Pearl: 30 Years of Sign ‘O’ The Times

Standard

Prince – Sign ‘O’ The Times

Released March 31st, 1987 on Paisley Park and Warner Bros. Records

RYM: #300

BestEverAlbums: #251

Sign ‘O’ The Times was Prince’s first album after the breakup of The Revolution, and came in the middle of a sort of creative free-for-all.  At the time of the Revolution’s demise, Prince had been working on a Revolution album (Dream Factory) as well as a solo album, Camille, which featured sped-up vocals and an androgynous new persona (named after the album’s title).  After a flurry of activity, recording, and the breakup of the Revolution, Prince had the idea to release all of the above in a 3-LP set called Crystal Ball.  Warner Bros. said no, because they have no sense of humour.

 

Instead, Prince culled down his recordings and released a double-LP set, solo, called Sign ‘O’ The Times.  The album drew in large amounts from both cancelled records.  “Housequake”, “Strange Relationship”, “U Got The Look”, and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” come from Camille and all bear the squeaky, sped-up vocals that Prince was experimenting with on those recordings.  “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and “Starfish And Coffee” were part of the Dream Factory recordings right from the original demos.  In lesser hands, such a hodgepodge of components would have ended up as a gigantic mess, a hymn to overreaching ambition.  Prince, though, comes across on Sign ‘O’ The Times like he knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s going at all times.  Without hyperbole, the album is an encapsulation of everything that went right with pop music in the 1980s.  The drum machine (a Linn LM-1 for the gear nerds among us) is precisely funky, and never comes off as mechanical or stiff.  Prince’s expert sense of in-the-pocket grooves when it comes to bass is on point everywhere, especially on the rather apocalyptic twilight rhythm of the socially conscious title track and the sensual “If I Was Your Girlfriend”.  There’s a decent balance between funk, soul, R&B, and that Eighties brassy pop.  Underneath all of that, however, is evidence (provided on “The Cross” and to an extent on “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”) that Prince played rock ‘n’ roll guitar like a motherfucker.

 

Sign ‘O’ The Times would be the last great Prince album – unless you count The Black Album, which was supposed to be Prince’s followup to Sign ‘O’ The Times until he had a bad trip and became convinced the album was evil.  Instead, he rushed out the half-baked Lovesexy, followed that up with the Batman soundtrack (which was okay as well) and then got into a horrendous, legendary fight with Warner Bros. that saw him change his name into a symbol and churn out a series of rushed albums to get out of his contract with the label (although Love Symbol is honestly pretty decent).  Legend (and Kevin Smith) has it that Prince has a vault of music that could last us all until doomsday, but chances are good that, as far as quality goes, none of it is going to top what Prince was doing on Sign ‘O’ The Times.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Goodnight Prince, 1958-2016

Standard

News has just broken over the internet that Prince Rogers Nelson – better known by his sole artistic name of Prince – has died in his Minnesota mansion at the age of 57.  Although it was originally sourced from TMZ – and therefore was suspect – Prince’s publicist has confirmed it just now via Twitter.

Prince was, to put it simply, a pop music legend.  Hailing from the rather unlikely beginnings of Minneapolis, Prince came to define both the sound of a city and the sound of an era.  Marrying disco, R&B, soul, funk, and rock ‘n’ roll into a signature brew all his own, Prince scored a series of best-selling albums throughout the 1980s:  PrinceDirty MindControversy, and 1999 were classics with his backing band The Revolution, and 1987’s Sign O’ The Times was a massive solo hit, both commercially and critically.   Besides his music, he is also well-known for being a controversial figure in the music industry.  In 1993, sick of the machinations of his record label, Warner Bros., he changed his name into an unpronounceable symbol and wrote the word “SLAVE” on his forehead before a prominent performance at the Brit Awards in 1995.  He also banged out a large amount of material in a very short time in order to break himself out of his record contract, a tactic made possible by the fact that he was more prolific than the next fifteen musicians combined (excluding perhaps only Robert Pollard).

Now that he has passed on, that prolific nature will keep his name alive into the time of my grandchildren.  Rumours of the insanely large size of his unreleased vault have abounded for years, and now that he’s died that vault will inevitably be opened and plundered for the wealth contained therein.  Regardless of what comes out of there, however, he will always be best known for his creation of the post-disco sound of the early 1980s, which gave birth to the pop sound of the rest of the decade.  It’s rare that one actually gets to use this line legitimately, but:  Goodnight, sweet prince.

 

Mark Ronson – Uptown Special

Standard

Mark Ronson – Uptown Special

The UK producer gets intimate with the funk of the Seventies and Eighties on his fourth album, weaving thumping bass lines under stacks of, uh, Stax guitar, horny synth work, and a laundry list of guest stars ranging from the supreme (Stevie Wonder, Bruno Mars) to the unknown (Keyone Starr, whose “I Can’t Lose” more than holds its own coming after megahit “Uptown Funk”).  Uptown Special is the soundtrack of a night of liquor and love, from the sax-fuelled sunset of “Uptown’s First Finale” to the bleary stumble out into the dawn of “Crack In The Pearl, Pt II” – a pretty standard conceit, to be sure, but how many such albums have lyrics written by Michael “The Yiddish Policeman’s Club” Chabon?  It’s these little quirks – “I wrote to Stevie Wonder and now he’s on the album!”, “I have Michael Chabon write the lyrics!”, “I have Mystikal conjuring up the ghost of James Brown!” – that elevate the album from simple Prince worship to something a little more sublime.  Not too sublime, now; there’s something unpleasantly languid about tracks like “Daffodils” and “In Case of Fire” that don’t gel well with the ass-shaking bottom end present elsewhere, and at times it seems like Ronson couldn’t decide whether to make a pure party album or a pure sex-jam album so he decided to do both simultaneously.  That decision doesn’t quite work, but it almost does, and it’s as funky a pop album as you’re going to find all summer anyway.  Better get used to it.