're not scared / wrapped up in each other / makin' lovin' out of nothing / like those Air Suppliers said."

Other songs fall lower on the quality scale. The El is strangely akin to the Bee Gees' Night Fever, in the way the percussion drives the song. The song sounds like a train, but it doesn't accomplish much else. Come Around is a blue break-up ballad, but not the kind that makes you feel better about your heartache. The Jon Brion co-written Things That Disappear is catchy but lyrically inpenetrable, and the closer Terrible Vision features lovely harmonies but dour sentiment.

Unfortunately anytime Miller tries a slow song, things grind to a screeching halt. These songs are forgettable at best, and boring at worst. Turns out even the best producer can't turn straw into gold.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: This Is What I Do