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Review: Prince, Sign ‘O’ the Times

The album’s through line can be found in the juxtaposition of two songs and the resolution to be found in a third.

5.0

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Prince, Sign 'O' the Times

Most of Prince’s double albums (and the triples and the quadruples) make even his staunchest fans occasionally want to shriek, “Shut up, already! Damn!” The extended bouts of foreplay that made perfect sense during Prince’s heyday of sexual conquests clearly lapsed into a more tiresome form of purgatorial pilgrimage as he cocooned himself into the Artist. And it’s not even like we needed hours upon hours of thrust and grind to grasp his tantric endurance. He used to make it so much easier to take him at his lascivious word. After all, didn’t his first major critical breakthrough come, contrary to his boasts that he wanted to “Do It All Night,” via Dirty Mind’s 30 scant minutes?

So while Emancipation made one nostalgic for slavery, and Crystal Ball’s gleaming high points had to fight their way through the cloudy haze of the Carmen Electra years, Sign ’O’ the Times is an almost too-convenient double-disc blowout of sweat, funk, and raw, concentrated talent. I say too convenient because of how easy it has apparently proven for so many to use the album as some sort of last chapter on Prince: the good years (or, more to the point, the Prince and the Revolution years, since the album’s penultimate jam “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” was the band’s last), absolving themselves from tackling the landmine-strewn but still rewarding aftermath. Anyone who refuses the playful self-awareness of the Love Symbol album, the expulsively dark majesty of Come, or the gorgeous (self-)loathing of “I Hate U”—or, for that matter, refuses to dance to his pre-rock pre-history including “Just As Long As We’re Together,” an atmospheric disco odyssey worthy of the Loft’s heyday—has probably never contemplated a strange relationship, much less ventured beyond the missionary position.

For an 80-minute album that sounds, paradoxically, as tight and focused as anything Prince has released, Sign ’O’ the Times was born from a number of stalled projects and should have, by all rights, sounded like a bloated set of B-sides. (Not that a collection of his unreleased material from this project wouldn’t still be a monster classic. Had he managed to find a platform for the technoid funk of “Data Bank” and “The Line,” that alone would’ve presaged the electronica boom of the 1990s.) In fact, when the project went by the temp title Crystal Ball (a title he would later reuse in the 1990s to collect, among other things, some of the tracks that didn’t make Sign ’O’ the Times), it actually did stretch to as many as six LP sides. A number of tracks were culled from prospective releases Dream Factory (itself a multi-disc) and Camille, an entire album featuring Prince singing with that pitched-up voice made famous in “Erotic City”; think Parliament’s Sir Nose wearing a white lace garter belt. While nearly every track involved in the creation of Sign ’O’ the Times has seen the light of day (or at least the darker corners of file-sharing hideouts), and some would’ve been highlights in any context (“Joy In Repetition” springs to mind—repeatedly), Prince managed to whittle his mountains of material into something like a statement.

Better than that even. If the album’s title track-cum-opening salvo reduces Prince’s mission down to a few headlines that apparently happened to catch his eye the day he went in to record, the remainder finds him writing the Encyclopedia Shockedelica. It’s a manifesto that would require an entire monograph to unpack (Michaelangelo Matos’s monograph for Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, to be exact). Among the bullet points are the leftover rah-rah of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” (written as early as 1982), the itchy funk inferno of “Housequake,” the club afterglow of “U Got the Look” (I’ve been dodging ugly lights ever since), and the indescribable oddity that is “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” which, to the best of my understanding, is about how men seldom make passes at girls with loose asses.

But the album’s through line can be found in the juxtaposition of two songs and the resolution to be found in a third. 1999 fired a warning shot that made the refrain from “Let’s Go Crazy” (“I’m excited and I don’t know why/Maybe it’s ’cause we’re all going to die”) inevitable, but Sign ’O’ the Times practically opens the seventh seal, bringing down upon Prince’s signature Minneapolis sound an apocalyptic housequake. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the critics cottoned so enthusiastically to the album—it reversed his slip into the no-traction psychedelia of Around the World In a Day and Parade. No song makes that more painfully clear than “It.” “I think about it baby all the time,” howls Prince in the song’s rigid opening moments. Although he’s not talking about Pennywise the Clown, the intensity in his vocals and the spare, horror-show synth stabs that rip into an otherwise unadorned, snare-heavy rhythm track suggest something worse. In “It,” Prince confronts the possibility that his sex life that has been so good to him previously is now in danger of becoming his worst, most all-consuming enemy. Somewhere, Trent Reznor’s drawing board was receiving the first drafts of a pretty hate machine.

In the wake of this career-altering discovery, Prince emerges with a newfound clarity. As a result, the gender-neutrality that was at the start of his career played for cheek gets a total overhaul, resulting in what is likely the best and most provocative single in Prince’s entire career. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is familiar in that it’s a sex opus told in the second person, but many of the gender reference points for the song’s narrator are missing or contradicted. Is this the song of a hetero male wishing he were a woman so that he could achieve intimacy with another woman while her guard is down? Would that make him a lesbian? Is it instead the song of a homo male pining for an unavailable hetero male? Is that why so much of this fantasy involves otherwise pedestrian domestic chores like cooking and dressing up, mundane indulgences just out of reach? Complicating matters is the fact that “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is one of the songs on Sign ’O’ the Times in which Prince sings as Camille, ostensibly a woman. The androgynous vertigo of the lyrics are complemented by half-speed clap samples, steamy, growling synthesizer chords somewhere in the next room and a bassline so filtered it’s practically treble. Musically speaking, the track is buck nekkid.

These two poles—the tormented, out-of-control heterosexuality of “It” and the delirious, woozy every-other-sexuality of “If I Was Your Girlfriend”—are settled in the album’s enraptured (emphatically heterosexual) coda “Adore,” a slow jam that radiates the confidence of a man who dared to question his sexuality. A man who pondered and solved the romantic equation and also showed his work. Who is man enough to admit he would rather you don’t smash up his ride but, that said, will beg for love in as high a falsetto as he can muster? No chorus, no verse, “Adore” is no more and no less than an escalating testament to a newfound understanding of romantic bliss. Sign ’O’ the Times begins a fragmented mess, sifting through the wreckage of a shuttle explosion and the AIDS crisis, but it ends with a singular baptismal flourish.

Label: Warner Bros. Release Date: August 19, 2007 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Yola’s Walk Through Fire Feels Like a Musical Time Capsule

The British soul singer’s debut seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969.

3.5

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Walk Through Fire
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen/Nonesuch

Everything about Yola’s debut, Walk Through Fire, seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969—from the album cover, with its muted color palette and chunky vintage fonts, to the musical arrangements, which mix baroque-pop signifiers like glockenspiel and pizzicato strings with more timeless organ and pedal steel. The album’s session musicians are of a similar vintage: Drummer Gene Chrisman and pianist Bobby Wood are both veterans of the house band from American Sound Studio in Memphis, ground zero for Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis.

It’s tempting to ascribe this studious retro sensibility to producer Dan Auerbach, whose 2017 solo album, Waiting on a Song, treaded similar territory with some of the same musicians. But Yola, whose colorful backstory includes a brief stint with trip-hoppers Massive Attack, has a voice that lends itself to the analogue treatment: rich and mellifluous, adept at both caressing the melodies of a lilting ballad like “Shady Grove” and blowing the roof off of a belter like “Lonely the Night.” The British singer simply sounds like the product of another era, closer in spirit to the likes of Mavis Staples than to 21st-century R&B stylists like SZA.

If Through the Fire sounds like it’s from 1969, that’s because the late ‘60s were the golden era of country-soul, when a small but significant group of artists, songwriters, and producers were blurring the boundaries between working-class black and white roots music. Yola, who’s cited Dolly Parton as a crucial influence, is right at home in this space, sounding as natural singing atop the fiddles and pedal steel of lead single “Ride Out in the Country” as she does over the organ and horn section of “Still Gone.” The ease with which Yola, Auerbach, and their collaborators blend these genres is a powerful reminder of their shared roots—particularly at a time when musical styles feel at once more amorphous and more rigidly segregated than ever.

While Through the Fire’s facsimile of ‘60s country-soul is uncanny, the sturdiness of its songcraft is even more impressive. Yola and Auerbach composed the majority of the album with seasoned songwriters—most notably Dan Penn, who as the co-writer of standards like “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” played no small role in the creation of country-soul as a genre. None of the songs on Through the Fire are of quite that caliber, and some feel like they’re trying too hard to be: The subject matter of “Ride Out in the Country” is a bit too bucolically on the nose, while a few stray lyrical references to “across the great divide” and “love [is] a losing game” come across as distracting tips of the hat to more canonical—and, frankly, better—songs. But on tracks like “Keep Me Here” and “It Ain’t Easier,” Yola seems capable of not only expertly mimicking the sounds of the past, but also creating something that will itself stand the test of time.

Label: Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch Release Date: February 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Signs Points to Better Times Ahead

The band’s raw, crowd-pleasing blues-rock remains as rousing as ever on Signs.

3.5

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Signs
Photo: Shore Fire Media

Tedeschi Trucks Band’s raw brand of blues-rock is a thrilling resurrection of bygone genres endemic to the southeastern United States, and they play with the freewheeling improvisatory energy of hallowed country-rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, and Black Oak Arkansas. The group’s sound hasn’t noticeably evolved since their 2011 debut, Revelator, but their craft—particularly the electrifying, full-throated howl of singer Susan Tedeschi—remains as rousing as ever on their fourth album, Signs.

Lead single “Hard Case” fuses Americana, Memphis soul, and New Orleans swamp funk to tell the story of lovers who can’t quit each other. Tedeschi’s wails seamlessly intertwine with Matt Mattison’s gruff warble. “You’re a hard case to refuse,” Tedeschi sings, her voice tinged with both overwhelming desire and a creeping sense of self-doubt. Like most Tedeschi Trucks songs, “Hard Case” attempts to capture the blistering kinetic energy of the band’s live performances, and it mostly succeeds: The drums pummel, the solos meander, and the guitars, expertly played by Tedeschi’s husband, Derek Trucks, unexpectedly leap forward.

“Hard Case” is the closest Signs comes to matching the unbridled dynamism of “Part of Me,” a soaring standout from 2013’s Made Up My Mind. Yet the album also contains a handful of irrepressible trad-rock jams that allow Tedeschi’s vocals to take center stage, as on the Motown-inspired “I’m Gonna Be There” and “They Don’t Shine.” On “Walk Through This Life,” her voice veers from exuberant and unrestrained to subtle and declarative, yet it never loses its luster, evoking, at turns, that of Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and Gladys Knight.

Many Americana outfits have become sociopolitical observers in the Trump era, and Tedeschi Trucks Band is no different. “Signs, Hard Times” is a blue-eyed soul rave-up that calls on bystanders to get off the sidelines in a time when passivity amounts to complicity. “No more fooling around,” Tedeschi shouts, urging us to take action before it’s too late. Yet, at times, their activist message comes off as stilted. “Shame, there’s poison in the well/Shame, you know we can’t un-ring the bell,” Tedeschi proclaims on “Shame.” It’s a well-intentioned but ultimately shallow truism—a lyric that states the obvious without offering any solutions.

At their best, the songs on Signs bristle with a kind of wide-eyed optimism. On “Still Your Mind,” Tedeschi seems to sum up the album’s mission: “You’re not alone/So many people feel that low/But I’ll help you grow.” While not without its flaws, Signs heals in this way. It’s often so joyous and spirited that, for a moment, it’s easy to envision better times ahead.

Label: Fantasy Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Ariana Grande Embraces Her Flaws on Thank U, Next

The pop princess comes off as a decidedly unsympathetic character throughout her fifth album.

3.5

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Thank U, Next
Photo: Republic Records

Ariana Grande doesn’t care if you like her. The pop princess comes off as a decidedly unsympathetic character throughout her fifth album, Thank U, Next. She fantasizes about her ex while her lover sleeps beside her on “Ghostin,” she picks fights with him for the make-up sex on “Make Up,” and she glibly coaxes a guy into dumping his girlfriend just for kicks on the plainly titled “Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.”

As Grande recently proclaimed on Twitter, “Life is full trash,” and it’s this willingness to reveal herself warts and all that makes it easy to forgive her various indiscretions. She isn’t afraid to admit that she’s “Needy” and—on the very next track—that she simultaneously requires her personal space. “Been through some bad shit, I should be a sad bitch/Who woulda thought it’d turn me to a savage?” she declares on “7 Rings,” which finds the singer boasting of her financial prowess in the key of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.”

Today’s pop stars typically rely on rappers to deliver the kind of braggadocious verses that would otherwise dirty up their squeaky-clean personas, but Grande spits her own rhymes throughout Thank U, Next, and they’re so slick that Princess Nokia and Soulja Boy have both accused her of biting their flows. There are no guest rappers on this decidedly lean follow-up to last year’s Sweetener, and while one might expect it to be filled with at least a few stale leftovers from that album, the songs here rarely sound like sloppy seconds.

Thank U, Next is easily Grande’s most sonically consistent effort to date, even if that means some of the album’s sleek R&B tracks tend to blur together. Aside from a wealth of trap beats and finger snaps, the album’s most notable characteristic is the recurring use of orchestral flourishes. The opening track, “Imagine,” is a dreamy midtempo ballad, with Grande pining for an Instagram-perfect romance that comprises sharing sexy baths and pad thai. The song takes a sudden turn in its final third, as it builds to a hypnotic climax filled with cinematic swells and Grande’s euphoric, Minnie Ripperton-esque whistle notes.

That same tactic makes slightly less thematic sense on the reggae-inflected “Bad Idea,” on which Grande espouses the temporarily amnesiac virtues of casual sex. Elsewhere, the use of a sample by the late soul singer Wendy Rene on “Fake Smile” initially smacks of misappropriation, followed as it is by seemingly mindless lines like “Another night, another party, sayin’ hi to everybody.” But by the end, the song reveals itself to be a modern expression of the blues, about a young woman trying to navigate life in an era where privacy is virtually nonexistent. Grande ultimately earns the use of that sample, and it’s her refusal to fake a smile that proves to be what makes her so damn likeable.

Label: Republic Release Date: February 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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