52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK TEN

Week 10: Sign O the Times Mess With Your Mind

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Prince

Album: Sign “☮” the Times

Paisley Park/Warner Bros.

1987


What is the definition of a successful double LP? Is it a cohesive package–a collection of songs perfectly paired and organized to tell a story? Should the album have an epic underlying message? Or should it merely be a document of some creative spree, the result of which can’t be limited to a single album?


Why do some of the truly great double albums somehow manage to pull off the feat of piquing interest, despite their long-winded running time?


Consider some of the obvious contenders: Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, The Beatles White Album, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, The Clash’s London Calling (and later its Triple LP extravaganza Sandinista!), Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime. These albums run the length of some major motion pictures, but even after multiple revisits, still demand to be experienced in their entirety.


They don’t hold the same grandiosity of, say Pink Floyd’s slightly overrated The Wall. Instead these albums are effective because of their musical breadth and ambitions. Take as much as we can come up with and release the lot of it. Give the listener the ultimate listening experience. Tear the walls down. A tried and true motto.


There’s something magical about a perfectly executed collection of songs, and it’s even more remarkable when the album is a hodgepodge with no overlying message or theme.


Prince’s Sign “☮” the Times is the artist’s greatest achievement to date. It skates around damn near every musical genre Prince could conjure up, features pop at its catchiest, rock at its most visceral, ballads at their most tender, and a couple of head scratchers thrown into the mix to keep things interesting.


The origin of Sign “☮” the Times goes like this: coming off the massive success of Purple Rain and his mid-1980s Revolution run, Prince was working on three simultaneous projects–Dream Factory (leaked in early production stage), Crystal Ball (a triple-LP that induced panic from Prince’s label) and Camille (a solo-endeavor showcasing Prince’s alter-ego). The projects were either abandoned, and the scraps and highlights from all three records were assembled for Sign “☮” the Times.


On paper the album sounds like a disaster–the result of tensions between band members and label executives. A bastard record of the time. Summed up; this could have easily been career suicide. Instead Sign “☮” the Times is not only Prince’s best effort but easily one of the greatest, and most surprising albums to come out of the 1980s.


I first dove into Prince’s purple prowess with 1984s Purple Rain. Obvious, sure. But what a masterpiece of unrelenting pop music. While some people pose the musical identity question, “Beatles or Elvis?”, I’ve been become more fascinated with the responses I get when asking: Purple Rain or Thriller?


Purple Rain is perfect. It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do and gives Prince reason enough to scream, “baby I’m a star!” Still Purple Rain is pop, plain and simple, with few genre-bending moments, save of course for the epic, guitar-heavy title track.


There are moments on Sign “☮” the Times that pick up exactly where Purple Rain left off. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” takes the catchiness of Rain’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Baby I’m a Star,” and tacks on an extended blues-inspired instrumental outro to, you know, up the ante.


“Housequake” takes dance music into the future by running funk and soul through a drum machine and synthesizer (hints of drum and bass genre to come down the line), and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is just as sexually raw as Rain’s “Darling Nikki.”


Fortunately Prince doesn’t stop with what he was already too familiar.


“The Cross” is an epic slow-burner that blends gospel, arena rock and roll, and even a sitar to create a sound that references early Prince records but in a more polished final package.


At just under three minutes, “Starfish and Coffee” is Prince tackling a children’s song, while also embracing the magic of food and unflinching individuality.


The album’s title track is exactly what the title promises, a socially conscious soul number that truly captures the time. One of Sign “☮” the Times’ greatest feats, however, is following the direness of “Sign of the Times” with the silly, bubble gum pop of “Play in the Sunshine.” It’s as if Prince deliberately wants the listener to know that nothing about this album’s ride will seem predictable.


“It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” an intoxicating live cut that showcases Prince’s stage routine of the time, accompanied by the Revolution at the top of its game. Carried along by Matt Fink’s driving drums, Wendy and Lisa’s sultry backing vocals, and even a bit of rap and jazz thrown in, the track is easily the culmination of everything heard before it. That the song might be the only time pop music will ever be able to tinker with The Wizard of Oz and live to tell about it (as seen through the song’s intro/outro of uniform “ohhh weee ohhh”) only adds to the song’s allure.


Sign “☮” the Times closes with “Adore,” a slow, sexy R&B tune perfectly suited to cap any evening. The song creeps along with its horn interludes, gospel-inspired pipes, and Prince’s unique high-pitched vocals. Its lyrics are corny at times but miraculously the song manages to feel anything but.



When we be makin’ love

I only hear the sounds

Heavenly angels cryin’ up above

Tears of joy pourin’ down on us

They know we need each other


It’s easy to mock Prince or at the very least, underestimate him. Sure he was a product of eighties glam but the man knows how to write great songs and is a masterful guitar player (his performance at Superbowl XLI remains one of the best in the event’s long-running, half-time show tradition).


Sign “☮” the Times remains one of my all-time favorites. I liken it to Stevie Wonders’ Songs in the Key of Life, in that both albums are thick with content but never bore. Certain songs pack enough energy to get you going in the morning, while others help you ease into the night.


Sign “☮” the Times was also one of those rare surprises for me. I stumbled upon its title track during a downloading sweep of Prince songs, in the wake of an unhealthy obsession with Purple Rain and the song “Beautiful Ones.” “Sign of the Times” was unlike any other Prince song I had heard prior.


It’s dark, timely, and completely honest in its perception of society. In its foreboding meanderings through the front pages of a social world in flux, Prince preaches:


In France a skinny man

died of a big disease with a little name…

You turn on the telly and every other story

Is telling you somebody died

Sister killed her baby cuz she couldn’t afford to feed it

And we’re sending people to the moon

Some say a man ain’t happy

Unless a man truly dies


The song was visceral in a way I never would have suspected from Prince and instantly made me seek out the album on CD.


Though he is relentless in the amount of music he currently releases every year, Sign “☮” the Times is his last true masterpiece. It captures everything that made Prince a star–channeling the sounds from his early days, carrying through his ascension up the pop charts–and even gives listeners hints of what was in store. I’m convinced that it’ll convert any Prince non-believers, or at the very least give listeners a glimpse into a different side of the man who famously made doves cry. Hell, it even inspired the title of the blog you’re currently reading. Enthusiasm manifests itself in many ways.



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Album Review: 3121, Prince


Archive Review:
Prince
3121
Universal

(The following review was published in the Indiana Daily Student March 30, 2006)

A PURPLE PAIN

No matter how often the media poke fun at his bizarre and reclusive lifestyle or how many times Dave Chappelle ranks on his quirky, sexual purpleness, Prince is still one hell of a talented musician. Which is why listening to 3121, the newest addition to the artist formally known as the artist formally known as Prince’s repertoire, is so disappointing.

Following in the footsteps of 2004’s Musicology, a highly successful, but fairly mediocre album, Prince attempts to return to the ’80s synth-pop rhythms and sounds that made him exclaim, “Baby I’m a star,” and mixes things up with a bit of hip-hop and Latin instrumental flavor. Unfortunately, the result is an album that tries hard to rekindle a sound of the past, but ultimately comes out lost and confused in an age where rap and hip-hop make up mainstream pop.

The album opens up with the title track, a funky, amusing little electro house beat about what we can only imagine is Prince’s address to his personal garden of Eden. With lyrics like, “Put your clothes in the pile on the floor / Take your pick from the Japanese robes and sandals / Drink champagne from a glass with chocolate handles / Don’t you want to come? 3121,” one can’t help but assume that this album is more a personal invitation into the secret and opulent lifestyles of the billionaire Jehovah’s witness than anything else.

In the world of 3121, at least in the first six tracks, every day seems to be a party, a party with a bad girl named “Lolita,” lots of “Incense and Candles,” “Black Sweat” and of course “Love.” In fact, the first half of the album plays out more like a self-indulged string of sexual infused funk beats (which might or might not be fantasy), than the catchy pop songs from the ’80s that Prince is most commonly known for.

The album picks up the pace during the second half, however, with a number of tracks that are reminiscent of the pop life of Prince’s past.

“Fury,” which is the best song on the album, feels like a highly polished B-Side cut from any of Prince’s truly classic masterpieces, the flawless Purple Rain, the politically charged Sign ‘O’ the Times and even the campy but boisterous 1999. The song opens with a driving drum beat, catchy keyboard hook that nicely resembles the works of former Revolution member Lisa Coleman and fiery axe licks that remind us Prince is still a guitar virtuoso.

According to the liner notes 3121 was produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince himself, a feat that shows both musical chops but also quite possibly control issues. There are a couple ‘guest per4mers’ including funk saxophone maestro Maceo Parker, some shouts and sexual grunts from Prince’s ’90s band lineup, The New Power Revolution and a surprisingly soulful balladic duet, “Beautiful, Loved and Blessed,” featuring R&B singer Tamara, who nicely compliments Prince’s highly feminine voice in the same way Shelia E. did back in the purple velvet decade of the ’80s.

Overall the album seems to be lost somewhere between classic Prince fare and the sexual soul world of someone like Barry White. It’s quite generous of Prince to invite us to his purple, sexual soirée, however, it’s difficult to truly get into the world of 3121 while we’re doing our normal daily routines like walking to class or riding the C-bus. Perhaps incense and Japanese sandals do in fact make the listening experience all the more rewarding.