Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rock Solid: Prince

"If you only own one album by Prince it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

The declared winner will be subjected to the Th
riller Test (do I need to explain the name?), a set of 4 criteria an album should meet to be considered a masterpiece. Those are 1) at least 3 hits, 2) great album tracks that sh/could have been hits, 3) no filler, and 4) memorable cover art.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called Rock Solid.

Prince Rogers Nelson has four albums that fans and critics have singled out as the Cream of his crop (sha-boogie-bop). Statistically, they're tied, each receiving perfect ratings from the critics at the All Music Guide and the fan reviewers at Amazon.com. This is where we have to start splitting hairs, looking at the percentage of 5-star reviews on Amazon. Dirty Mind (1980) has 78%. 1999 (1983) has 83%. Sign 'O' the Times (1987) has 85%. And Purple Rain (1984) has 86%. Thus we declare our winner by one measly percentage point. That's as close as it has gotten thus far, folks.

Purple Rain was the companion album to the film of the same name, and to put it mildly, was a wild success. It spent 24 weeks at #1 on the Billboard album charts (that's almost half a year!) and has sold over 13 million copies to date. It made Prince a household name, and is single-handedly responsible for the "Parental Advisory: Explicit Content" stickers that made it so easy for youths to find their new favorite albums and artists (the story goes that Tipper and Al Gore bought the Purple Rain album for their children as a Christmas present, were subsequently scandalized and outraged by the song Darling Nikki, and created the Parents' Music Resource Center, thus the stickers).

Besides being a commercial success, the album was hailed as an artistic achievement too, with Prince and the Revolution hitting on a stirring blend of musical styles. All Music Guide king Stephen Thomas Erlewine hails the unconventional and eclectic nature of the album's songs, calling Purple Rain "a stunning statement of purpose that remains one of the most exciting rock & roll albums ever recorded."

Bold words, but they pale in the face of the enthused Amazon.com reviewers. Tall Paul (not me, I'm only slightly above average height) says, "This is by far the greatest album he ever released." John Smore remarks (in Prince-speak nonetheless): "Nothin' more 2 say. Purple Rain is the album every artist should dream 2 record, it's necessary in every house, like the Bible." Amneziak believes that the album is "one of the most highly respected soundtracks in the history of our generation." And Elizabeth Johnson opines: "Fast service. Like new CD. Plays like new."

The Amazon.com reviews also contain an inordinate number of comparisons to Michael Jackson's Thriller, mostly because the two albums were dominating airwaves at the same time and they were both by crossover black artists. Even so, this shows Purple Rain's rarified company. But don't take my word for it. Jay West declares: "The record sells [sic] may say that the biggest seller of the 80s was Thriller but for me the real be all, end all of the 1980s music, for rock, funk, dance, and tender ballards [sic] will always be Purple Rain." I, too, love tender ballards. JGC adds, "the differences between Michael and Prince were very subtle; almost like the differences between The Addams Family and The Munsters." I have nothing to add.

But it's not all rosy. A few unenlightened souls decided to praise the album while slagging off the film. Take Elvis Costello's Weiner for example. He states: "Of course, the movie is really stupid but we all know that." This is, of course, crazy talk. The movie is awesome.

A bigger problem is how many reviewers love Purple Rain but still don't believe it's Prince's greatest achievement. Costly Sunglasses starts off the parade: "Purple Rain is a timeless masterpiece. And it's not even his best album." However, he or she declines to offer an alternative. Others were more specific. Finalanu thinks Dirty Mind is better. Reviewers such as Ronald Washington and Movie Buff give the nod to Sign 'O' the Times. And Essence UK thinks Dirty Mind, 1999, Sign, AND Emancipation are all superior. Emancipation? Really? Doctor Mindbender restores some sanity when he writes, "Many people will point to Sign 'O' the Times or 1999 as Prince's best effort, but neither of these albums boast a collection of songs that cling together so organically, or pulse with so much energy."

I have to agree. 1999 has some Delirous highs, but a lot of filler as well. Sign 'O' the Times is probably Purple Rain's most worthy competitor, but also has its lesser moments, especially on the first disc (the second, from U Got the Look through Adore, is unassailable). Neither has the sheer consistency of Purple Rain. The fact that that Prince wrote the songs that the Time (Jungle Love and The Bird) and Appolonia 6 (Sex Shooter) perform in the film, and that the b-sides from this period (God, Erotic City) were excellent, are further evidence that 1984 was his best musical year.

And then there's the Purple Rain album itself. Just for kicks, let's put it through the Thriller test.

1) At least 3 hits
Done and done: Let's Go Crazy, When Doves Cry, I Would Die 4 U, and the title track. All were top 10 hits in the U.S., two number ones and Purple Rain a number two. Pass

2) Shoulda been hits
The buoyant Take Me With U only made it to #25, but could have gone higher had it not been the fifth single released. Baby I'm a Star would have been a highlight and a single on any other Prince album. Pass

3) No filler
None. The three remaining songs may not have been single material, but they were essential album tracks. Darling Nikki details a weird, dirty one night stand (in the film Prince uses the song to make Apollonia jealous, and it works). Computer Blue is just as strange, especially the "is the water warm" intro, but all is forgiven with the extended, beautifully lyrical guitar solo that makes up the song's second half. And The Beautiful Ones is downright amazing, taking an R & B quiet storm to a whole different level. It's also the soundtrack to the film's essential moment between Apollonia, Morris Day, and the Kid. The latter is up on stage at First Avenue performing the song with the former two in attendance. At the song's apex he gets direct: "What's it gonna be, baby / Do u want him? (points to Morris) / Or do u want me? (points to self) / 'Cause I want u! (points at Apollonia)" and then proceeds to screech the word baby over and over while writhing on the stage. It's my favorite part of the film by far. Pass.

4) Classic cover art
Yes, sir. A smoky alley, the purple motorcycle, Apollonia in the shadowy doorway,  the paisley borders. What's not to like? Throw in the fact that the LP came with the awesome poster you see on the right, and we're really in business. Pass.

So there it is, a more solid Rock Solid you aren't likely to find.

However, I will admit that as much as I love Purple Rain, it's not my favorite Prince effort. That title goes to 1996's The Gold Experience. Why? In 12 catchy tunes it sums up Prince's odd appeal, covering everything from civil rights (We March), petty grudges (Billy Jack Bitch), feminism (P Control), sex (Shhh), gangsta love (Shy), Al Green (The Most Beautiful Girl in the World), and being reincarnated as a water-bound mammal (Dolphin). Check it out sometime.

Author's Note: This is album review #275.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

274. XTC: Nonsuch (1992)

Nonsuch is the 10th XTC album, but it was the 3rd for me, purchased at a Circuit City for $5.99 in the infancy of my XTC fandom.

At the time, I didn't know much about the band other than that I wanted more of their music. I already owned Oranges and Lemons and Waxworks (a collection of early singles), and wasn't sure where to go next. I bought Nonsuch because I thought it was a latter-day "best of" compilation.

Why did I think that? Well, the sheer number of songs (17!) was one factor, but mostly it was the back cover. Each track was given a box and an illustration, lending it an air of individual importance. Plus, the album title seemed like a insouciant nod to the thrown-together nature of hits collections.

And though a listen and a look at the interior liner notes proved me wrong, I'd still say I wasn't too far off. Afterall, Nonsuch does contain all of XTC's major themes: the peaks and valleys of romance, war, human nature, and societal ills. Musically it falls somewhere between the pop sheen of Oranges and Lemons, the melody of Skylarking, and the earthiness of earlier albums such as English Settlement and Mummer. In fact, I'd say there's no better album to summarize who XTC were from 1982 on. So in that spirit, it is a latter-day "best of."

The album had a fractious creation. Lead songwriter and singer Andy Partridge clashed with veteran producer Gus Dudgeon (he of Elton John-producing fame) on several occasions. But you'd never know that from the harmonious result. I use the adjective "harmonious" explicitly because Nonsuch is the most Beach Boy-ish album XTC ever made, and that includes the Dukes of Stratosphear albums and Apple Venus Vol.1.

Witness: Humble Daisy (a love song with evocative imagery), The Disappointed (an elegant break-up tune), Then She Appeared (another love song, full of cultural and historical references such as Edward Lear, Marie Celeste, and Fox Talbots gel), and Wrapped in Grey (an anti-cynicism anthem that's easily one of the top 5 most beautiful XTC tracks) all feature soaring melodies and generous harmonies, either overtly or subtly nodding to Brian Wilson and company.

All four of those songs were by Andy Partridge, who was on quite a hot streak. His highlights on Nonsuch are many. Opener The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead (remade later by Crash Test Dummies for the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack) is about a secular savior who unites the people beyond church and commercialism with a message of love and ultimately pays for it with his life (fittingly, his crucifixion plays out on live TV nonetheless). It's probably what would happen if Jesus came along today. The catchy Dear Madam Barnum features one of Andy's best extended metaphors, casting a cuckolded husband as a clown that quits from the circus: "Children are laughing as I fall to the floor / My heart's torn and broken / And they just scream for more / If I'm not the sole fool who pulls his trousers down / Then dear Madam Barnum, I resign as clown." Closer Books are Burning is simultaneously a scathing condemnation of those who would burn literature containing ideas they disagree with (Gainesville, Florida, we're looking at you here) and a love letter to the printed word (Andy describes books as "a wisdom hotline from the dead back to the living" and "the human right to let your soul fly free and naked"). Listen for the dueling guitar solos at the end to compare Andy and guitarist Dave Gregory's respective playing styles.

A step down in quality, but still pretty great are Holly Up On Poppy (an sweet-but-not-saccharine ode to Andy's daughter Holly, who's now a musician in her own right), Crocodile (a countryish exploration of jealousy), Omnibus (a light-hearted admonishment to Gregory to take advantage of being an eligible bachelor: ""Don't waste time, go on and taste them all / Why don't you fill your plate?"), and The Ugly Underneath (a spiritual companion to Billy Joel's The Stranger).

Rook is not a song I especially love, but it is one I admire. A dirge with a Bachrachian arrangement, it features mysterious lyrics about death, ending with a plea: "If I die and I find that I had a soul inside/Promise me that you'll take it up on its final ride." Maybe some regrets about Dear God there?

By my rekoning, Andy's only misstep on the album is That Wave, and even it has it's charms. The distorted vocals on the "chorus" are annoying, but I like the "I was in heaven / Address cloud 11" bit. And it gets points for containing the term "permanent orgasm", which would be a great band name.

Bassist and second songwriter Colin Moulding doesn't do too poorly for himself either. My Bird Performs finds the usually-dour Colin in a rare self-satisified state of mind. Though I believe the title phrase is meant to be taken literally, one can't help but notice that "bird" is British slang for "girl." So there's a little bit of a Andy-worthy double entendre here.

The Smartest Monkeys is probably the weakest song of Colin's four. The melody and prog pop production are great, but the lyrics fall short under scrutiny. I like the basic idea that, despite what we'd like to think, human beings haven't really come all that far from our primate ancestors. My main problem is that Colin couches our lack of progress in the issue of homelessness. I think he should have gone bigger than that. He does just that on his third song, War Dance, which concerns the frightening lead-up to war and the accompanying spike in ham-fisted patriotism and jingoism. Sound familiar? He was writing about Britain's involvement in the Gulf War, but it's a universally applicable song. To me, it's one of Colin's all-time best.

Finally, there's Bungalow, an oddly-affecting, slow-building track about a dream home by the sea.

All-in-all, Nonsuch is a magnificent achievement, and the culmination of who XTC were as a trio (not to undermine the fine drumming contributions from Dave Mattacks). It's not only my favorite XTC album, but one of my favorite albums ever.

Grade: A+