Sunday, October 26, 2014

Art Official Age, by Prince (Album of the Week)

Prince is back with a new album, Art Official Age, jam-packed with Prince’s unique personality and music.  If you don’t particularly like Prince, this album won’t win you over.  If you kind of like Prince, you’ll kind of like this album.  If you are one of the fortunate who recognize and celebrate Prince’s genius in both music and style, then this is an album to enjoy whole-heartedly. 

I’m a fan.  That said, he has released albums that even I cannot listen to.  Silly, self-indulgent, unlistenable crap.  But when Prince is on his game, he brings rhythm, funk and enjoyment, and he is definitely on his game in Art Official Age.

 Get it?  I didn’t catch the word play in the title.  But, then again, I struggle in Mad Gab.

The album is full of his royal silliness.  It starts off with “Art Official Cage”, which includes Danish lines over Prince’s sparkling guitar work.  The message – break out of the cages of the modern world – is borne out by the song’s use of disparate voices (including operatic), sonic references to waterboarding and electronic play.  They’ve never made a cage that encompasses Prince’s creativity, and he shows off from the start.

The next song is yet another sexual romp, broken up by the first example of the occasional concept pieces he includes.  It features a woman’s voice advising Mr. Nelson that he is being awakened from a 45 year suspended animation.  She reappears later in “affirmations”, and it’s part of the weirdness that makes Prince great.  No, they don’t really make a whole lot of sense, and they don’t really lead you to any great enlightenment, but they are Prince, and, if you’re like me, they’re part of the Prince experience. 

The next song is a sweet love song – Breakdown – in which he expresses his disillusionment with the party-life he once led, and thanks the woman who makes him give up his black book of phone numbers.  Solid work, and entirely conventional. 

There’s just a ton of fun on this album.  “The Gold Standard” is classic Prince dance music with the best bass sound around, and Prince’s crisp guitar blending with some great horn work. It’s pure enjoyment.   And so is “U Know”, which follows it on the album, and, for that matter, so is every other song on the album.

Prince is back to being his lewd self in many of these songs, and you can just appreciate how much fun he is having with the music, with the off-the-wall concept pieces, the sexual innuendo and word play.  I understand if Prince is not your cup of tea, but if you’re a fan, this is an album to celebrate.  If I were forced to complain, I would ask that he give us more of his guitar work. 

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin agrees that this album is Prince being Prince, though she complains a bit about the length of some of the songs.  I disagree, but it’s a matter of taste.  Personally, I enjoy all the Prince he chooses to share.

Next up:  Hozier, by Hozier

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Too Blessed to Be Stressed, by Paul Thorn (Album of the Week)

Paul Thorn has guts.  He got into a ring with Roberto Duran and went 6 rounds.  He makes a living touring roadhouses and making people get up and dance to his blend of blues, rock, country, southern rock and gospel.  Whatever he has, he’s earned the hard way, and my hat’s off to him. 

All that said, his latest album shows a quality that often goes along with tremendous guts – poor judgment.  From a guy who portrays himself as a rowdy bad boy with a heart of gold, this album is a bit too full of the heart of gold.  The first three songs are a treacly trio assuring us that “Everything is Going to Be Alright”, praising family reunions with shirts announcing “Too Blessed to be Stressed” and pointing out that “Everybody Needs Somebody.”  And, no, those titles are neither ironic nor mere set-ups for a darker edge. 

Paul Thorn is a charmer, but there has always been an edge to him.  He’s good looking, has a southern accent, and he’s the sort who would win a bar fight and talk the preacher’s wife into going home with him.  His best work portrays a good man struggling with his inner bad nature.  In this album, the good side has mostly won, and you start to wonder if his next song will be about cuddly puppies or snuggly kittens.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin takes a far less jaded eye to the album.  She gushes about how sweet he is, and flat-out challenges anybody to not like him.  She also points out that he is a truly great live performer, which is absolutely true, and reminisces about the first time we saw him at Knucklehead’s.  Perhaps Robin is too darned nice, and actually enjoys sweet, uncomplicated songs about the nice things in life.

In a Rolling Stone interview, here’s what he had to say about the dark place these songs come from: "The songs on Too Blessed to Be Stressed come from little nuggets of wisdom that friends and strangers alike have shared with me," Thorn says. "This project became an opportunity for me to pay it forward."  Good God, my rowdy friend has gone soft.

Some of his later songs reflect the more ambiguous and troubling side of him that I prefer.  “I Backslide on Friday” is a fun, though cutesy confession, and the following break-up song “This is a Real Goodbye” finally includes the phrase “Kiss my ass” to you finally get a song that doesn’t belong in Church more than a roadhouse. 

The worst song on the album is unironically titled “Mediocrity is King.”  It’s a rousing ditty designed to get a crowd to sing along, but it 10 pounds of mediocre in a 5 pound sack.  I realize that the average dolt drinking Bud Light at a roadhouse is going to sing along and shake his fist in the air to lyrics like “Republicans and Democrats are breaking my heart/I can’t tell them sons of bitches apart”, but that sort of pseudo-populist crap just sticks in my craw.  Really, Paul, you can’t tell them apart, in the most divisive political era I’ve lived through?  That’s just stupid. 

The strongest song on that album reflects the “struggling sinner” persona best.  In “Old Stray Dogs and Jesus”, the singer mourns the death of his pot dealer whose head got chopped off by a Mexican cartel.  It’s a good song, and I look forward to seeing him perform it.

Another great song lacks the edge I look for in Paul Thorn songs, but “There’s No Place I’d Rather Be” is a sweet love song, and there’s nothing wrong with that. 

All in all, this is a nice album that is a little too nice, but, with the exception of the moronic political commentary in one song, it’s inoffensive and enjoyable in small doses.  But, by all means, get yourself to one of his shows, and I promise you will be a fan of the live Paul Thorn. 

Next up:  Art Official Age, by Prince

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Songs of Innocence, by U2 (Album of the Week)

U2 is big–time, through and through, and Songs of Innocence is a big-time album.  Bono is a rock star, a colossus, and his band takes itself seriously in a way that nobody else would dare.  Songs of Innocence is a big deal – an important  rock album.

First, look at the way this album was released.  500 million iTunes users woke up to find it in their “purchased music” folder.  Boom – instant universal presence, all over the world, accomplished with corporate wizardry that mass consumers like us can’t even make sense of.  You don’t have to listen to it if you don’t want to, but U2 is a part of your world, a part of your music library, a part of the zeitgeist.

There’s a line in “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now”, a song dedicated to the Clash’s Joe Strummer, that lays it out plainly – “If you won’t let us in your world/Your world just isn’t there.”  The same song features a reference to the fact that the album title is stolen from William Blake, my favorite 18th century poet’s book of poetry, Songs of Innocence and Experience (the link is to Project Gutenberg’s free book – go read and enjoy!) – “We’ve come to colonize your night/And steal your poetry.”

Audacious.  Grandiose.  Big-time. 

This is Bono, the guy who hangs out with the Dalai Lama, the Pope and Nelson Mandela.  He doesn’t play small ball. 

But it’s all meaningless if the album doesn’t deliver something with heart and authenticity.  It’s just celebrity self-parody if the album doesn’t live up to the huge place in the world it was born into.  Bono may have been Time’s Person of the Year, but he also gets quoted on George Clooney’s wedding in People Magazine.

I unabashedly love this album.  The songs are varied – so varied that it almost comes across as one of those tribute albums where different bands play covers of U2’s greatest hits.  Varied, but the album holds together, drawing cohesion from the personal focus of the songs.

The personal focus does not mean that this is a navel-gazing, self-absorbed wankfest, though.  These are songs with resounding, universal themes like love of a lost mother (Iris (Hold Me Close), the discovery of art that speaks to you [The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)] (definitely a Best 10 Songs of 2014), and looking back on your origins (Cedarwood Road).  U2 has an uncanny ability to connect, and it comes through on this album.

My favorite song on the album (yes, another Best 10 Songs of 2014) is Raised by Wolves – a horrifying glimpse into the mind of a friend of the band who witnessed the aftermath of a Christian terrorist attack in Dublin.  Bono sings out that “The worst things in the world are justified by belief” against a refrain of “I don’t believe anymore” and “If I open my eyes you disappear”.  It’s a message of hope amongst the bloodshed, and they released it to 500 million people for free.

U2's aforementioned ability to connect with anyone certainly includes Robin over at Deliberate Obfuscation.  Her appreciation didn't extend to my favorite song, but her perspective was skewed by an unfortunate, though funny, scatological misunderstanding.

Bono and U2 are big-time.  They could step back into the crowd and release an album of well-produced dance tunes.  Instead, they own it, and I admire them for it.

Next up:  Too Blessed to be Stressed, by Paul Thorn