For reasons too complicated to go into here, I’ve been listening to some ‘80s radio lately.
I love ‘80s music. I love that thick, gated snare drum sound. I love those gloopy synthesizers slathered over everything. I love the pulse of synth bass, and the alien way vocals were processed then. I love the idea that producers at that time thought they were being futuristic, when in fact they were sealing their works in a time capsule, dating them forever. And I also love that you can hear a great song through all of that anyway.
But even amidst the best that decade had to offer, Prince stands out. When a Prince song flits its way into one of those radio playlists, it’s not only instantly recognizable as his work, it’s completely different from whatever the song-selecting robot has placed it next to. Prince’s mix of ‘60s pop, ‘70s funk and soul and ‘80s computer rock would be enough on its own to distinguish his songs, but he adds this indefinable Prince-ness to everything he does. For all the talk of him defining the era, no other artist – ‘80s or otherwise – has ever sounded quite like him.
It’s no surprise that Prince is still putting out music some 30 years after his most praised period, nor is it a surprise that the vast majority of that music is very, very good. In fact, it’s often more surprising when Prince makes a so-so record, as he has done a few times in the past decade. After surging back with Musicology in 2004, he made five discs of varying quality, and saddled some of them with bizarre release strategies. The pretty-good Lotusflower and MPLSound albums were packaged together with a terrible album by protégé Bria Valente and made available only at Target. The much better 20Ten was only available in the UK and Ireland as a free insert with the Daily Mirror, so almost no one on this side of the pond heard it.
This is nothing new for Prince. It’s always been confusing to me unpacking which music he wants heard and which he seems to want kept under wraps. But when he makes a bold move, like re-signing with Warner Bros. and putting out two albums at once, it usually means we should pay attention. Prince hasn’t issued a new album on Warner since 1996, and at that time he was still writing SLAVE on his face in lipstick and going by an unpronounceable symbolic moniker. That seems like forever ago, and while it doesn’t really matter what label he’s on, I’m glad time has healed this wound because it means I can just hop down to the record store and buy these new albums without hunting for them.
And I’m pleased to report that Prince is still Prince, wherever he hangs his sparkly purple hat. Neither of these new albums are groundbreaking works, but they’re both solid and worthy efforts that should remind people what a stone cold genius the man is. Both are collaborations with his new backing band, 3rdEyeGirl, a trio of fine singers and musicians. Art Official Age is the pop record, credited just to Prince, and Plectrum Electrum is the rock record, credited just to 3rdEyeGirl. (Yes, even with his major label comeback records, he found a way to be confounding.)
Art Official Age is the most familiar-sounding. It’s chock full of Prince-pop beats, soulful sex jams, portentous ballads and his one-of-a-kind arrangement sense. Opener “Art Official Cage” would sound insane next to anything on the radio these days, with its quick-step beat, nimble funk guitar, weird vocal effects and head-spinning structure. It’s pure Prince, and while the album rarely gets that dizzying again, it sets the tone. The next track, “Clouds,” is a simple pop delight, the kind that Prince has excelled at since his earliest days, but then the sci-fi monologue about cryogenic sleep comes in out of nowhere, and you know exactly whose music you’re listening to.
That narrative winds its way through Art Official Age, but thankfully it never drags down the silky-smooth music on offer. “Breakdown” is one of the best ballads Prince has penned in the past decade, and it makes full use of his falsetto, still an astonishingly supple instrument. “The Gold Standard” is a six-minute funk workout, “What It Feels Like” is reminiscent of Prince’s ‘90s material (with a little New Jack flavor), and “Breakfast Can Wait” is the sexiest song about… well, see for yourself: “Hotcakes smothered in honey, I’m gonna have to pass, fresh cup of coffee, no, I gotta have you in my glass…”
Amidst all of this, “Way Back Home” is remarkably confessional – it may be part of the show, but it strikes me as one of the most personal songs he’s ever given us. “I never wanted a typical life, scripted role, trophy wife, all I ever wanted was to be left alone… trying to find my way back home.” The music is dark and lovely, and the 3rdEyeGirl backing vocals take it to another level. It’s a definite highlight on an album that can stand with some of Prince’s best work, and rises above much of his recent material.
Both Art Official Age and Plectrum Electrum contain “Funknroll,” a featherweight ditty that only serves to highlight the different approaches each album takes. The AOA version is a dance-y stomper, with processed vocals and big keyboard sounds. The 3rdEyeGirl version strips it down to guitars, bass and drums, and has a tremendous time rocking it out. Just about all of Plectrum Electrum follows suit, and if you want proof that Prince is a guitar hero in the classic mold, just listen to this.
Prince has had a lot of bands over his career, from the Revolution to the New Power Generation, but he’s never had one as focused as 3rdEyeGirl. Guitarist Donna Grantis, bassist Ida Nelson and drummer Hannah Ford Welton are good, solid, straightforward players, and with Prince at the fore, they jam like the Jimi Hendrix Experience in a particularly funky mood. Opener “Wow” is a bit of a mid-tempo crawl, but “Pretzelbodylogic” showcases this new band well – check out Nelson’s bass licks and Welton’s tasty fills, and how they seem to energize Prince’s playing.
The three 3rdEyeGirlers all sing – I don’t know which one takes lead on “Ain’t Turnin’ Round,” but she has a bold and brassy voice. Taking the pressure of vocals off of Prince has allowed him to focus on his guitar, and damn. Damn. There are two instrumentals on here, including the kickass title track, and on them, you can really hear how good Prince is. If this is his version of a bar band, these songs are the ones that flip the stools over and set the place on fire. The rawness of most of this record sets something like “Stop This Train,” a more traditional Prince tune with electronic drums, in sharp relief. The record would have been better without it.
Thankfully, that’s a rare occurrence. Most of Plectrum Electrum is spent reveling in this new band, and the melodic funk heroics at the core of its sound. Even the slower tunes, like “Tic Tac Toe” and “Another Love,” have a bluesy, organic vibe to them. While Art Official Age is Prince being Prince, and doing so masterfully, Plectrum Electrum really feels like the work of a band, and while it’s not groundbreaking stuff, it’s good to hear him in a setting like this. Both of these new records stand up tall amidst the man’s legacy, and given how mammoth that legacy is, that’s saying something. His name is Prince, and even now, nearly 40 years after his first record, he is still funky.
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Speaking of the ‘80s, one of the most interesting records of that decade is now available in a brand new, sparkling remastered edition. It’s also one of the most ignored records of the ‘80s, one which only a few people heard. This has always struck me as criminal – it’s an album that can stand with the best that the new wave movement had to offer, one with remarkable depth and thematic heft wrapped up in a snarky, deliriously creative outer skin.
The album I’m talking about is Doppelganger, the 1983 release from California quartet Daniel Amos. Those who know DA know that they were one of the most important bands to the then-burgeoning Christian rock movement, and that association has largely kept them from getting the attention they deserve. Daniel Amos mastermind Terry Taylor is one of the most interesting songwriters I have ever encountered, and his vast, expansive catalog – with DA, the Swirling Eddies, the Lost Dogs and on his own – will probably remain unheralded.
I’ve done my best to change that in my little corner of the world. To me, Terry Taylor and Daniel Amos are Important, and everyone with even a passing interest in great, weighty music with an ‘80s sheen should hear Doppelganger. It’s the second volume of the Alarma Chronicles, a four-album set of sci-fi-inspired dissertations on the Reagan era, and probably the most bizarre. It certainly rocks the hardest – the band was more tentative on Alarma, and surrendered completely to synthesizers on Vox Humana. But on Doppelganger, they let loose.
The album’s theme is duality, in the form of masks we wear, lies we tell, and artificial walls we construct between ourselves and others. Opener “Hollow Man” is actually a song from the last album played backwards, to set that ball rolling. “Mall (All Over the World)” is about living in a plastic world: “How come you’re sad, how come you cry, when golden arches cross your sky?” The album artwork is full of mannequins and masks, and the songs explore that artificiality. “Real Girls” asks where those titular women are amongst a bevy of fake ones on TV and films (and don’t worry, Taylor indicts men as well), while the hilarious “New Car” takes televangelists and snake oil salesmen to task, outing their real financial motivation.
All these songs are pretty amazing, but I would highlight the pummeling “Youth With a Machine,” a song that sums up much of the ‘80s for me, and the spastic “Memory Lane,” about someone who takes too many trips down that road. “Distance and Direction” is remarkably beautiful, with its Brian Wilson vocal arrangements, and it stands in contrast with the angry final third. The slash-and-burn trilogy of “Little Crosses,” “Autographs for the Sick” and “I Didn’t Build It for Me” obliterate the likes of Jerry Falwell and the whole notion of ministry as a business. Hearing Taylor spit and snarl his way through these tunes brings a grin to my face.
But I’m most moved by the final song, barring a reprise of “Hollow Man.” “Here I Am,” true to its title, finds Taylor dropping all the masks in an attempt to connect with his audience. It explores the question of whether the listener can ever truly know the band through its music, and in its choruses, aims for true human moments as a way of testing that idea. “You want an autograph, what is your need? Mine is for you to know that I really bleed, here I am, I’m crying…” It’s a marvelous capper to Taylor’s album-length theme, and the song is a delight.
The new remaster sounds incredible – sharp and clear and brilliant – and I will admit to smiling wide when I saw that the second disc is a doppelganger of the first. It’s every song from the main album, in sequence, in an alternate version. Most of these are curiosities, but if you love this band like I do, they’re revelatory. I’m especially glad to have an isolated vocal mix for “Distance and Direction,” one that allows me to hear each glorious harmony. You don’t really need the doppel-Doppelganger, but it’s neat to have.
You do need Doppelganger, though. It’s a vicious, sharp, hummable, extraordinary record, and it’s due for a serious critical appraisal. While no one was watching them, Daniel Amos made magic again and again. (Last year’s Dig Here, Said the Angel is proof that they’re still making it.) Perhaps that was the secret to their success – you can do more in obscurity than you can with the eyes of the world on you. Still, I would love to see more love for Terry Taylor’s catalog. I’m glad to see the band investing in these double-disc reissues. Doppelganger is a masterpiece, like so many of DA’s records, and it more than deserves this lovely re-release. I hope it gets more people to listen.
Daniel Amos can be found online here.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.