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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Musical Reinvention (Madonna Puns Aside)


Within the past month there have been a number of monumental releases kicking off the fall music season. There was that intense Kanye vs. Fitty 9/11 showdown, last week Bruce Springsteen released Magic, his newest record with the E Street Band, and this past Wednesday fans around the globe were treated to a rare musical milestone with the internet release of Radiohead’s highly anticipated seventh album, In Rainbows. Amidst all the publicity and hoorah for these monumental releases (for the record, Kanye’s Graduation and Magic are both surprisingly great records, and as I’m writing this Radiohead’s newest opus is blaring through my headphones for the fourth time) it was easy to overlook some other smaller but equally rewarding album returns from a number of talented musicians including, ether-worldly vocalist Sam Beam aka Iron and Wine, guitar sultan Mark Knopfler, and ex-Eurhythmics siren Annie Lennox, to name a few. The most startling, overlooked, and finest album to jump start the fall is by one PJ Harvey.

Polly Jean Harvey has been releasing beautifully crafted and radically unique albums since the early nineties. She made a splash with records like 1995’s To Bring You My Love, and 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea both of which earned her well-deserved praise and a small but loyal following. What ties all of Harvey’s albums together, despite her furious and versatile voice, is the common theme of reinvention. Her recent musical contribution, White Chalk, is Harvey’s most bizarre transformation yet but it also might be her best.

Fueled by a dependence on minimalist, lullabyesque piano melodies, a surprisingly welcomed move away from the usual fiery blues electric guitar sound of latter records, and a rather haunting change in vocals, White Chalk is a puzzling album that asks a lot from its listener, but is nevertheless and instant classic. Part concept album (Harvey channels a number of different beyond the grave ghostly voices on this record), part shift into the realms of goth folk rock, if such a genre exists, Chalk is arguably the weirdest transition of Harvey’s career and raises the question, what’s next for Ms. Polly Jean?

Artists have been shedding their musical skin for years, drastically changing their sound, style and in some cases completely reinventing music, as we know it. White Chalk is by no means as prolific as when Dylan picked up an electric, or The Beatles helped coin the phrase “art rock,” but I can’t think of a more perfect recent example of how the best musicians working are the chameleons who strive to evolve through change.

While listening to White Chalk (the album has been a staple on my iPod all week and has yet to leave my car’s CD player) I started to conjure up a list of other notable radical musical reinventions from artists over the years.

Miles Ahead—It’s become a bit cliché, at least in the jazz world, to say that Miles Davis changed the face of jazz on more than one occasion–always looking forward, never looking back. Still when you look at this legend’s career and the choices that he made it’s hard not to play along with this statement. The three obvious Miles milestones were 1949’s Birth of the Cool, which took Bebop a step further living up to the album’s title; 1959’s Kind of Blue, the first true modal, atmospheric jazz experience; and 1969’s In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, fusion records that brought on the wave of free jazz and helped link rock and roll to jazz. In reality Davis continued to reinvent his sound album after album until the day he died (Davis’ final album, the critically panned Doo-Bop, is proof that had he continued making music Davis might have helped to bridge the short gap between hip-hop and jazz) despite being ignored and lambasted by so-called jazz purists.

Cha-Cha-Cha Changes—David Bowie was at one point the most capricious musician working in the industry, bending genres and sounds at every chance he could. From early Brit pop singer songwriter (Hunky Dory), to glam rock pioneer (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane), dark goth rocker (The Man Who Sold the World, Diamond Dogs), and the shamefully overlooked (1. Outside), R&B crooner (Young Americans), experimental ambient kraut rock (Station to Station, The Berlin Trilogy: Low, Heroes & Lodger), proto punk (Scary Monsters and Super Creeps) dance pop (Let’s Dance, Black Tie White Noise) and even a stint in bass and drum heavy electronica (Earthling), Bowie’s androgyny and shape shifting persona went far beyond simply his appearance.

Under African Skies
—During the 80s a number of big name artists shed the familiar sounds of their back catalogue and explored the varied rhythms and styles coming from South Africa’s afro-pop scene and the Caribbean reggae wave. In almost all cases the musicians who went the worldly route in lieu of the synth-pop heavy music of the time created some of the finest records of their career, often introducing audiences to musical sounds being created outside of the mainstream. In 1986 Paul Simon ditched his humble singer songwriter persona with the release of Graceland, a record that dabbled in a slew of bicultural sounds–African acapella, Louisiana gospel R&B, Tex-Mex guitar rock, to name a few. Talking Heads seemed to change their style on every record but it wasn’t until the out of left field, Afro-pop influenced masterpiece, Remain in Light, that they let their true artistic visions best the demands of 80s pop music norms. Add fellow contemporaries such as Peter Gabriel (Melt, So) and even Michael Jackson (1979’s Off the Wall may have helped jumpstart this intercontinental melting pot trend) and it’s hard to deny that the 1980s were more than ever a time where popular music was transforming into a global medium.

The Crooked Beat—It’s safe to say the Clash had been evolving and broadening their musical range ever since their self-titled debut, however, 1980s triple LP monster Sandinista! was the record that truly went all out thanks to an interest in damn near every style they could come up with–dub reggae, classical chamber concertos, disco, and even bizarre Eastern European folk dance (listen to “Lose this Skin” for this comparison to make sense). The release transported The Clash well beyond the simple “punk band” title they helped coin and would unfortunately be there last truly great contribution.