Sunday, July 28, 2013

Album of the week #2: July 29, 2013

Approaching a weekly album review presents challenges, with one of the biggest being what to review in the first place.  Since I am highlighting albums that I feel merit some sort of attention, whether something classic that is somehow special, or something new that inspires and excites.  Edition two is a tough one, for while week one was rather simple to choose, being impressed by a new release, week two needs to contrast by focusing on something from the past that some or many may know, but shouldn't be something that everybody knows already.

My choice this week is Prince's seventh studio album, Around the World in a Day.  Released on April 22, 1985, it arrived a mere ten months after the Purple Rain soundtrack of June '84,  and is one of only four Prince albums to hit number one on the Billboard charts (the others being the aforementioned soundtrack, the Batman soundtrack, and 3121 in 2006).  The album was an incredible departure from everything he had done up to that point, with some considering it a failed experiment.  Prince had always been a very R&B based artist, writing, performing, and producing nearly everything on his albums.  Purple Rain felt more like a full band effort, with his band The Revolution taking a more prominent position in the sound of the album, and it showcased his many sides in a very concise effort fusing dance and funk music with rock like a hybrid of James Brown and Jimi Hendrix.  Around the World in a Day was an about face that shocked many of his R&B leaning fans by fully embracing psychedelic rock and stripped down funk and pop, functioning as his own personal summer of love record and reflecting his love of Joni Mitchell and that style of music.  The album is now seen as a minor dip in quality between Purple Rain and Parade (another great record), but did go on to sell three million copies in the US (Rain sold 13 million), and spawned two top ten hits with "Raspberry Beret"(#2) and "Pop Life"(#7).

There are many touches of Beatle-based influences (not to mention cover art), and the album is full of surprises.  The title track features lots of strange and warped percussion mixed with carnival-esque instrumentation including flutes and sitar-like sounds.  "Paisley Park" is likely the cornerstone album track, with big beats similar to "When Doves Cry" from the previous year, out-of-tune organs, and ringing guitars.  Not only was this the name of a great song, but it became the name he chose for his record label AND recording studio complex in Minneapolis.  While the singles were other melodic highlights, there is some weird stuff going on between them.  "Condition of the Heart" is a big and powerful ballad that strives to twist Purple Rain's "Beautiful Ones" into something altogether trippier.  "Tamborine" is one of the shortest and strangest songs Prince ever wrote, a stark, brittle funk workout.  "America" is a unique take on the patriotic tune in a minor key, and the album closes with the big and inspiring "The Ladder" (Prince would do this again two years later to great effect on Sign O the Times with "The Cross"), and the epic "Temptation", where Prince seeks advice from God, a vocodered version of himself.  Albums tended to be shorter in this period, especially from Prince, who produced many albums for his artists that contained as few as six tracks, yet this still had nine.  "Hello", "Girl", and the classic "She's Always in My Hair" were three more B-sides that came from this era, great songs that are included on his B-sides collection.

Prince was always rather experimental for an R&B artist, much more so even than Michael Jackson, and this was one of his most out-there projects.  Coming on the heels of such a successful soundtrack, this would be considered commercial suicide by many, but Prince knew that kind of crazy success could not be maintained, so he threw caution to the wind and made something extraordinary.  What this album does offer is a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of a musician without restraint, doing exactly what he wants to do without a care of sales figures, and may actually be an artistic pinnacle in a career full of them.  Prince hasn't made a truly great album in nearly 20 years, but if he wants some inspiration, maybe he should listen to this record to find a way out of his recent cold and slick mode.  When the album came out, it was an unexpected statement, and Prince was in his most confident place musically speaking, making something loose with more outside contributions.  He would be wise to do more of that today.  Still, what a fabulous legacy of recordings he made during this imperial phase, and this should be regarded as another masterpiece.

I would have posted a youtube video link to one of the singles below, but Prince still does not allow his music to appear on streaming sites and has a team of lawyers ready to remove music if it gets posted.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Album of the Week #1: July 22, 2013

We thought it was about time to start an Album of the Week post where we choose an album, new or vintage, that we wish to highlight as something rather special.  Considering the thousands of records we've heard in our lifetimes, as well as the thousands we carry in the store (not to mention the handful nearly every week that bring something interesting to the table), we hope to bring to the blog albums that we love and love to talk about.  This is a purely subjective exercise based on our personal opinions, and if you find that you are left cold by what we have to discuss, it is likely because our general tastes don't mix (this doesn't mean we can't be friends).  It does not mean that we cannot hear redemptive qualities in music that isn't generally appealing to fact, nearly everything has something to recommend it (some things more than others).  These entries are just meant to act as little love letters of sorts to albums that have had some impact in our music world, and maybe you will find or be interested in something that you never really thought much of before.

Our inaugural entry is a new release, the brand new Pet Shop Boys album, Electric.  We have already featured this album in store emails (sorry about the extra face time), but want to mention again what an extraordinary album this is.  In a year where Daft Punk is practically sainted for their retro-disco grooves on Random Access Memories (a history lesson in disco), Pet Shop Boys (that other electronic duo from across the English Channel) return with the heavily synthetic and modern Electric.  There are a couple reasons this is extraordinary:  1)Their last album, the lovely Elysium, appeared a mere ten months ago, and served as a pastoral reflection on being an ageing pop musician in a young persons' game, and 2)In their fifties, the duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have been at it for 30(!) years, and not only assembled a massive catalog of incredible songs to rival catalogs of Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lennon & McCartney, but sound newly energized on this loosely structured collection of rambunctious tunes.

Rather than give a rundown of what all the songs sound like (there are plenty of reviews out there on the web, nearly all rating the album highly), we would just like to say a couple things about the general project.  The album is three songs shorter than it's predecessor, but about the same running length.  That allows the songs to stretch out more and breathe, bearing a similar resemblance to some of their earliest work on the Disco compliation and third album, Introspective.  Tapping producer Stuart Price (Madonna Confessions on a Dance Floor, Kylie Minogue Aphrodite) was a masterstroke at bringing them back to the strong rhythms and layers found in much of their early work.  Vintage equipment was used in combination with the modern to create a mixture of sounds that references older material with a wink while creating something completely new.

Of course, the subjects covered in the lyrics are typically wry and witty observations from Tennant's pen.  While a couple (mostly) instrumental tracks are present, other songs deal with moving forward after a breakup by busying oneself with extracurricular activities and shunning the prospects of future love ("Love is a Bourgeois Construct"), Thursday being the new-and-ever-earlier beginning of the party weekend ("Thursday"), and the transformative power of dance music ("Vocal").  There are a couple dark and provocative tunes placed in the middle ("Fluroescent", "Inside a Dream"), and a stunningly random cover of a recent Bruce Springsteen song ("The Last to Die" from 2007's Magic),  as well as a kooky song called "Bolshy" (something to do with being enamored with the new Russian capitalist youth).  By the end of Electric, you begin to realize that very few people in the world of dance music would ever think to write songs about subjects such as these. Tennant was a music journalist before becoming a recording musician, and continues to grow as a lyricist, while Lowe (the computer-geek half) is constantly pushing boundaries in chord progressions and song structure.  "Bourgeois" even goes so far as to using a melody from Renaissance composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695) as its main theme.  In fact, many of Electric's songs have lengthy intros, minimal choruses, verses functioning as choruses, or no chorus at all.  While they've dabbled with unorthodox song structures in the past, this liberation from rote songwriting began in earnest on 2009's Yes, produced by UK hitmakers Xenomania (Girls Aloud), who were known for placing choruses before verses, and that idea really takes hold here in a way that these guys realize they can do about anything they want structurally.  (They would be very humbled to be known as 'architects of song').

What this boils down to is Electric is a highly enjoyable summer dance-party album with an educational conscience.  It's just another fascinating chapter in the history of a band who recently ended their contract with Parlophone Records after a 28-year association and 50 million records sold when EMI was sold to Universal last year.  Instead of signing away rights to future material to join another major label, Neil and Chris decided to start their own label, x2, in association with music publishing company, Kobalt.  This has allowed them the freedom to promote the project how they see fit, and they have been so inspired by the response to the album, they are now promising a further two albums of similar material and production to function as a trilogy.  Here's hoping they get working on that idea sooner rather than later, as Electric really puts them back in touch with their energetic side, reminding us why we fell in love with their music in the first place.

Here's a look at current single, "Vocal":