Two For Tuesday
Come Back to Prince and Discover Spymob

I heard the new Cure song this week. It sucks.

And that’s all I have to say about that. The self-titled new album comes out June 22, and if it taints the legacy that Bloodflowers would have left as the final Cure album, I will be mighty pissed off.

Lots of releases have been announced since last time I reported on them, and here are some more I’m looking forward to:

Underrated synth-popper Joy Electric (who is Ronnie Martin) returns with an album (Hello Mannequin) and an EP (Friend of Mannequin) on June 1. I have been lax in reviewing Martin’s work, and I plan on rectifying that sometime after the new stuff hits. Two weeks later, the Beastie Boys deliver an honest-to-gosh hip hop album with To the Five Boroughs, which includes the carbon-copy single “Ch-Check It Out.” If you never liked the Beasties, you probably still won’t.

Same goes for Phish, who will release Undermind on June 15. They worked with pop producer Tchad Blake for this one. A week later we’ll see Brian Wilson’s first solo album since Imagination in 1998. It’s called Gettin’ In Over My Head, and as good as it may be, it will probably be overshadowed by the long-awaited unveiling of the Beach Boys’ Smile album later this year. If you don’t know what that is, or why people would be excited about it, then I don’t know what to say except read up.

There are more, including records from Wilco, Old 97s and Bill Mallonee, but I’m tired this week, so let’s get on with the main event:

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The career of the man called Prince has been a fascinating one to follow. He’s always teetering back and forth between pop star and idiosyncratic (yet brilliant) oddball, and it’s rare that his commercial and artistic tendencies line up these days. Oh sure, during the ‘80s, he could get away with anything – there are very few multiple-times-platinum albums as daring as Sign O the Times – but the ‘90s were a different story. It was during the grunge years that Prince discovered he could no longer make any kind of record he wanted and still please his label, and thus began a decade and a half of veering from one extreme to the other.

Hindsight makes recent history seem like a war between Prince, Darling of the Radio and Prince, Maverick Supergenius. His troubles began when he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and began painting the word “slave” on his face, true enough, but they were only exacerbated when he split from Warner Bros. and released Emancipation in 1996. Here was three hours, three single albums’ worth, of incredibly accessible material, which Prince made sure no one would buy by releasing it all in one big chunk with a $30 price tag.

He stayed maverick for a while, putting out great stuff like The Truth (idiotically packaged as the “bonus disc” in the four-CD Crystal Ball, and I know I mention this every time, but it still baffles me), and he was on an artistic high when he came crawling back to the major labels in 1999. His bid for reigniting his popularity was Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, a tepid turd of an album that received 20 times the marketing push of Emancipation. People bought it. People hated it. Prince went independent again.

And he put out The Rainbow Children, a classic jazz-funk-prog album of sheer genius, which no one heard. Since then, he’s released some terrific pop-funk stuff through his website, thus ensuring that the radio-friendly material would never hit radio. Instead of releasing that style of music to stores, he pushed NEWS, an hour-long instrumental jam session, into the market. No one bought it.

And now, after eight years of seemingly trying to maintain his obscurity, Prince has exploded back into the spotlight with a monster tour and some high-profile appearances. One would expect, then, that the new album around which all this hype should coalesce would be awful. That would be only fitting, only true to form. Get everyone excited about listening to Prince again and then hit them with something impenetrable, or something dumbed down and unlistenable. That would be just like Prince.

But holy crap, Batman. The album’s pretty damn good. Musicology, Prince’s 26th (!) record, marks the first time in ages that it’s all come together for him. This is not a 75-minute fusion experiment about Jehovah’s Witnesses, nor is it a three-hour collection of outtakes, nor is it a watered-down stab at commerciality. This is a great Prince album for the masses, a concise (48 minutes), funky, superbly played record that deserves the wave of popularity it’s riding. And major label Columbia is here to make sure everyone hears it.

Okay, so first, while Prince may be qualified to teach Musicology, he could use a few classes in packagingology. The album’s nifty-looking half-size overlay never stays closed, the spine text is upside down, and the booklet is only held in by the shrink wrap. As soon as you unwrap it, the book falls right out, and there’s no pocket or flap or anything to return it to. It’s frustrating. But hell, don’t let it detract from your enjoyment of the album itself.

Much has been made of Prince’s return to his “classic” sound here, but the elements in question are all superficial – a tinny drum sound here, a synth noise there. Prince has never really stopped sounding like this, but on Musicology, he’s just plain better at it than he’s been in some time. He’s sharpened his focus here, and stripped away the concepts and flourishes. There are dozens of pop-rock tunes like “A Million Days” all over his catalog, but somehow this one sounds more Prince-like than most of them. Ditto the soul ballad “Call My Name” – he’s done maybe 30 songs just like this one, but it clicks this time, and clicks beautifully.

Prince has always tried to elevate pop music into the realms of the spiritual and the political, and it hasn’t always turned out well for him. On Musicology, though, it all works. He knowingly cops Neil Young’s title for “Cinnamon Girl,” turning in a charming guitar-pop song with peacenik lyrics, and he delivers a mini-rant on “Dear Mr. Man” that will even have the song’s targets clapping along. Compared to the head trips of Lovesexy and The Rainbow Children, these are softballs, granted, but they infuse Musicology with a conscience and a complexity missing from Prince’s recent stabs at pop radio.

In the end, though, this is just another really good Prince album. As usual, weak tracks are few – only “Life of the Party” is without merit – and the performances are excellent. There’s a long line of these now, and while some are easier than others to absorb, it’s my hope that kids introduced to Prince though Musicology will explore his catalog and uncover some of those forgotten albums that dropped between 1990 and now. It would be easy to call this a comeback, but Prince is right – he never went away. This is just a fortunate alignment of a big label, a great album and an interested public, and that, at least, has definitely been a long time coming.

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I have long maintained that the unexpected discovery is the best part of following new music. At least once a year, I hear something new, something brilliant, that I never would have found if not for my obsessive buying habits. I’m thinking of instituting a new category in the Top 10 List, something like Discovery of the Year, and if I end up doing that, then I already have a likely winner for 2004. They’re called Spymob, and their album Sitting Around Keeping Score is too much fun.

Spymob, you may know, is the backing band for N.E.R.D., that overhyped project launched by the Neptunes. This association has already proven to be something of a detriment to Spymob, because on their own, they sound nothing like the slinky rap-funk proffered by N.E.R.D. In fact, many critics have derided Sitting Around Keeping Score for hitting different musical notes, and the reason is obvious – N.E.R.D. sounds modern, street, and sexy. Spymob, by contrast, is an old-fashioned bunch of pop-rockers who take the time to actually write songs. N.E.R.D. is of the now. Spymob, to these ears, sounds timeless.

It doesn’t hurt that they take several cues from Ben Folds and his Five, tossing the piano lines about and writing lyrics full of bratty smirk. “2040” kicks things off with a funky intro and lyrics about a cliched future. “It Gets Me Going” might be the best song ever written from a dog’s point of view, with a thumping piano chorus and lovely falsetto verses. “National Holidays” is a sprightly little song with an unexpected kick – it’s a tragedy about divorced parents and unfair visitation rights.

The whole album pumps along at a brisk pace, except for the one moment of quiet beauty – a song called “I Still Live at Home.” The song is about Internet dating while co-habiting with one’s parents, and here frontman John Ostby has a chance to be sarcastic and mean, especially on lines like, “If things did get serious it would be convenient to walk right up the stairs and have you meet my folks.” But he plays it straight, and the song is full of desperate empathy.

It’s so refreshing to hear bands like Spymob, who come at this music thing with wit, literacy, charm and heart, and most importantly, well-written songs. Those are the qualities to which I’m always most drawn, and Spymob has joined a long line of groups in my collection (like Sloan, Jellyfish and Human Radio) with similar strengths. Undoubtedly, Sitting Around Keeping Score will end up being the discovery of the year, because records like this one don’t come around all that often, and the chances of finding two CDs by unknown bands this good in 2004 are too tiny to contemplate.

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I owe Dr. Tony Shore a big debt for turning me on to Spymob. He’s an accomplished music commentator himself, and he runs a website called Obvious Pop. Check it out. (He also thinks that Fish is a better singer than Steve Hogarth, but we can’t expect him to be right all the time…)

Next week, the new Magnetic Fields.

See you in line Tuesday morning.