Category Archives: Prince

#princeday LIVES: “The Dance Electric” (1984)

Prince’s expanded edition of  his breakthrough album Purple Rain is said to have been the last full musical project he ever worked on. My former blogging partner Zach Hoskins went into beautiful detail on the early reported contents of the album. There is one aspect to this 1984 album I brought out before though. The original albums contents,even according to some members of the Revolution,was a new wave dance/rock album with very little funk or soul influence. With the inclusion of vault material recorded during these sessions, the expanded addition of Purple Rain has changed that.

In August 1984, Prince recorded an 11+ piece just two days before “The Screams Of Passion”,which would eventually be given to The Family.  Its been said Prince gifted the song to Andre’ Cymone after his mother asked him if Andre’ could record it-Andre’ apparently being “too proud” to do so. Andre’ then recorded his vocals for the song and released it on his AC album in 1985. It became a major success for Andre’. For years, Prince enthusiasts I’ve talked to have been hoping to hear Prince’s original version of the song. And now they can. The name of this song,of course is “The Dance Electric”.

A thick set of combined Linn Drum rhythms-filled with Minneapolis style flanger,shuffle and echoed claps begins the song cold. No decisive intro. And it stays there for the entirety of the song. Each clap is accompanied by a round synth bass tone. On the first chorus, high pitched and brittle synth strings are accompanied by a wiry wah wah guitar and laser beam like space synths moving between each segment. Every few choruses, the song strips back down to the the drum and synth bass intro. On the bridge,the laser synths and rhythm guitar take precedence before the extended chorus fades it all out.

There’s a distinct possibility that “The Dance Electric” is the most powerful piece of funk to emerge out of the sessions for the Purple Rain. I have no doubt Prince had every intention of releasing his version,even as a B-side,if his childhood friend hadn’t asked for it. The song is reminiscent of Alexander O’Neal’s 1987 number “Fake”. The overall rhythm of the groove is a punishing kind of funk. Its an end of the Minneapolis sound that finds the one right off. And lets that take the song exactly where it wants it to go. Its a great funky delight to hear Prince’s version of this officially available now.

 

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Dystopian Dance Party presents Jheri Curl June: The Girls’ “Girl Talk”

thegirls

I’ve talked a fair amount on my own blog about the, ahem, interesting similarities between Rick JamesMary Jane Girls and Prince’s Vanity 6: a concept James always maintained he came up with first, only for the Paisley Bandit to swoop in and summarily bite it. But if other stories are to be believed, Prince was actually biting from someone much closer to home: his first bass player and one-time surrogate brother, André Cymone.

The rocky relationship between Prince and Cymone is another thing we’ve discussed in Jheri Curl Junes past, and it should be noted that Prince had a history of “borrowing” from his friend and collaborator: “Do Me, Baby,” among other early songs, was by all accounts an André Cymone joint. So it wasn’t exactly a shock to hear that Prince got the idea for a girl group after catching wind of Cymone’s own side project, creatively named “the Girls.” At some point, according to the excellent (and sadly out of print) biography Dance Music Sex Romance,  André and Prince even combined their ideas for the group, then known as “the Hookers”; André, however, walked away after realizing that Prince wanted him to do the work without taking any of the credit. And the rest was history: the Hookers became Vanity 6, who became Apollonia 6, and Cymone’s “Girls” released their debut album in 1984, to commercial and critical indifference.

thegirls-cassette

Like so much of the Prince/André Cymone saga, it’s easy to look at the Girls and imagine what might have been. They’re similar to Vanity 6, of course, but also distinct: their style is less Frederick’s of Hollywood, more New Wave Hookers. It’s also worth noting that all three of the “Girls”–Sheila Rankin, Germain Brooks, and Doris Ann Rhodes–were visibly African American, a marked contrast to the “crossover”-friendly ethnic ambiguity of Denise “Vanity” Matthews and company. And their songs are fun Minneapolis pop-funk with a heavier-than-usual dose of New Wave, very much in the vein of Cymone’s solo work from the same period; it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if some of the Girls’ debut album, Girl Talk, had been written by Cymone back when he was still involved with “the Hookers.” Had André and not Prince been the one with the major label deal at the time, Girl Talk would probably have the same cult-classic status as the Vanity 6 album does today.

But Prince was the one with the deal, and he also–sorry, André–had the edge in crafting memorable hooks. So, while Rankin, Brooks, and Rhodes were undeniably better singers than Denise and Susan, none of their material was as musically groundbreaking as “Nasty Girl,” or as charismatically camp as “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)” (though the title track of Girl Talk gets an “A” for effort). But what is Jheri Curl June all about, if not celebrating the underdog? We dig the Girls, and if you’re reading this, we think you would dig them too.

There’s still one more week of Jheri Curl June over on Dystopian Dance Party; unfortunately, however, this will be my last guest post on Andresmusictalk. I’ve been doing this for just under a year, and I think it’s time for me to focus on my own projects. Thanks, everyone, for reading–I’m sure that Andre will continue to post some great material in the future!

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#princeday LIVES: “Stare” (2015)

Prince’s final album Hitnrun Phase Two , to me anyway, still lives in the shadows as the Prince swansong it was never intended to be. It was a completely different album than the more contemporary pop centered first volume in the series. This was generally a live band album featuring a 28 member lineup of the NPG-very likely the largest lineup of that band Prince ever had. It also featured contributions from other artists such as Ledisi and Cassandra Wilson. The oddest part about the album was that it was released on CD only a couple of weeks following Prince’s passing.

The album was originally only released digitally through Tidal,in a bundle with the first volume of the series, at the end of 2015. Up until April of the next year, it was slowly released for sale on CD in different places and venues. In particular at the Paisley Park gala performance of Prince’s Piano & A Microphone tour. With absolutely no bias on my part, I found Hitnrun Phase Two to be the strongest album of his 2014-2016 comeback period. Especially in terms of funkiness and musicianship. The song that stands out to both Henrique Hopkins and myself is “Stare”.

Prince starts out with a hard hitting slap bass line-starting out slowly and speeding up on the final part of its bar. This hefty bass run provides the basis for the entire groove. After the unaccompanied intro,the drum plays every rhythm change within the bass line. The NPG Hornz and Prince’s low rhythm guitar each accent these changes with ever more elaborate variations as the song progresses. There’s even a sample of “Kiss”‘s opening rhythm guitar early on. The bridge of the song is basically a false fade-followed up by an emphasis before the song comes to an actual dead stop.

“Stare” finally allows every type of funk that Prince ever dealt with coming into its full flower. It has his live band funk style he’d been perfecting on and off since the late 80’s. But also has the digitized crunch of his earlier electronic grooves even with the live instrumentals used for this. This also emphasizes the hard slap bass more than most band oriented Prince funk,which was generally paced on a higher pitched rhythm guitar sound that isn’t present here. Its funky,stripped down,Minneapolis and all the way Prince. And as it turned out,as good a funky swansong as one is likely to get.

 

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#princeday 2017 Part 2: “Controversy” (1981)

Prince’s image and attitude always went right along with his music. Talking to friends like Henrique today, its a bit easier to notice how obviously Prince carried on the tradition of “freaky” black American artists such as Little Richard. Especially in the early 80’s,Prince wore the clothes of a European dandy,very frilly hairstyles and lots of makeup. While this fit right into the new wave androgyny of the era, some adherents to Reagan era conservatism felt that Prince’s image and blatant lyrical sexuality would send his listeners down an alienating direction in life.

This type of attitude is nothing new against the rock world that,by 1981,Prince was positioning himself to be a part of. But Prince was at his core a funk artist too. And therefore had the same understanding James Brown and George Clinton had of what I’ll refer to as “calculated prettiness”-using wardrobe and image to showcase self control. For his part,Prince decided to record an album that addressed his observations and the perceptions of him for his fourth album. And it was introduced in a tremendous way by its opening title song called “Controversy”

A blast of high synth brass starts out the groove. Followed by a round,brittle synth bass pulse and a marching drum. That soon becomes a steady funk beat with a driving rhythm guitar/bass interaction and bass synthesizer playing the melody. That’s the basic groove of the entire song. On the choruses,the chords go up a key or so and the synths become more orchestral in nature. On two of the bridges,one of which is vocal,the drum/bass and rhythm guitar is the store of the show. On another later in the song, it reduces down more to the synth as the song fades out.

Lyrically the song progresses right along with each part of the naked,stripped down groove. Prince begins by asking the same questions of himself others ask of him: “am I straight or gay”,”was it good for you,was I all you wanted me to be”. On the first bridge,he’s suddenly reciting the Lords Prayer rather reverently. By the end,he’s chanting “people call me rude/I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no black or white/I wish there were no rules”. Prince also sings the majority of this song in his lowest vocal registers-in particular his bass vocal end.

“Controversy”, both musically with its stripped down Minneapolis funk and lyrical self manifesto, could easily be Prince’s “theme song”. As jazz critic Gary Giddins said of Louis Armstrong once,only the great artists are given or write that song that epitomizes them so strongly. This was the very first Prince song my boyfriend Scott ever heard. Controversy would end up becoming a qualifier that would be used to describe Prince and his musical art on many occasions throughout his career. And he really set that whole thing up right here in the funkiest way possible.

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#princeday 2017: “Let’s Work” (1981)

Prince was someone who,for my entire childhood was viewed by me and my family as a rock artist. The promotion of him through the rock press (as well as Prince himself) did seem to foster this impression further. During the 1990’s when I began to understand funk as a musical genre, Prince’s music re-entered my life in a much more serious way. When listening to a lot of his earlier music,it became clear that his music was based in funk. He was an amazing and even sometimes underrated rock soloist. But he focused generally on music with a sleek and spare groove known as the Minneapolis Sound.

Prince would have turned 59 today. Still seems strange that,as my friend Henrique points out many times,that jam fans cannot say “we still have Prince around” anymore. And as tiresome as this is to keep pointing out, Prince’s posthumous musical presence online is still just beginning to branch out the way it deserves to. After this years Grammy Awards tribute to Prince,online streaming service Spotify (along with several other such services) did do us a favor by placing his Warner Bros era music back up to listen to. Thanks to them,am now able to present an overview of Prince’s 1981 jam “Let’s Work”.

A four beat drum count in begins the song. After this, Prince and the band are heard singing the songs title over a slow and steady funk beat-two beats accenting on in the middle. The vocals play call and response with a brittle,high pitched synth horn burst-an extension of which has a flanger effect. Than the 6 note slap bass with variations comes in-accenting by the same synth horns for most the refrain. Those synth horns become much more horn charts on the choruses. After a reboot of the songs intro,that same chorus follows the song to the drum machine segue out of it.

“Let’s Work” is one of those songs that defines Prince’s distinct Minneapolis funk sound during the very late 70’s and early 80’s. Generally only two instruments are heard at any one time. So the funk is very condensed instrumentally. At the same time,the sounds of the synthesized horn blasts and charts,along with the iconic chunky slap bass line, showcase a strong understanding of the depth of funk’s groove,it’s “rhythmic nucleus” as it were. It was also one of his most commercially successfully early 80’s funk numbers as well. That makes it a defining moment in the Minneapolis sound as a whole.

 

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Dystopian Dance Party presents Jheri Curl June: Jesse Johnson

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Every year in the month of June, my blog Dystopian Dance Party throws a month-long celebration of the wet, silky ’80s R&B we like to call Jheri Curl Music: a kind of hazily-defined intersection of post-disco boogie, electro-funk, and the Minneapolis Sound that, like pornography, is unmistakable when you hear it. And for the past three years, we’ve commenced our Jheri Curl June festivities with profiles of major figures in the style, timed to line up with their birthdays in the beginning of June. In 2014, it was Prince (born June 7); in 2015, it was Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (the former born June 6); last year, it was L.A. Reid (June 7 again). But until now, we’ve never managed to make time for another architect whose birthday falls as close to the beginning of June as possible: June 1, 1960. I’m talking, of course, about Jesse Johnson.

Jesse, in our defense, hasn’t exactly been a stranger to Jheri Curl June. His “Be Your Man” was our second-ever JCJ post back in 2014, and we’ve also considered his work both as a member of the Time and as the producer of late-’80s Minneapolis funk-rockers dáKRASH. But we’ve never taken a deep dive into his music–and that’s a damn shame, because whatever Johnson might have lacked in the innovation of his former associates Prince, Jam, and Lewis, he more than made up for with some of the strongest pure Jheri Curl Music of the mid-to-late 1980s. In other words, there’s no better person with whom to launch our fourth annual celebration of all things wet and silky in ’80s R&B music. So let’s get to it!

The Time in 1981 (Jesse Johnson far right); photo stolen from Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia.

Jesse Johnson was born in Rock Island, Illinois and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, but he will forever be associated with Minneapolis: the city where he launched his career in 1981 as lead guitarist for Prince’s first and greatest “protégé group,” the Time. Much has been made of the Time as a kind of dummy act for their svengali‘s straight-up R&B material, but Johnson in particular played a greater role in the studio than has been acknowledged; recently, for example, he released his own early demo version of the group’s second-biggest single, “Jungle Love,” long widely assumed to have been written by Prince alone. Yet, like so many other musicians over whom Prince ruled with a lacy fist, Johnson’s independence chafed against his employer’s desire for control, and by the end of 1984 he and the rest of the Time had jumped ship.

© A&M Records

Like his fellow Time escapees, Jam and Lewis, Johnson started out as a songwriter and producer: a role he’d already inhabited while in the Prince camp, penning not only “Jungle Love” but also “Bite the Beat” for the Vanity 6 project. In fact, while Jimmy and Terry are the bigger names, Jesse actually beat them to the punch in one respect: contributing two songs to Janet Jackson’s 1984 sophomore album Dream Street, a year and a half before Jam and Lewis did Control. The first of these tracks, “Pretty Boy,” may not be “Nasty,” but it’s a nice, fizzy dose of New Wave-inflected jheri curl pop; and Johnson himself re-recorded the second track, “Fast Girls,” for a B-side in 1985 (his version is the one included here). After Janet, Jesse’s next major break came in the unlikely shape of the Breakfast Clubsoundtrack:  his “Heart Too Hot to Hold,” a duet with fellow A&M artist Stephanie Spruill, obviously fell short of Simple Minds’ epochal “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” in capturing the zeitgeist, but I can’t imagine he minds when those residuals come in.

© A&M Records

For all intents and purposes, however, Johnson’s debut as a solo artist came with the release of his 1985 album Jesse Johnson’s Revue. It was at this point when his characteristic take on the Minneapolis Sound, hinted at in his earlier production work, came into full bloom: surprisingly keyboard-driven for a guitarist, explicitly New Wave-influenced, and with plenty of the fiery guitar solos that had been his specialty in the Time. Songs like “Can You Help Me,” “Let’s Have Some Fun,” and the yearning ballad “I Want My Girl” established Johnson as a kind of middle ground between the Time’s good-time funk and the sexier, artier stylings of Prince.

© A&M Records

Indeed, it’s clear that in 1985 A&M was positioning Johnson as a potential competitor to W.B.’s Prince: it didn’t hurt, of course, that Jesse was a dead ringer for his former employer, with the mandatory mid-’80s thin moustache and even a trademark color, pink, to match Prince’s purple. Johnson was less comfortable with these comparisons, however; and his response, the B-side “Free World,” became one of his most enduring songs. Not only did it address the elephant in the room–“Nobody likes the way I hold my mic / They say it’s too much like my friend”–but it was also an influential work of electro-funk on its own merits: just try and listen to the Egyptian Lover’s “Freak-a-Holic” and tell me he didn’t have “Free World” on the brain.

© A&M Records

Jesse Johnson’s Revue wasn’t the runaway success it should have been, but A&M wasn’t ready to give up on turning Jesse into “their” Prince: he even got his own protégés, Ta Mara and the Seen, led by the crossover-friendly (read: white) singer Margie Cox, a.k.a. Ta Mara. Their “Everybody Dance” was as “Jesse Johnson” as Vanity 6 had been “Prince,” and has become as much a part of the Minneapolis Sound’s legacy. Johnson also made time for another Brat Pack soundtrack in early 1986, contributing the New Wave-y “Get to Know Ya” to Pretty in Pink.

© A&M Records

The followup to Jesse Johnson’s Revue, 1986’s Shockadelica, carried on the inevitable comparisons to Prince–though this time through no fault of Johnson’s own. The story goes that Prince, after hearing the name for Jesse’s new album, tried to convince him to write a title track–then, when Jesse declined, went ahead and wrote it himself, leaking it to Minneapolis radio so listeners would assume he’d come up with the title first.  It’s unfortunate, because Shockadelica shows a lot of musical growth for Johnson: plucking Sly Stone out of his self-imposed obscurity for the lead single “Crazay” and incorporating prominent freestyle influences on “Baby Let’s Kiss.” But on some level, at least, Johnson also got the last laugh: his “Do Yourself a Favor” nicks Prince’s unreleased arrangement of “If You See Me” by Minneapolis Sound godfather Pepé Willie, but credits Willie alone, ensuring he got all the royalties.

© A&M Records

Shockadelica was another modest, but not overwhelming success, and Johnson continued to produce for other artists, collaborating with Ta Mara on “I Need You” by Paula Abdul. His next album, 1988’s Every Shade of Love, fell short of the previous records’ sales, but it still had some gems in “Love Struck”–Johnson’s biggest hit since “Crazay”–and the mellow, soulful “I’m Just Wanting You.”

It’s convenient, for our purposes, that the first wave of Johnson’s solo career ended along with what we like to call the “jheri curl era”: after Every Shade, he still contributed to soundtracks and other artists’ projects, but wouldn’t reemerge with an album of his own until 1996’s rock-oriented Bare My Naked Soul. Today–after another, 14-year leave of absence–he’s arguably at his highest profile since the ’80s: performing with D’Angelo and (occasionally) the original lineup of the Time, most recently at the 2017 Grammy Awards. Earlier this year, he played to a packed house at the Minneapolis club Bunker’s to commemorate the one-year anniversary of his old sparring partner Prince’s death. Things, it seems, have come full circle; Johnson has both outlasted Prince and become more inseparable than ever with his legacy. And he’s built a hell of a legacy of his own: one we’re proud to celebrate this Jheri Curl June, and many more in the future.

For more Jheri Curl June, check out Dystopian Dance Party every weekday for the rest of this month; I’ll also be posting highlights for my remaining Saturday guest posts. See you again soon!

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Prince-One Year Later: “She Spoke 2 Me” (1991)

Prince developed a carefully crafted persona as a man of mystery. That extended far into his music as well. If one looks at any Prince based website today, he seems to have revealed uneven information on his recording sessions: when he made what and who played with him if applicable. What is well established is that he’d recorded dozens of songs for each album,as many artists actually do. And siphon off the cream of that crop for the album in question. This is a likely case involving a song I’ve enjoyed by him since hearing it during the mid 90’s.

On the soundtrack for the Spike Lee Joint Girl 6,one song that every single member of my family fell in love with was “She Spoke 2 Me”. It was one of two unreleased songs (including a seemingly new title song) Prince provided for the film. A few years later,Warner Bros released a collection of Prince music recorded in the early 90’s called The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale. This included an extended version of “She Spoke 2 Me”,apparently recorded with the original NPG lineup in late 1991 according to PrinceVault.com. And that’s the version of this song I’m reviewing today.

A rumbling bass and drum begins the song,before it all settles into the musical statement of the chorus. This brings in a sizzling jazz-funk styled drum break with Prince playing a bluesy 7 note ascending rhythm guitar part-with the NPG horns responding with an instrumental version of the vocal hook. The refrain has more sustained muted trumpets and a slightly higher chord progression. After several rounds of this,the last 3-4 minutes of the song go from a swinging big band jazz chart with a break for a free jazz horn freak out. The main melody of the song returns as it all fades out.

Especially as an extended song,”She Spoke 2 Me” is one of my favorite Prince songs of the 90’s period. It really showcases Prince actually being in a very collaborative state with the NPG. Overall,its a slinky nigh club friendly jazzy funk groove with a totally live band flavor. This comes to light especially well on the swinging final part. Just Kathy Jensen and Brian Gallagher’s avant garde “sax attack” on it says it all for this songs power. The NPG have often been described as the best band Prince ever assembled. And this song is a very strong contender to prove that position as having merit.

 

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Harriet Brown Does “Prince Weird” Right

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Is there any other musical influence as pervasive, yet elusive as Prince? Practically everyone in the contemporary pop landscape is influenced by him on some level–from Bruno Mars to Beyoncé to Young Thug–yet hardly anyone is able to capture what really made him great. D’Angelo has some of his electrifying stage presence; Miguel channels a bit of his sex appeal (albeit in watered-down, heteronormative form); DāM-FunK evokes his studio wizardry and occasional cantankerousness; but none of these are adequate replacements–nor would any of them claim to be.

Especially inimitable, and especially missed, is Prince’s weirdness. While the aforementioned Bruno Mars can do a serviceable enough version of “Let’s Go Crazy” at the Grammys, it’s hard to imagine him plumbing the psychosexual depths of a “Shockadelica,” let alone an “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” It’s that ineffably eccentric quality that sets Prince apart from his imitators: most of whom, quite frankly, know better than to even try.

To be clear, I’m not trying to set up an argument for Inglewood-via-Bay Area artist Harriet Brown as the one true inheritor of “Prince weird”; that would be hyperbole in the extreme. But of the legion of contemporary artists whose music echoes the Purple One’s, Brown is the one who seems to get “it” most. Just listen to the digitally-manipulated voices he puts on in the intro of his recent album, Contact, shifting from “Bob George” low to “Camille” high; or the way his elastic falsetto bends almost comically on the line “sometimes I think I’m an alien on your planet” from “ESP.”  Or hell, just look at the guy: that exaggerated bowl cut, like an Akira character come to life, with an inscrutable, gender-bending stage name that doesn’t seem to have any real-world frame of reference (unless he’s just a really big fan of the author of Brave Girl Eating). “I like people not exactly knowing everything going on with me,” Brown told the LA Weekly in a profile last month–an awfully Princely statement if ever there was one.

But I also don’t want to give the impression that Brown is just an imitator; his sound certainly channels Prince, but it doesn’t sound like an ’80s throwback. If anything, he sounds a bit like if Prince had evolved more gracefully into the ’90s and 2000s, subtly incorporating the influences of hip- and trip-hop into his sound rather than clumsily attempting to appropriate them. In other words, Contact is forward-looking, 21st-century music: music that builds on the past as a foundation, rather than trying to retreat into it. And that may be the best credit to Prince’s legacy of all.

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A Time to Love, 12 Years Later: Reconsidering Stevie Wonder’s Last Studio Album on His 67th Birthday

timetolove

Yesterday, Andre marked Stevie Wonder’s 67th birthday with a writeup on 1987’s Characters, an underrated record from what many consider to be the singer’s wan years. Today, on the actual anniversary of Wonder’s birth, I thought I’d share an old review I wrote of his still-most-recent studio album, 2005’s A Time to Love. As you can probably tell, at the time I wasn’t a big fan of post-’70s Stevie: I’d pretty much taken at face value the critical consensus that he fell off after Hotter Than July. Now, my opinions are a little more nuanced (but I still mean what I said about the Woman in Red soundtrack). Anyway, in the spirit of celebrating birthdays and feeling old, here’s what I thought about Stevie Wonder at 21…a.k.a., 12 years ago. I need a drink.


What makes worthy artists–legendary artists, even–go bad? It’s a question that’s been asked countless times, and about few artists more frequently than Stevie Wonder. Don’t get me wrong: I love Stevie Wonder. “Maybe Your Baby,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “Living for the City“…these, and many others, have long since guaranteed a place in the pantheon for the former 12-Year-Old Genius. But I confess: this reviewer would be hard-pressed to describe Stevie’s latter-day output as “good,” much less “great,” “classic,” or “genius.” Indeed, if one considers Stevie Wonder’s “classic period” to have begun with “Uptight” and ended sometime after Songs in the Key of Life (with the execrable Paul McCartney race-relations duet “Ebony and Ivory” serving as the final nail in the coffin), 2005 marks at least the 25th year since the soul innovator and auteur began his disappearance into the depths of the MOR gutter.

Calling from the

Calling from the depths of the MOR gutter; © Motown Records

In this context, then, A Time to Love must surely be the most important Stevie Wonder album since 1980’s Hotter Than July. Not only was the record long in gestation and much-awaited–it’s been ten years since Stevie’s last, Conversation Peace, a significant chunk of which decade was spent recording (and delaying) Time to Love–but if Wonder’s people are to be believed, it also marks a massive return to form. This is meant to be the album that finally reconciles the brilliant artist of the late ’60s and ’70s with the corn-rowed, sweet-natured caricature of the last 25 years: a virtual pillar of inconsequence who hasn’t changed so much as a daishiki since he was immortalized by Eddie Murphy’s spot-on Saturday Night Live parodies. That, of course, is one tall order, and it probably needn’t even be said that A Time to Love is no Innervisions. But if we can allow ourselves to put our impossible expectations aside and give this album the listen it deserves, Mr. Wonder has a bit of a pleasant surprise for us all: this “return to form” may have its flaws, but it remains a remarkably solid effort.

And Wonder remains (The Woman in Red soundtrack notwithstanding) a singular talent, quite possibly the hardest person to dislike in all of popular music. Simply put, the 55-year-old’s voice is gorgeous, as clear and honey-smooth as it was thirty years ago. Actually, if anything, he could stand to turn it down a notch. “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved,” which opens the album promisingly with a contemporary R&B beat and dramatic, low-register strings, soon devolves into numbing histrionics from both Wonder and his guest, gospel singer Kim Burrell–a tendency that repeats itself on more than a few of Time To Love’s “ballad” numbers. Excessive length is also an issue, most notably with the first four tracks: cute songs like “Sweetest Somebody I Know” and the jazzy, theatrical “Moon Blue” overstay their welcome after the three-minute mark or so, when they start to feel like exactly the kind of lightweight sentimentality that has become Wonder’s unfortunate stock in trade. If those two songs dip their toes in the sugar water, however, “From the Bottom of My Heart” dives in head first, with a title straight out of the Backstreet Boys files and an arrangement you’d normally have to ride in a hospital elevator to hear.

To be honest, it isn’t until “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” comes along when the album really kicks into gear. A lite-funk jam worthy of Talking Book outtake status, the track breathes some much-needed life into the proceedings and reminds us that Stevie is still good for more than just the sappy ballads. Once “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” has come and gone, it feels as though what was missing at the beginning of the record has been miraculously restored; the soul is back, and better late than never. Even the soft numbers start to gel. “My Love is On Fire” is smooth and seductive, never maudlin, with funky touches of flute and Isaac Hayes-style strings; while the album-closing title track with India.Arie has all of the epic quality of “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved” but none of the distracting bombast. And oh yes, there’s more funk to be had: “Tell Your Heart I Love You” bolsters its bluesy groove with synth bass and Clavinet (remember Clavinets?); then, of course, there’s the first single, “So What the Fuss.”

It’s fitting that “So What the Fuss,” one of the highlights of A Time to Love, finds Stevie accompanied by a fellow erstwhile pop genius, Prince. Like Prince, Stevie Wonder was an artist in need of a comeback. His talent is just too great to fizzle and fade away, contained by half-assed, mediocre records and the occasional charity single or awards show appearance. And like Prince (whose 2004 release Musicology restored artistic and commercial credibility almost single-handedly), Wonder found his comeback in the form of a sort of compromise: strongly recalling his classic work, but mellowed, tailor-made for an audience that continues to mature along with Wonder itself. It may not have the same kind of resonance as those glory years–few records do–but A Time to Love is possessed of a charm and a beauty all its own. If Stevie Wonder’s “form” is quality and craft imbued with soul, then this is a return to form indeed. Welcome back, Stevie. You’ve earned it.

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Filed under 2000s, 2005, Music Reviewing, Prince, Stevie Wonder

Welcome 2 the Dawn: Grading the Purple Rain Deluxe Edition against My Own Expectations

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Hard as it is to believe, it’s been over three years since NPG Records and Warner Bros. announced the new, expanded Purple Rain remaster–the first, one would expect, of several such projects in the years to come. One of the first pieces I wrote for my own blog, Dystopian Dance Party, was a list of demands humble requests for bonus tracks I wanted to see included in the package: a post I was able to revive here on Andresmusictalk the second time the reissue was announced, last fall. Now, six months later, we finally have a track list, and the two configurations of the album–Deluxe and “Deluxe Expanded”–are available for preorder, to be released on June 23. So, I thought, in the spirit of reissues, why not recycle this three-year-old content once again–you know, for old time’s sake? Let’s take a look at my predictions from April 2014, and see whether or not I really had my finger on the pulse of Paisley Park:

14. Dez Dickerson’s “Modernaire”

13. Vanity 6’s Version of “Sex Shooter

12. Prince’s Versions of Songs from the Time’s Ice Cream Castle

Well, I can’t say I started strong. For better or worse, the new Purple Rain contains nothing but music by Prince and the Revolution: no side projects or protégé material, even the stuff that appeared in the movie. Really, though, I can’t say I’m surprised; and as much as I love the Time and Vanity 6, I wouldn’t want something of theirs to make the cut over a proper Prince track from the Vault. Let’s save these for the expanded reissues of Ice Cream Castle and Apollonia 6 (those are coming, right?).

11. “Extraloveable”

Now this one I am actually a little disappointed by, though again not surprised–both because of the reasons I noted in my original article (it was already released, albeit in bowldlerized/Andy Allo-ized form; it’s mad rapey), and because it’s more of a transitional track between 1999 and Purple Rain: there’s still a chance that it will come out with the inevitable 1999 reissue. I still want to hear it without that awful tape chew in the circulating recordings, but now just isn’t the time.

10. “All Day, All Night”/The Dance Electric”

All right, now we’re cooking! I’m giving myself this one because I hedged my bets, and we are in fact getting Prince’s version of André Cymone’s “The Dance Electric”; and who knows, maybe there are plans in the future to release the 1984 birthday concert where “All Day, All Night” was initially recorded. Would I have liked to have gotten both? Of course; frankly, I’d have loved for this thing to be eight discs long. But if we only had to get one, as a studio track, “Dance Electric” is the logical choice.

9. “When Doves Cry” with Bass

The first real missed opportunity–though more for historical than for musical significance. We all know (assuming Susan Rogers told the truth, and/or Prince didn’t destroy it) that the bass line for “When Doves Cry” exists somewhere in the Vault. So, especially with a full third disc on the “Deluxe Expanded” edition devoted to alternate single mixes, would it have killed them to let us hear it? It’s frustrating, because I totally get the geeky completionist impulse behind that much-derided disc of alternate edits–but if NPG is going to cater to geeky completionists, why not go whole hog?

8. The Complete August 3, 1983 First Avenue Concert

Word on the street is, I was actually kind of right on this. You might recall that an earlier announcement of the set promised “two incredible albums of previously unreleased Prince music and two complete concert films,” but the final product contains only one DVD; based on rumors (and a leaked clip of the performance in previously-unseen high fidelity), it seems the Revolution’s live debut is still in the pipeline, but wasn’t ready in time for the June release date. A little disappointing, but whatever; as long as we get it eventually, I’m happy.

7. Prince and the Revolution: Live

Now here’s the concert we actually are getting in June: the Revolution’s March 1985 date in Syracuse, New York, previously released on VHS as Prince and the Revolution: Live. There’s been some complaints in the fan community about this–it isn’t the best Purple Rain show, it’s already out there, etc. Personally, though, I’m happy to have it cleaned up for a proper digital release; I, for one, haven’t seen it, because who wants to watch a VHS in 2017? Frankly, I barely want to watch DVDs in 2017, but I still look forward to experiencing this show in glorious SD.

6. “Electric Intercourse”

Another point for me–and as an added bonus, we can already hear it! When I wrote my original post, I thought “Electric Intercourse” was a long shot–this was back when it was widely assumed that the song’s “studio version” was just the 1983 First Avenue performance dressed up with a few overdubs. Turns out that it’s actually an entirely different recording, and…well, to be honest, I found it slightly disappointing. But even below-average material from Purple Rain-era Prince is decidedly above-average compared to the output of mere mortals, and I can’t overstate the thrill of finally being able to hear the song.

5. The Extended Version of “Computer Blue”

Really, I’m not even going to pat my back for this one: the extended cut of “Computer Blue” (a.k.a. the “Hallway Speech” version) was a shoo-in for any Purple Rain reissue worth its salt; if it hadn’t made the track list, there would be riots outside Paisley Park even as we speak. But I’m still glad to have it, if only because now a whole new audience can hear the whole, brilliant psychodrama. Hearing this for the first time was one of those moments that transformed me from a reasonably normal person into a hardcore Prince fan: it’s thrilling to think how many others are about to get the same opportunity.

4. “We Can Fuck” (“We Can Funk”)

Now this, on the other hand, is a genuine surprise; and, to be honest, I’m pretty skeptical that the owner of the world’s most famous swear jar would have approved of this song–one that even a pre-Jehovah’s Witness Prince saw fit to censor for 1990’s Graffiti Bridge–being released in its unexpurgated form. Not that I’m complaining, of course: I’ve been dying to hear a nice-sounding, complete take of “We Can Fuck” basically since I became aware of its existence. And if Prince, wherever he is, has a problem with it, I’ll gladly toss a few bucks in his ghostly swear jar for the privilege.

3. “Possessed”

Not quite as exciting as “We Can Fuck,” but still welcome: “Possessed” is a jam, one of those bootleg tracks that totally blew my mind the first time I heard it. There’s been some speculation that the version included on the set is different from either of the takes currently in circulation, but I’m not even going to set my expectations that high; I’ll be satisfied with just a good copy of the one I’ve been listening to for 10 years. Anything more, I’ll consider to be a pleasant surprise.

2. “Erotic City (‘make love not war Erotic City come alive’)”

Another no-brainer–but then, you’d think keeping one of the most beloved 12″ singles in the history of the format accessible for purchase would have been a “no-brainer,” too. Yet here we are, in 2017, still awaiting the first official appearance of the extended (and far, far superior) “Erotic City” on CD and digital music services. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am; but at least Warner/NPG is finally making amends. 33 years late is still better than never.

1. Something We’ve Never Even Heard About

Now this is the one I’m most surprised, and pleased, to be wrong about. Unlike most of the other tracks on this list, I have no idea what “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” sounds like. I have no idea what “Love and Sex” sounds like (though I’ve heard good things). I did hear “Velvet Kitty Cat” when it leaked recently, and…meh, but I’ll take it. The fact that the curators of the new Purple Rain collection took care to select some songs that weren’t even in wide circulation among bootleg traders–and promoted them as such!–suggests that the future is pretty bright when it comes to music from Prince’s Vault. Of course, the deluxe Purple Rain isn’t perfect: “Wednesday” and “Traffic Jam” are missing, as are the 30-minute “I Would Die 4 U” and the longer edit of “17 Days.” But when I look at what we are getting, it’s hard for me to complain. Three years ago, I fully expected to be disappointed by whatever Warner Bros. came out with; now, I’m actually excited. Sometimes it’s good to be wrong.

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Filed under Andre Cymone, Apollonia, NPG Records, Prince, Prince & The Revolution, The Time, Vanity, Warner Bros., When Doves Cry