Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Prince and Me and Death

I got into Prince just as everyone else was exiting the Prince train.

It was 1990, Graffiti Bridge was in theaters, where it was crashing and burning like no one’s business, despite the fact that it was a sequel to the very, very successful Purple Rain.

My world had changed a little bit since Purple Rain.  I mean, it came out when I was eight.  I knew the song When Doves Cry because even if I didn’t consume much in the way of pop culture, it was hard to miss.  And also my older, female cousins were obsessed with the song.  I spent a long summer afternoon watching them listen to it over and over at a family reunion, trying to choreograph some kind of dance routine to it.

Except neither of them had taken any kind of dance lessons.  Or had a natural gift for choreography.   As I recall they came up with about three moves they thought were cool, and repeated them pretty much endlessly.

The song didn’t really register with me that much.  My parents rarely listened to the radio, and I didn’t have one of my own.  My music was whatever they were listening to.

Then in 1988, I turned 12, and my dad thought it was time I had a stereo receiver.  I had wanted LEGO, but really, that was because I was between ages.  When you’re 12, you can’t figure out if it’s still okay to Trick or Treat.  You are beginning to get the concept of being attracted to people but the idea of dating, or being in a relationship is still tangled up with the idea of being in elementary school and playing house, or dress-up, or imagination games where you run around with a plastic gun and pretend you’re Han Solo.

In 1989 Batman happened.

I really loved Batman, though I couldn’t tell you why.  I wasn’t really a superhero kind of kid.  I didn’t read that many comics or watch a lot of superhero TV shows.  I had liked Superman when I was younger, because I liked the movie, but for some reason, I just had to see Batman.

Every kid did, I think.

I loved it.  I needed a Batman T-shirt.  I needed to own it on video.  And I needed the Batman Soundtracks.  Both of them.  The one by Danny Elfman, which had amazing theme music I fell in love with and then started collecting Elfman film music, and then the music by Oingo Boingo, the band he wrote all the songs for.

And I needed… well, I needed Batdance, I guess.  I mean, I guess I could pretend I needed Partyman, but really, Batdance was the huge hit song/noise compilation, and I needed that.

The thing is, I liked that record.  People try to put it down as a non-Prince Prince record, but that’s unfair. 

Ultimately, Prince put out 39 records.  I’m willing to wager that zero people love all of them.  They may like most of them, they may dig a song or two off each, but there’s literally no way they love every one of those records, back to front.  If that person exists, I have not met them.

But I’ll come back to that.

I was trying to get back to Graffiti Bridge, which is where I started.  By then I had a radio I listened to much of the time.  I had Batman, my first Prince record, but the thing of it was, I liked Batman.  Not Prince.

At the time I had a sense that Prince was, you know, not really for kids.  Or maybe I just didn’t really feel compelled to pick up his records at the library, as they often featured Prince in, like, his underwear. Or less than his underwear.

I mean, don’t get me wrong.  I would have skipped over most records featuring ANYONE in their underwear at that point.  Because I was 12.  (Or 13.  You understand.)  Carrying around a picture of someone in their underwear in a public place was not an easy thing to do.

Then Thieves in the Temple came out.

 Sometimes a song just hits you.  That one hit me.  I’m not sure why.  I wasn’t in the middle of a bad breakup or anything.  I just loved it, because it was a great groove, and had a million fiddly bits (all those background vocals!) and… I don’t know.  I just loved it.

I got it from the library, and listened to it over and over and over.  Not just the song, the record.

And then… something sunk in.  I needed more.  I love Graffiti Bridge.  There are people who hate songs on it, like the title track, but they are wrong and bad.  It’s a great record.  All of it.

It was the record that made me want more.  I went back to the library and got Purple Rain, which is, of course, a perfect record that everyone can agree on.  There’s not a note out of place.

And I immediately discovered I was a Prince fan unstuck in time.

People liked Thieves in the Temple, but they didn’t love it.  Not like I did.  Graffiti Bridge was not a touchstone for pop culture.  It was an odds-and-sods collection of Prince songs, recorded by a bunch of different people, from a movie that not only failed, but was roundly considered a joke.

And no one wanted to talk about Purple Rain, either.  That time had come and gone, and I had been eight and no one cared anymore.

Diamonds and Pearls came out.  I was in high school.  The singles did well, and the album wasn’t bad.  I was learning about being a music critic.  But even then, I knew I didn’t understand the context into which Prince was emerging.  I loved Graffiti Bridge and Purple Rain, but my local library was missing most of Prince’s other records.

Prince had a new band, but I barely understood his old one.  How they kind of came together on 1999.  How they fell apart later.

I had a job by then, though, so I scrounged the money together to buy Diamonds and Pearls.  I wanted to love it, and didn’t, and put Bridge and Rain back into my semi-permanent musical rotation.  Diamonds sat.

The Love Symbol record came out, and things got… really weird.  Let down by Diamonds, I didn’t buy it right away.  A friend of mine at work, an older guy who seemed to have all the money in the world, who bought records every week… he loaned it to me.  I listened to it twice.

It was, and is, a mess.  Many great songs, which were supposed to be a cohesive whole, but aren’t, really.  Parts of the connective tissue, the narrative “stuff” was removed to add in other songs, and so the story doesn’t really make sense.

My friend didn’t dig the record, and sold it to me for ten bucks.  I kept listening.  I felt like there was something there I was missing.

I eventually realized that, yeah, the narrative was missing, but what I was listening for was a series of great pop songs, and instead I got… some other stuff.  A Lounge Lizard style track.  Odd religious songs that weren’t quite church ready and weren’t quite pop radio ready.

It was a song where the big hit single was about Revelation.  Kind of.  Maybe.

It was the first case, I think, where I learned to love a Prince record, instead of just loving it right away.  And for just a second, when 7 was, like, a thing, I was allowed to be excited about Prince again. 

But I soon learned that, well, I could be excited about 7, but that was about it. 

Prince changed his name to a symbol.  People didn’t want to talk about the record.  They wanted to talk about that.

When I met a Prince fan, which was almost never, they were not a Prince fan.  They were a Purple Rain fan.

The Hits/The B Sides came out.  I was getting to be a better critic (for a high school kid, anyway), but I claimed that the hits were less important than the B sides, and failed to back that up as well as I could have in print. 

Today I can back it up, I think, because The Hits mostly featured the shortened, “single” versions of the hit songs.  Some of them are… not improvements, but they turn epic funk tunes into pop singles, and in some ways that’s good.

But it also took When Doves Cry and chopped it off just as the song is about to build to a literally perfect climax.  It’s a genuine shame.

The B sides, on the other hand, are mostly almost-lost gems.  I remain angry today that they haven’t been remixed and remastered, because most of them sound terrible.  These are songs that Prince almost threw away, and many of them could easily be massive hits.  I have no idea how Another Lonely Christmas hasn’t managed to slither its way into the occasional Christmas playlist.

That collection was, sadly, the last time Prince really felt relevant.  The last time you could walk into a crowd of music lovers and ask if they’d heard the new Prince.

That was more than 20 years ago.

I need to pause here.

I don’t get to be a hipster very often.  Almost never, really.  For the most part, I find it ridiculous when someone gets upset at first because no one knows about their obscure indie band, and then they get even more angry when that little band suddenly gains some pop culture traction.

But it reminded me, a bit, of how I felt at that family reunion I was talking about earlier.  I was too young to hang with the adults.  The girl cousins were just a little too old to be able to relate to me.  The boy cousins were a little too young.

So I watched from the sidelines.

As high school was drawing to a close, I was coming to see Prince as a musical artist that was, perhaps, just for me.

And then the Internet happened.

Or rather, America On Line. 

My dad had some small number of minutes every month, and he let me use some of them, under my own screen name.  And here, finally, were the Prince fans who weren’t near me.

But they weren’t talking about his most recent records, either.  They were making (to me) obscure references to his 1970s work.  They were comparing concerts they had been to.

They were talking about bootlegs.

Which I guess brings me to the vault, and to the hipster factor.

When Prince died, there were two things that seemed to happen.  There was the outpouring of sadness from casual fans, which all seemed to start and stop at Purple Rain – a record and film that was 32 years old.

And why not?  It’s a Prince touchstone.  An inarguable classic of a record.  (The film itself is… well, let’s say it has its flaws.  I finally saw it in college, removed from years of hype.  Prince onstage was electric.  The concert footage may have been staged, but it still “got” Prince.  But a lot of the movie featured non-actors acting, and while they weren’t MST3K level bad, there’s a reason most them haven’t gone on to storied acting careers.)

And then there was the cry – people wondering just what, exactly, was going to come out of the famed Prince vault.

And that’s where I kind of lost it.

I don’t think I went full hipster, but I could feel it rising.

Because… well, mostly just because, but really because so much had already come out of the vault, and people roundly chose to ignore it.

In 1992 and 1993, I was trying to follow along in the bootleg conversations, and so, to some extent, was Prince. 

He got out of his label contract and released a 3 CD collection – all new Prince music, and lots of it!  And it sold well, but mostly it “sold” two million copies because a 3 CD set is considered three records. 

This means he probably sold a little over 500,000 records – or rather, he tumbled over the “Gold” line, not the double platinum line.

Then the vault cracked open.

He finally released The Black Album, one of the most bootlegged records of all time.  I had a copy, because I was a fan trying to fit in, and I bought a “real” copy just to same.  But all of the real fans didn’t, and it sank and vanished.

He put out Crystal Ball, a 5(!) CD set of lost vault material.  It sank like a stone.

Later he put out Old Friends 4 Sale, a collection of even more vault material.  Sank like a boulder.

Chaos and Disorder was a tossed-off record consisting of songs he wouldn’t have otherwise released, just to get out of his contract.

Sank like a brick.  It didn’t help that, at least to my ears, there wasn’t much to recommend it.

And in the middle of all that vault material?  The Gold Experience.

What a stellar record, and I mean that with all my heart.  Catchy, funky, fun, a little saucy, a little feminist. 

I dug his “real” record before that, Come, but it was honestly a little too out there to make it on mainstream radio.  If what I’ve read is correct, all the things that could have been hits ended up on The Gold Experience.

It felt like it.

I suspect that Gold didn’t do better because it was delayed a bunch of times.  The biggest hit off the record was The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, which was in equal measure a lovely song and a piece of processed cheese.  If The Gold Experience had followed it up a month or two later, perhaps it would have shot to the top of the charts.

Instead, Gold came out two YEARS later.  And instead of Now or Endorphinmachine, two fun, funky, smash hits in the making… they tossed out a ballad as a single.

I still love that record.

I used to convert friends to fandom with it.  I’d loan it to them, and they’d stare at me in awe… it was like they had forgotten Prince had ever existed, and here he was with a totally stunningly fun record.  In 1995?  Who knew?

And then?

Then it got weird.

Then Prince created the NPG music club, promising to send fans records if they’d just give him money every month.

I was a broke college student.  And I knew that Prince didn’t always follow through on his projects.  And at the time, I had decided I refused to have a credit card on my person, as it seemed to lead to trouble for every single college student I knew.

So I missed some records.  And I bought some oddball records he put out other ways.  Like The Rainbow Children, was supposed to be about how he was a Jehovah’s Witness now, or something.  There was some good stuff on it, but I couldn’t love it like Gold.

And then… then records kept coming out.

And critics were weird about it.

There’s a great old VH1 special about Weird Al Yankovic, where he opines that even though he put out a record every two years at the time, people always seemed a little amazed he was still around, as if it had been decades.

That’s what was going on with Prince.  He would release a record, and critics would go crazy trying to convince themselves that Prince was back, baby!  This was the one with the hits, the one that would get his name out there again, would put him back and the charts.

And sometimes they did.  When you could buy them.

More often, they didn’t.  Or you couldn’t get a copy.

Or… well, let’s look at the releases, year over year:

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic – has a couple of great possible singles (and a hilarious coda of a song) but to me, it felt like it was trying too hard, pulling songs and artists from the current mainstream and sticking them on the record.  Prince was not leading the charge on this one, he was following, and I felt it keenly.  He had decided to prove himself and the whole thing felt forced.

The Rainbow Children – This was the Jehovah’s Witness record, a collection of songs beloved by some and, in my case, mostly just forgotten.  Little of it registered with me.  Maybe I’d like it more today.

I’ve since read he didn’t even want to publicize that this record was out.  Given its sales, that choice seems to be not great.

One Nite Alone...  – Finally we get a full live recording… and it’s mostly stuff from The Rainbow Children.  I couldn’t justify the cost of an expensive box set.

Xpectation – Released only to people in his record club.  I still haven’t heard it.

N.E.W.S – Four instrumental tracks, I was amazed to find this one in an actual record store and bought it on sight.  I listened to it once and almost forgot it existed.  There was nothing there to cling to, musically.

Musicology – Prince attempts another comeback.  This was where I was ready to check out.  I wasn’t going to bother picking up a copy, but some of them contained a so-called Golden Ticket to see Prince’s house and studio, Paisley Park.

I did not get a ticket.

The Chocolate Invasion – People putting money into his bank accounts every year got this.  Never heard it.

The Slaughterhouse – Yet another almost unknown release.  How many people own a copy of this, I wonder?  Is it in the six digits?

3121 – Prince attempts a comeback record… again.  The critics were crazy for this one.  This one, they swore, was Prince back doing what he did best.  I listened to it at the time and didn’t hear it.  After his death, I pulled it out again.

Prince records live and die by their singles, I think, and 3121 contained a lot of good material and a few songs that whiffed.  The single was a whiff.

I can’t prove that another song might have saved the record, but that one did it no favors.  Beautiful, Loved, and Blessed is gorgeous, though.  It’s worth a listen just for that track.

Planet Earth – released for free in the UK.  Barely released in the states.  I listened to it twice.  The record is a mystery to me today.  I can recall the opening lick of the opening song, and nothing else.

Lotusflow3r / MPLSound (released as a 3-CD set together with Elixer by Bria Valente) - In which Prince offers three records for the price of one.  A couple of critics I read on a regular basis talked about the return of the Prince sound.

Inasmuch as he pulled out his old drum machines, they were right.  Inasmuch as he created memorable songs, they were wrong.

I really enjoyed this one for about two weeks after it came out, but I came to like it less and less the more I listened to it.

20Ten – released for free in the UK, and never in the US.  After being burned again and again by releases I had paid 10-15 bucks for, I couldn’t justify coughing up thirty or forty for what was sure to be a disappointment.

Things got quiet for a while.  Prince stopped releasing records for four years, and in a lot of ways it felt like a relief to me.

The open question was, in a way, did I want more Prince music?   For that matter, did the world NEED more Prince music?  Just perusing the list above, I can find five records I didn’t own and wasn’t willing to spend the time scouring the earth for.  When Prince died, no one dug one of them up and declared them a lost classic.

Even the record I could have gotten my hands on easily, by shipping $40 off to the UK to acquire something someone got there for free in a newspaper… I couldn’t be bothered.  I just doubted there was $40 worth of happiness to be heard.

For that matter, he still had some early so-called classic records I’d never bothered to buy.  Why would I blow hundreds of dollars on a live record with mostly songs I didn’t find that interesting in the first place, when I had never even heard most of his early output, and could get it for five or ten bucks?

At that point, Prince had spent decades cranking out material, sometimes looking to craft hits, sometimes seemingly just putting out records just to put them out. 

On a more pragmatic level, it was hard to miss the guy because he never seemed to go away.

So yeah.  Four years.  No records. 

I’ve talked about how Prince seemed to stage a comeback every few years.  How the critics would get amped all over again, ready to talk about a return to form.

Even Prince seemed to want to come back in a big way, releasing two records on the same day – the kind of thing not usually an option for a guy whose sales had slacked off so significantly.

But those four years did build a little excitement.  He had a new band, made up entirely of women who absolutely knew how to play.  He got out there and did interviews.  The headline was supposed to be that Prince was back.

And from that, we got:

Plectrumelectrum – a record Prince didn’t even put his name on, just that of his new band.  It was… it was a group of really talented musicians playing songs I could barely remember just after listening to it.

I won’t argue that Prince put his B material on this record, and his A material on the other.  I’d be more inclined to say that Prince just plain produced less A material by then.

Art Official Age – That same A material issue is here as well.  I can at least hum a couple of songs off of the record, but to have a real comeback I think Prince needed a flat-out killer single, and Prince didn’t create one for this record.

He instead created a strange little concept album, similar to some of his past concept albums.  The record hangs together, and got a lot more listens from me than the other record he released the same day.

That said, it was not a comeback record.

A year went by, and then, big news, Prince decided to throw some more material out and see what sticks… and that helped, in a way.

HITnRUN Phase One – This one still had a bit of heat on it.  Prince actually brought in another producer for the first time in long time, and tried to make a record with modern sounds on it.

I mean, he tried.  But the modern sounds angle didn’t really work.  He instead ended up with an odd little stripped-down thing that often sounded like un-fleshed out demos.

That said, it was the first Prince record in a long time that I really, truly, enjoyed. 

More than any other record in recent memory, I could actually RECALL the songs.  My kid would sing along.  I would sing along.

And with a touch of trimming, I totally think 1000 X's & O's could have been a hit single.  Maybe not a huge one, but it certainly could have wandered the R and B charts for a while, and that would have been nice.

HITnRUN Phase Two – This one was released right on the heels of part 1, but wasn’t put out in a physical edition for months, which made me insane.

In fact, the actual physical version came out the week he died, and no one was carrying it, because, who knew?  So I had to order it from Amazon instead of my local record store.

And in a lot of ways, it was a fitting cap on the story of Prince.  In particular, it dragged a long-lost classic (Xtraloveable) into the light and finally put it out for all to hear.

And since I was on Amazon, I coughed up a bunch of money and filled in all the Prince gaps I could in my collection.  There were a LOT of them, and some still remain.  A few because there’s no real way to get my hands on them.  A few because now out-of-print records were suddenly worth much, much, much more money.

And I couldn’t justify buying a couple of records I didn’t like that much in the first place.

I started this essay months ago now, opening it, updating it, forgetting about it.  Writing huge chunks and then tucking the essay away again for weeks at a time.  When I started, I thought I knew where I was going.

But I don’t.

I listened to those early records when they arrived.  I had wanted to spread them out, maybe listen to one a week.  But instead, I’d listen to each one for a day or two, then move on to the next.  Always restless.  Always wondering what else I missed, or was missing.

That’s the issue, I guess. 

The most common number of records I heard associated with Prince with 39.  That did not include all the lost songs tucked into various singles.  It did not include the dozens (hundreds?) of songs he gave to other artists.

It doesn’t include lost cover versions, concerts, or the hundreds of songs left in the vault.

I would argue that I kept buying Prince records because, even if I didn’t love what came out, I had to know what else was there. 

When you’re a kid, you pull pop culture in on yourself.  Those songs are about you.  You love them harder than you’re ever able to love them as an adult.  They speak to you.  Sometimes, they speak FOR you.

I came out of my teen years with three major musical loves and influences: Frank Zappa, Oingo Boingo/Danny Elfman, and Prince.

Prince was the one who survived.

Frank Zappa was dead by the time I was out of high school.  I had to dig into his music, to hunt, to search, to find more, but in the end, the music out there was more or less finite.  Yes, his family kept releasing records, but they weren’t Frank records anymore.  Not really.  They were expansions and odds and sods.  They were no longer musical statements, and while they interested me to a certain extent, I knew I could never justify buying them because I couldn’t really love them.

Oingo Boingo disbanded when I was in college, recording their last few shows and releasing a double live album that I just loved.  I literally own everything they put out, including weird little rare things that are impossible to find.

But the band is gone now.

And Danny Elfman, who I loved and collected for a long time, well… I don’t know, really.  He used to create amazing themes that I could listen to forever.  But as he got older, and got “better” at his job, his scores became less memorable to me, and more auditory wallpaper.  To this day, I can sing large chunks of the music to the early Pee-Wee Herman movies. 

But I remember listening to The Hulk and remembering nothing at all.  I think the last score of his I got was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, because I really liked the songs.  (Apparently, I was the only one.)

Prince was still out there, though.  Still slugging away.

While I didn’t have a ton of love for his new records after a while, there was great stuff there sometimes. 

He gave me hope.

2016 was a rough year, with a lot of artists I enjoyed taking their final bow.  Prince died a few months before I turned 40, and the records he was going to release, the way he wanted to, came to a sudden halt with his death.

Honestly, I was even more saddened to learn that he had started writing his memoirs.  I’m sure he had 100 stories, sharpened to a fine point from telling and retelling them, and now those stories are gone, along with the man.

As I type this, I’m realizing only a handful of artists I’ve really loved are still putting out records on anything resembling a regular basis.  I mean, I may enjoy Adele, but I’m not waiting for the next thing, cash in hand.

At this point, it’s down to Ben Folds and Aimee Mann, both of whom are still out and working, but who seem less and less interested in creating their next record. 

I suppose that’s the other thing.  So few artists ever create a career that really lasts.  When you think about an Elton John (almost fifty years) or a Prince (almost 40), and then think about the musical artists of today, can you actually see them releasing something new thirty years from now?

Or twenty? 

Or ten?

Prince is gone. The last band/artist I carried from my teenage days is no longer a musical force.  He sold a lot of records after his death, but he still didn’t manage the comeback that he clearly wanted.  He isn’t going to climb to the top one last time.

Bowie ended his career on his own terms, with a record that was well-reviewed both before and after his death.  Prince’s last record was barely reviewed at all, and his old label spit out a fresh best-of with one lost track just in time for the Christmas season.

Even that was hard to look at, the last major single rolling all the way back to my high school days.

Zappa knew he was almost done, and put out a couple of records that nicely capped his career.

Oingo Boingo did a few more shows and put out a final live album just for the fans.

But Prince didn’t know the end was coming.  His final record, in some ways, felt like a cap, but it wasn’t one.  Prince didn’t go out on his own terms.

That’s what’s going to haunt me in the coming years.  We’re never really promised tomorrow.

We do not always get to write our own ending.

Sometimes we just go, and the shock never erodes.

Friday, March 18, 2016

American Idol - The Final Season

Back when I was in college, some major local store spent a month or two going out of business.

The first week, everything was 50% off.  The next week, 60%.  The next week, 70%.

And so on.

The point, of course, was that everything must go – the day the store closed its doors everything had to be sold or trashed, and it was better to get some money than no money.

I’m making up most of the details, by the way, because I was away at college.  But my parents would email me every week, talking about how the prices kept dropping and how the store kept getting more and more empty, but every week they’d go back and see just how much cheaper certain things were.

By the end, they were buying movies for a dollar or two because they had wanted to see them and it was cheaper than renting.  That was, in fact, how I ended up finally getting a copy of Purple Rain and seeing it for the first and last time.

That’s kind of how Idol feels right now.

Oh, they talk a good game, I guess, with Jennifer going on and on about how she’s sad it’s the last season, and how no other show has produced so many stars and/or hit records. 

Which is true, or was at one time.

Of course, the last three years have been a near-complete bust.  Two of the last three had records which barely charted or sold.  And the last one?  We’ve got three weeks left of Idol, and his record isn’t out.

He instead released one fresh single, which, um… wasn’t great.  And didn’t chart.

They’re not even talking about an Idol tour for next year, after last year went from the top ten to the top five only. 

And the fact that last year’s winner doesn’t have an album out yet means this year’s winner probably shouldn’t be holding their breath.

Which is to say, it’s the last year, and everything must go.


I’ve started writing about the show this year a couple of times now, but I’ve been busy, my blog has been neglected, and honestly I’m waking up every morning and while I wasn’t hugely invested in the winners, well, this year the show isn’t even very invested.

That said, it’s the last Idol season ever (until they bring it back in five years in a desperate attempt to get solid ratings for ANYTHING on Fox), so I feel like I should at last take a stab at the top five, and see if I can guess who goes out when.

In previous years, I always stated that I would get within two places for going out, and then I would always a) miss one person who would do a massive climb even though they were terrible, and b) would whiff the actual winner, usually putting them somewhere in the middle of the pack.

This is because American and I like different things, for the most part.

So, from bottom to top:

Sonika: She has a great voice, but she got a save twice in a season where there were “no” saves, and now she can’t be protected.  She’s got a great voice, but her stage presence needs honing.

Dalton: I really like Dalton as a person.  First, for putting his bipolar status out there.  Mental illness is still pretty much the silent disease in this country, and putting it out there into the world will surely help someone who thinks she’s great and will finally have someone to identify with.  I hope he and Demi Lovato had a nice chat last week.  But his voice isn’t the best on the stage and his showmanship can really vary when he gets outside his wheelhouse.  I wish him so much luck.

MacKenzie:  I really liked his original song, and he owns the stage.  But the sensitive singer/songwriter doesn’t really win this competition.  Alex Preston (who just released a fantastic record last July) went out third.  So will this guy.

Trent:  Great voice.  Amazing stage presence.  Any other year, I’d think he could take it, and really, I think he still could, because the voters can be stunningly fickle. 

La’Porsha:  Every performance of hers has been nothing less than stunning.  She deserves to win.  And get a great record deal.  And become a huge star.  And she has the cutest baby.  But as I said, everything must go.

In reality, there’s always one bad vote every year, and with no saves, someone else could take it.  But yeah, she’s eared this one.

Friday, January 22, 2016

In Which I Buy New Music

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine was lamenting the fact that bands don’t use the word monstrosity in songs any more.

I had to think about it.  She was referencing the 80s, because was talking about a local radio station that was doing a marathon of songs from 1986.

I thought about it for a while, trying to come up with an 80s song that used that word.  Finally, I said, “Um, Bohemian Rhapsody came out in 1975.”

It was a shot in the dark, but it turns out I was thinking of the right song.  Where things fell apart was that she didn’t know if the station screwed up, or she remembered the year incorrectly, or… well, we basically shrugged it off.

It was what she said in light of the discussion that bothered me – that she didn’t listen to or buy any new music.

And I sighed, and realized that, yes, I am getting to that age where there is a definite dividing line between “our” music and “their” music.  People my age are writing articles and posting memes about how modern music is too musically simple, and too lyrically dumb, and why can’t we have musical artists that are as talented and smart as when WE were kids.

Of course, maybe six months ago I read that people pretty much give up on new music starting around age 32 or 33.

I’m 39.  That freaks me right out.

I debated going off on a long-ish rant about how people my age need to at least try out some new music from time to time, but I can’t say that it felt like it would be worth it.  If my friend wants to be trapped in 1986, where the New Kids on the Block are about to come to prominence, well, that’s her right.

I think it just saddens me, because there are literally dozens of records coming out every week.  And while I don’t pick up something new all THAT often, over the last few months I’ve picked up no less than 12 albums.  That might be a record for such a short period of time.

And you know what?  I really liked some of them.  And was not very wowed by some of them.

So – capsule reviews!

Pentatonix – Pentatonix:

There’s a rant to be written about multiple versions of the same record coming out.  With this one, there was the regular edition, a deluxe edition, and a Target edition that had three extra songs.


Don’t do that, folks.  If you want to cram some songs on there as a bonus, note them as bonus songs.  That’s fine.  But hopping from store to store to store to get a handful of extra songs… it’s maddening.

But in this case, it’s almost worth it.  Pentatonix has put out three pop music EPS, a Christmas EP, and a Christmas record.  This one was “the big one” because it was going to be ALL original songs.  Unless you get the extended version, because there are extra covers on there, and… you know what?

It’s a great record.  The gang got together with a handful of accomplished songwriters and made a fun pop record that uses five voices to sound like what’s on the radio today.  Back when they won The Sing-Off, one of the judges said he felt these guys were sent back from the future to save A Cappella.

And this year, they had the number one record in the country for a week.  It’s a well eared accomplishment.  All I hope is that they take all future records as seriously as this one.  There are no bad songs, so weak arrangements.  It’s fun and impressive from end-to-end.

How good is it?  Kirstie Maldonado, the sole female in the group, often regulated to background vocals and a verse here and there?  She writes and sings and just SLAYS a little R and B number called Water.  She’s been in the background so long I’ve kind of taken her for granted, and this is me saying I was wrong.

I want a whole record like that someday. 

Ultimately, it’s a dance/pop record, designed to recreate the forms and fashions of what’s on the radio today.  That might not be your kind of thing.  But they’re well worth a listen for the level of singing talent alone.

Prince - HITnRUN phase one

Much was made of this record because Prince shared producing duties.  It would seem that he, like Pentatonix, wants to sound like the radio today.

Reviews were… interesting, basically saying Prince needed someone he couldn’t push around to really make the experiment work.

But truthfully, I realized years ago that there’s not going to be another great Prince record – or at least not one I love end to end, like I did Purple Rain, or The Gold Experience.

But there’s still good stuff here.  "1000 X's & 0's" is a great little song, for example. 

But I once heard Prince say he wrote a song every day.  And this felt like he took a random sampling and put it out there.  There’s nothing bad here, but nothing that makes me excited for what comes next.

But I’ve felt that way for something like two decades now.  So that’s on me.  (Side note: I started writing this before Phase 2 came out.  I still haven’t heard it.  But I’m weak, and I’ll probably pick it up, because Prince.  I really wish that impulse would pay off in a bigger way.)

Demi Lovato – Confident:

I’ll admit – this one actually made me a little sad.

I got Demi’s last record for free, thanks to Google offering it at no cost, and I really grew to love it. Heart Attack was an awesome vocal over a solid pop hook.  In Case was just heart-rending.

But Confident…

It seems there’s this thing where former kiddo pop princesses suddenly need to prove themselves, and it happens to ALL of them.  In one record, they go from making fun songs you can sing along to, to dropping F bombs and talking about doing it, more often than not with someone of the same sex.

I think I’d feel better about it if I really enjoyed anything on here, but it feels… broken.  Confident, as a song, is fun, but the fake horns don’t really work for me.  Cool for the Summer was a big hit, but there’s a buildup to the chorus that stops the song dead, and I can’t play it in front of my kid, which is sad, because she loves Demi.

As for the rest of it?  I spent a week listening to it and sitting here now I can barely recall any of the songs.

Sorry Demi.  Maybe next time.

Ben Folds – So There

So There is, now that I think about it, an odd title for a record with a Piano Concerto on it.  It gives of the air of refusing to grow up, while having music only a grown-up would want.

And it’s… okay.

I love Ben’s first couple of records, and Rockin’ the Suburbs, but his work has been hit or miss for me since then.  He has a gift for melody, is an amazing pianist (the concerto really shows this off), but he seems… stuck.

Supposedly a lot of these songs came out of recent breakup, and, well, he’s DONE that before.  This is a man who’s been married and divorced four times.

I mean, there’s good stuff here.  I liked the Concerto, though I question how often I’ll listen to it.  The songs are mostly pleasant, except when they’re basically a goof.

I dunno.  Maybe Ben has said most of what he’s needed to say?  I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that.

Come to think of it, the last full record of his I really loved was Lonely Avenue.  Maybe he just needs another collaborator…

Ed Sheeran – 5

A while back, I picked up copies of both of Ed Sheeran’s records, thanks to various American Idol and Glee and soundtrack work that my wife and I dug.

And what I learned about Ed is he either write’s an amazing song you can’t ever forget and can’t not love, or… he writes a song you forget the second it’s over.

My wife loved the records, and asked if he had anything else.  I said he had some EPS, but they were hard to come by and often ran you $25 or more for five or six songs.

So we shrugged it off.

I’m guessing Ed or his label realized they were leaving money on the table, so they put the five EPS into a box, called it 5, and slung it out into the world.

And I’m glad they did, because there’s some great stuff here.  Songs I Wrote with Amy is an entire EP of stuff from the team that gave you Thinking Out Loud, the new big wedding song everyone will be using for the next ten or fifteen years.  It’s delightful.  The live record is fun. 
Some of his better songs pop up on the EPs in earlier versions, and it’s interesting to hear them stripped down or rearranged. 

If I wasn’t fan, I’m not sure this collection would make me one.  And while I like having the artwork, putting all the EPs into little sleeves makes listening to them in the car way more complicated than it needed to be.  I think I’d prefer to have these fives discs on two discs, perhaps with some liner notes from Ed talking about the process of making them.

But for a fan, they’re well worth a listen.

The Silent War – Introducing

I was reminded to finish this article by Facebook, which informed me that this band was putting out their first record TOMORROW.

Introducing was the free online EP they offered for download.  Six songs, four of them fully produced, and two demo/acoustic numbers, and all of the songs are delightful.  I discovered them months ago when one of their songs ended up in a movie I was watching and I ended up spending hours trying to track it down.  It wasn’t available for sale OR for free at the time, which was maddening.

But, then I got this EP for free, and really, all was forgiven.

I’ve described the band as being The Indigo Girls laced with 80s pop, and I think that best describes their work.  Lovely harmonies, bright keyboard work, catchy melodies, it’s all there.

Honestly, I rate them as my favorite musical discovery of 2015, and I hope their record leads to bigger and better things.

Twenty One Pilots – Twenty One Pilots, Regional at Best, Vessel, Blurryface

I’m trying to remember the last time I felt compelled to pick up the entire back catalogue of a band or artist after getting an initial taste, and it might go back to my college days.  I do recall getting both of the Ben Folds Five records back then.  And grabbing everything Elliot Smith had done up to that point, which ended up being a five record binge.

I first heard of 21P thanks to a friend linking to their performance of I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, which is a cute video that someone with an iPhone and some free time clearly edited together and turned into a video made of pure fun.

Mostly I thought it was interesting that the lead singer was holding a ukulele.  So I hit up their YouTube channel and learned they used both the uke and the piano on a regular basis.

It wasn’t until I picked up their records at the library that I realized their videos kind of… reduced them.

21P will, I think, be written off by people who only hear a couple of their songs as decent pop songsmiths who occasionally tip into the hipster world by adding ukulele to the mix. 

In reality, they’re a lot more eclectic than that.  The opening song of Blurryface, their most recent record, starts with heavy dance music drums, has rap verses, and then adds a piano lick and sung hook that…

I mean, it wasn’t what I was expecting.

And that sums up the rest of the record nicely.  There’s some rapping on there.  Tear In My Heart is a wonderful piece of piano-pounding pop until it moves into an oddball, loping bridge.  Songs change time signatures, often at a whim.

It’s a second-listen record, where it works just a little better once you know what you’re getting.

From there, I went backwards.  Vessel is more of the same, though the songs are a little more straightforward here and there.  Regional at Best is now out of print, but pulls it back to songwriting basics even more.

And their debut, Twenty One Pilots, really is their infancy.  The songs are straightforward, but they also suffer a bit for being too repetitive.  They’ll find a lovely musical phrase and repeat it just a few too many times.  There’s good stuff there, but it isn’t the record I’d start with.

Adele – 25

I’m not sure I could convince anyone to listen to or not listen to this record.  Right now there are maybe five musical artists in the world who can sell a million records, no questions asked.  If you wanted this, you already bought it, and if you hate Adele, this will not change your mind.

Me?  I like it fine.  But it comes on the heels of 21, which was, I felt, just about a perfect record, a collection of songs so good they can just retitle it “The Best of Adele” and call it good.

25 experiments a bit more with musical textures, but in the end you’re listening because Adele sounds like she’s willing to scoop her emotions out of her soul and place them directly in your hear via your eat canals.

The more I listen to this record, the more I find things to like, but 21 was pretty much perfect.