Saturday, April 25, 2009

218. The Monkees: The Birds. the Bees, and the Monkees (1968)

Though The Birds, the Bees, & the Monkees, the band's 5th album, was released only a year after the landmark Headquarters, it was light years away in circumstance. The band unity had dissapated; they were a band only in name. Everyone was doing his own thing. In fact, only one song recorded specifically for the album features contributions from more than one Monkee.

Not only that but, the distribution of songs was far from equal. Basically, the album is the Mike and Davy show. While Mickey shows up very sporadically, Peter is completely M.I.A. The problem with Davy and Mike dominating is that their styles clashed terribly. Davy was intent to pretend that the '60s never happened, singing heavily orchestrated teen idol tunes that would have been more suited the the preceding decade. Mike, on the other hand, was a little bit too into the overindulgent psychedelic spirit of the '60s.

Like every Monkees album, this one has some gems, but as a whole listening experience The Birds, the Bees, & the Monkees is solidly in the lower rung of the band's output.

The Classics:
The Birds, the Bees, & the Monkees was the band's last truly commercially successful album, mostly thanks the presence of two songs. Interestingly, both were sung by Davy, and both were very different from his other songs on the album. Daydream Believer paves the way for the soft rock revolution that was just around the corner. Sure, it sounds like the Carpenters, but it's undeniable. My favorite part is the spoken intro, where the studio engineers get annoyed with Davy for not listening to the number of the take. 7A! Boyce and Hart's Valleri is just a stellar performance: the vaguely eastern sounding guitar solo, the crazy drums, the stacked harmony vocals, everything. The pleasures of listening to the Monkees would never be this pure again.

The Surprises:
Only a couple here. Tapioca Tundra is a trippy Nesmith song that's oddly endearing. I'll Be Back Up On My Feet, a Mickey showcase, is the Monkees gone Motown.

Comme Ci Comme Ca:
Dream World is mildly catchy Bachrachian pop from Davy. The Poster's lyricial concept is similar to the Beatles' Being For the Benefit of Mr.Kite, albeit less sinister and strange. The music is somewhat interesting, like something composed for a children's television show. Auntie's Municipal Court is a nonsensical Nesmith composition which Mickey sings laconically, and Magnolia Simms is Nesmith's '20s tribute. It sounds like a scratchy old record and, oddly, is his most straightforward composition on the album. It also demonstrates an unexpectedly effective Nesmith falsetto.

WTF?
Writing Wrongs is the perfect example of Nesmith's afforementioned overindulgence. As much as he wanted to be, he was no John Lennon. This melding of two stream-of-consciousness, dissonant song bits is certainly not the equal of Strawberry Fields Forever. It's barely even better than Revolution 9. Davy is not innocent himself, since he sang and co-wrote We Were Made For Each Other, an awful bit of saccharine pap.

Another Boyce and Hart song, P.O.Box 9847 is just a personal ad put to music. It has a nice chorus, but the verses are torture: "Lonely, understanding man, affectionate and true / Looking for girl to share his dreams and make them true / Humble, loving, sensitive, considerate and shy / Only sincere ladies need reply." That's just one verse; think how much it would cost to put that in the paper!

And finally, there's Zor and Zam, the theme song to an abandoned fantasy project about two war-minded kings. The lyrics are an intriguing commentary on the disconnect between the ideas of political leaders and the will of the people, but musically the song is clamorous and undistinguished.

The Bonus Tracks:
A few gems show up in the bonus tracks. First is Alvin, Peter Tork's a capella story of a pet alligator. It's cute, but maybe it got cut because Peter was sick of being responsible for a novelty track on every album. His other contribution, Lady's Baby, should have been on the proper album, but would have stuck out like an opposable thumb. It's much more organic and bluesy than anything else the Monkees ever recorded. The participation of Stephen Stills and Buddy Miles might have been partly responsible for that.

There's also more tweeness from Davy in the form of I'm Gonna Try. His other song, The Girl I Left Behind Me would have been a much better album choice than We Were Made For Each Other. It has a rousing chorus and a sound that, like Daydream Belivever presages the soft rock of the '70s. Finally, there's an unnecessary alternate recording of P.O. Box 9847.

Grade: C-
Fave Song: Valleri

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

12 by Death Cab for Cutie

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course).

I retired this feature last August, but decided to dust it off after a recently seeing Death Cab for Cutie in concert and coming away with a newfound appreciation for the quality of their catalog.

To be fair, Title & Registration, A Lack of Color, Summer Skin, Someday You Will Be Loved, Your Heart Is an Empty Room, and I Will Possess Your Heart probably all deserved spots as well.

1. President of What? (from Something About Airplanes, 1999)
The music is organ-driven, and a little-bit emoish (especially on the line "nothing hurts like nothing at all"). Gibbard's voice is not as strong as it would become (he sounds kind of like Peter Tork, but maybe that's in my head from listening to too many Monkees albums), but he makes some atypical melodic choices, providing a sketchy version of what the band would become.

2. The Employment Pages (from We Have the Facts and We are Voting Yes, 2000)
Now this is more like it. Take out that emoesque guitar and The Employment Pages could have appeared on their latest album. Great line: "We spread out and occupy the cracks in the urban streets / Idle now: I rearrange the furniture as you sleep"

3.
Photobooth (from Forbidden Love EP, 2000)
Gibbard starts to earn his keep as a poet of nostalgic broken relationships: "And as the summer's ending / the cold air will rush your hard heart away."

4. Styrofoam Plates (from The Photo Album, 2001)
The music is fairly standard, but the lyrics are the real draw here. A son speaks at his absent alcoholic father's funeral: "You can deck out a lie in a suit / but I won't buy it / I won't join the procession that's speaking their piece, / using five dollar words while praising his integrity / Just 'cause he's gone, it doesn't change that fact: / he was bastard in life, thus a bastard in death yeah."

5. The New Year (from Transatlanticism, 2003)
This is where the band started to be worthy of the lyrics. The drums march, the guitars gallop. Another emo sentiment: "So this is the new year / and I don't feel any different."

6. Transatlanticism (from Transatlanticism, 2003)
A slow-burning epic that becomes a singalong plea by the end.

7. The Sound of Settling (from Transatlanticism, 2003)
"ba-ba, ba-bahhhhh"


8. Crooked Teeth (from Plans, 2005)
Gibbard followed the Michael Nesmith method of song-naming on this ode to mismatched romance. Instead of
calling it Nothing At All, after the chorus, the title comes from the awkward line: "At night the sun in the tree made the sky look like a man with crooked teeth who was devouring us both."

9. I Will Follow You Into the Dark (from Plans, 2005)
Maybe the song that will outlive us all. A promise to remain faithful beyond the grave seemed creepy to me when I first heard heard it. Now, it's heartbreaking and beautiful to me.

10. Soul Meets Body (from Plans, 2005)
Nearly four minutes of aural joy.

11.
Cath... (from Narrow Stairs, 2008)
A mysterious wedding day tale. Our narrator tells the bride in so many words that he thinks she's marrying the wrong man. The groom is described as "well-intentioned" but there are also "so many men who would have loved [the bride] more." The traditional twist would be that the narrator wants her for himself, but instead he sympathizes with her belief that time was running out: "I would have done the same as you," he reveals at the end.

12.
Grapevine Fires (from Narrow Stairs, 2008)
Gibbard paints a precise lyrical picture of watching California wildfires eat up the landscape while combating a feeling of impending doom. The pretty harmonies help sooth the nerves, but the ending is left appropriately vague. "The firemen worked in double shifts / with prayers for rain on their lips / they knew it was only a matter of time." Is it a matter of time before the fires go out or before we all burn?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

215 - 217. Prince: Lotusflow3r (2009)

In 1996 Prince famously divorced from Warner Bros. records, the company that had been his home since his 1978 debut album. His main issue was the publishing rights of his songs, but he cast the fight in the more general light of artistic freedom.

Unfortunately, artistic freedom for Prince hasn't exactly equaled artistic achievement. In fact, of the 9 or so official albums he's released since 1996, none could objectively be considered essential. These albums have contained plenty of good songs, but none have connected on the level of his earlier classics. This brings up a larger question of what connects us to an artist's work, and at what point the general public stops wanting new material from them, but in the interest of space, time, and clarity I won't get into that.

Even casual Prince fans know the man is all about control, so it's ironic that many of his latter day failures are a direct result of a lack of self-control; the absence of someone to help him reign in his musical impulses. Starting in 2004, he actually seemed to have figured this out himself. That's when he began an intelligent, focused effort to rehab his musical image. He did big television appearances, toured, and put out Musicology, his best album since 1995's The Gold Experience. This continued, to a lesser degree, with 2006's 3121 and 2007's Planet Earth.

Unfortunately, it seems the success and rediscovered adoration have already gone to Prince's head, leading him right back to the self-destructive sense of entitlement that brought him low in the first place. The first sign of this came in late 2007 when he began to take issue with the use of his likeness and music on the web and made litigious overtures toward several fan sites, as well as eBay and YouTube. Then, late last year he made comments to the New Yorker that indicated he doesn't support gay marriage, nevermind the fact that he promoted and practiced promiscuity for many many years or that he himself has failed at marriage twice. Incidents like these two test a fan's patience.

Now come two new albums Lotusflow3r and Mplsound, plus one from his newest protege, Bria Valente. Unfortunately, the discs confirm that Prince's good judgment is once again in question. None of these songs are likely to a) recruit any new fans or b) win back disgruntled ones. The albums roundly fail to match up to any of Prince's best work, and indeed even to top any of his last three albums. Let's take a look at each album:

215. Lotusflow3r, the centerpiece of the collection, reminds me a lot of Eric Johnson, the new age jazz guitar prodigy (best known for the 1986 instrumental hit Cliffs of Dover). If you like hearing Prince show off his axe skills on dreamy songs, then this is the record for you. You'll love trifles like Boom, 4Ever, Love Like Jazz, and the cover of Crimson and Clover (which is actually an improvement on the annoying original, even if that's not saying much).

Colonized Mind and Dreamer feature the most intriguing lyrics on the whole set. The former sets up a clever cause and effect structure to make some pointed social commentary on race, politics, business, and other topics. And while I applaud Prince for using his music to really say something, I don't exactly see eye to eye with him, especially when he says that a belief in evolution leads to a lack of self-responsibility. Nor am I comfortable with the chorus that comes dangerously close to condemning the separation of church and state ("the one in power makes laws / under which the colonized fall / without God, it's just the blind leading the blind"). He neglects to mention that the people in power often claim to be doing God's will while they suppress the subordinate and less fortunate.

Dreamer is a blistering discussion of racism aimed at those who would like to avoid the topic or declare it a dead issue. It starts with a recollection of the assassination of Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. and moves on to modern day: "21st century, oh what a shame, what a shame / Race, race still matters / A race to what, and where we going? / We in the same boat, but I'm the only one rowing." Musically, the song rocks like Jimi Hendrix fronting Living Colour.

The record is rounded out by three instrumentals (the opening and closing tracks, and 77 Beverly Park), the limp Wall of Berlin, the '60s-styled $, and yet another James Brown homage in a long list of them (Feel Good, Feel Better, Feel Wonderful).

Overall, Lotusflow3r is the best record of the three, even if that's the equivalent of being the nicest murderer on death row.

Grade: C
Fave Song: Dreamer

216. You could tell me that MPLSound was actually comprised of a bunch of lost Prince b-sides from the '80s and I would probably believe you. Obviously from the title of the album, it was intentional that these songs have that classic Prince sound. And for the most part, the Artist does a fine job of recreating his heyday, but there's also something calculated and cold about the whole thing.

Sure, (There'll Never B) Another Like Me is danceable self-congratulation (with drum machine programming that brings to mind Do the Bartman) and Dance 4 Me definitely has that old thrill, but neither is spectacular.

Ol' Skool
Company serves as the album's mission statement, but basically it's Musicology warmed over. In a glimpse into just how fast Prince writes, the song contains mentions the Wall Street bailout ("$700 billion but my old neighborhood / ain't nothin' changed but the date") and Obama's election ("the White House is black"). At over 7 and a half minutes the song drags, and the "things used to be better" message is empty.

One also needs to be careful deriding current songs as bland (as Prince does on Ol' Skool Company), lest your songs be made of glass. Ballads You're Gonna C Me and Better With Time both dust off Prince's capable falsetto, but ultimately come off as synthesized Al Green. They're both adequate, but nothing Prince hasn't done better before (see The Most Beautiful Girl in the World and Call My Name).
Here, the album's other ballad, fares slightly better. All it's missing is some harmonies from Apollonia.

Valentina is just weird. In the lyrics, Prince hits on Salma Hayek through her 18-month-old daughter: "Hey Valentina tell your mama she should give me a call." As if that wasn't squirm-inducing enough, there's also mention of "late-night feedings." It's a shame such an awful lyrical conceit is wasted on a pretty good tune. The synths are bouncy and the chorus is as catchy as malaria. It's very modern too; it wouldn't sound out-of-place played in a club between the latest from Flo Rida or T-Pain. Prince even channels Andre 3000 on a little rap before he unleashes a Satana-esque guitar solo.

Chocolate Box is similar in that the lyrics ruin an otherwise pleasant listening experiences. It's an insanely catchy little number, and features a guest verse by one of my favorite rappers (Q-Tip), but two things bother me about the song. For one, it's about 2 and 1/2 minutes too long. For another, the lyrics are beyond me. What exactly is "box of chocolates" a euphamism for? I've puzzled over this for many days now, and all I've been able to figure out is that whatever they are, Prince has them in ample supply, and is willing to give them to the right lady. The lyric "so what's the deal / are u gay or poppin' pills?" also does nothing to endear the song to my heart, especially given Prince's comments on gay marriage.

Overall, MPLSound is a more interesting and fun album than Lotusflow3r, but it's also more cringeworthy.

Grade: C-
Fave Song: Here

217. Bria Valentine's Elixer is the third album in the set. One assumes Prince wrote or co-wrote the songs and produced the album. Perhaps he even played on it. There's no way to know since none of the albums have liner notes or lyrics (you've gotta pay $77 to get that info from his website, apparently).

Prince has a spotty history choosing female proteges: Vanity, Appolonia, Carmen Electra, and Mayte all had looks, but little talent. Tamar was pretty good, but her Prince-assisted album never even got a proper release. So is Bria Valente any different?

Well, she's attractive, and she has a good, if undistinguished, voice. But her album? It's pretty terrible. If you didn't know Prince had a hand in it, it would be hard to tell from the bland R & B tunes that make up 70% of the album.

More insidious than blandness is the fact of Valente serving as Prince's mouthpiece, saying things he wants to hear from a woman. She masturbates to thoughts of him in Here Eye Come. In 2Nite, she has been so overwhelmed by his lovemaking prowess that she "had some trouble walking" the next morning. Worst of all, she celebrates being dominated and controlled on Kept Woman.

By the way, is Elixer supposed to be a homophone for "he licks her"? It sure sounds like it on the boring title track duet.

Only the jazzy-funky All This Love brings anything interesting to the table.

Grade: D
Fave Song: All This Love

Look, I am a huge Prince fan. I have seen him in concert three times. I buy his albums the day they come out. I actually enjoy watching Under the Cherry Moon. Depending on what day you ask me, he might even beat out the Beatles or XTC as my very favorite artist ever. But that doesn't mean I don't recognize his flaws and mistakes (which is definitely what these three albums are). As I think about being a Prince fan it occurs to me that it's a little bit like being a teacher or a parent: You take the good with the bad, keep a forgiving heart, and hope for a good future.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Rock Bottom: Prince

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not alw
ays agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

* * *

What better way to celebrate Prince Rogers Nelson's new release (Lotusflow3er - review coming soon) than to take an in-depth look at his lowest musical moment?

Not surprisingly, given how much product the Purple One has put out, there were several contenders for rock bottom.

The All-Music guide gave a low 2 star rating to three of his albums: 1978's For You, 1994's Come, and 1998's New Power Soul. Now For You was a debut album. By nature, these should be exempt for being rock bottom; an artist needs room to grow. Come was a collection of outtakes designed to fill a contract for a record company Prince hated, so it's got an excuse to be bad. That leaves us with New Power Soul, the onset of Prince's lost-in-the-woods period which continued with 1999's Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic and 2oo1's The Rainbow Children.

The fans on Amazon.com approved the choice. Peter Panagakos is quick to label it "THE WORST PRINCE ALBUM OF ALL TIME." Thomas Magnum agrees. M.Mc wears out the sad adjectives: disappointing, uninspired, languid, and boring.

AllMusic reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine doesn't spare any words justifying the low rating he gave the album. He says, "New Power Soul is a tight, focused record filled with energetic funk workouts and classy, seductive ballads." Wait, what? The worst thing Erlewine has to say about the album is that there aren't any clear singles. That, to me, is more of a three star problem.

Even so, Erlewine hits on a nugget of truth in his critical confusion when he says New Power Soul "cements Prince's evolution from groundbreaker to craftsman." And while that statement isn't the heart of the matter, it's definitely the liver or the kidneys. The bottom line is this: No song on New Power Soul has the visceral appeal of Prince's best work. There's nothing truly awful on the album, but there's nothing truly great either. The album is symptomatic of the illness Prince suffers as a prolific songwriter: A lack of self-editing. Or, as music journalist Toure puts it, his crap detector is on the fritz. To be a Prince fan is to celebrate excess and indulgence, to accept a certain amount of filler in exchange for brilliance. The problem with New Power Soul is that we get all of the former and none of the latter.

The record opens with the title track, a lite-funk workout that implores listeners to "get freaky / let the head bob" but the only truly notable moment in the song is when Prince performs an rap that awkwardly incorporates all of the album's song titles. Mad Sex follows, where Prince celebrates doing the nasty "until your tattoo's dizzy." He also adds that he wants to do it "till the animal prints u flaunt so lovely / r full of little bloody holes." I don't really know what that means, but it disturbs me deeply nonetheless. It's definitely the worst song on the album.

Next comes Until U're In My Arms Again, an orchestrated ballad that sounds like it could play over the credits of a romantic comedy you end up watching on TV on a Sunday afternoon out of sheer inertia. As stated, the album contains a large percentage of songs that are just kind of there, including Shoo-Bed-Ooh, Freaks On This Side, and Come On. Push It Up appropriates the superior Jam of the Year (from 1996's Emancipation). The One is an interminably slow ballad.

The only bright spots are When U Love Somebody, a joyful little trifle and (I Like) Funky Music. which resurrects some of the Artist's mid-'80s tricks, including prominent synth effects and the high-pitched Camille voice. Neither would stand out on a better Prince album, but here they might as well be When Doves Cry.

Finally, there's the bonus track Wasted Kisses, a great break-up tune that asks the choral question "why did I waste my kisses on you?". Unfortunately, if you listen to the actual CD, you have to wait through 38 five-second silent tracks to hear the song. This is one of my pet peeves, but the song is worth it in this case.

And that's it. Do I agree that New Power Soul is the worst Prince album ever? No, not really. For my money, The Rainbow Children, with its laborious between-song sermons, odd themes, and overlong songs, is a much worse listen. Even so, New Power Soul is a poster child for the mediocrity that has governed way too much of Prince's latter day career.

Author's Note: This is album review #214.