This left-over compilation of outtakes from Prince's years with WARNER BROS. sounds more committed than a lot of his indie releases of recent vintage. Using members of the swinging bands that backed him on DIAMONDS & PEARLS and 0(+> Prince teases out leisurely, unforced grooves that shimmer with horny horns, cascading keyboard waterfalls, and on-the-one grit. It's a welcome stopgap for long-suffering loyalists. B+|
Not everything he does is touched by genius.
While it's true that Prince has without question made some of the
most inspired and exhilarating music of the past two decades, he's
also made plenty that's simply average. And either by virtue of the
enigmatic and relentlessly prolific Artist himself (those three and four
CD sets of new and archival material are beginning to wear on the
patience and the pocketbook) or at the behest of his former record
label, Warner Bros. (whose insistence on Prince's satisfying all his
contractual obligations has brought us the set in question), we're
destined to sift through piles and piles of the stuff in search of a
diamond here, a few pearls there.
The Vault's chintzy packaging is the first tip-off this is little more than a quick cash grab. The minimal liner notes peg the material in the set as being recorded between 1985 and 1994, commenting that it was "originally intended 4 private use only."
Better it had stayed that way. Clocking in at less than 40 minutes, The Vault contains a mishmash of styles - jazz, blues, rock, and pop, which prove that, yes, Prince can pretty much do whatever he pleases stylistically. But the tunes are hardly his best of the period and would have each been only minor tracks on any of his albums had they seen the light of day before now.
Dyed in the wool Symbolmaniacs have probably heard this material already on the numerous Prince bootlegs that are available (the Purple One's Paisley Park Studios are notoriously leaky), while the rest of us are left to shake our heads in disgust as the little guy's legacy gets watered down even further.
Wall Of Sound
Remember when a Prince album was still an event? You'll have to cast your mind back a few years, to a time before he started
changing his name and becoming preoccupied with the corporate machinations of the record industry than with making music. |
The material gathered on The Vault is at least partially from the Marvellous Midget's heyday, since it begins at the start of 1985 (after Purple Rain) and runs through to the dodgier dateline of mid-1995, when Prince had turned into a funny symbol and was releasing the Beautiful Experience EP. But dates notwithstanding, the 10 tracks here present a different side of Prince from the one he chose to expose to public view.
The album was, apparently, 'originally intended for private use only' and often the mood is more like the atmosphere of one of his celebrated post-concert jam sessions than of whatever image-makeover he happened to be promoting at the time. Here, Prince avoids the frequently distressing forays into hip-hop and rap which disfig ured many of his later discs, opting instead to stick to the musical roots you sense he always felt happier with soul, funk, R&B and some brief flirtations with modern jazz, notably in the intricate extended guitar soloing of She Spoke 2 Me.
The music was recorded in studios as far-flung as Paris, Tokyo and Los Angeles, with Prince leading a shifting cast of musicians rather than a fixed band, though familiar names like Sheila E and Levi Seacer crop up.
The recording quality is strikingly clean and resonant, leaving bags of space for a barrage of superior contributions on almost any instrument that can be blown, plucked or thwacked. When The Lights Go Down is a slinky, languid exercise in small-hours funk, coloured with splashes of cocktail-jazz piano, tablas and slithery guitar. In Old Friends For Sale, Prince drags a coarse rasp from his voice to fit the luxurious bluesiness of the Gil Evansesque orchestral arrangement. He's back in bluesland on 5 Women, featuring some stinging guitar which might have been nicked from B B King's The Thrill Is Gone.
Prince sounds delighted to be singing about his favourite subject: sex, and loads of it. He has another stab at it in Sarah, a whippy slice of funkiness dripping with rampant libido, and the closest thing to vintage prime-time Prince on offer. These are terrific performances of several powerful tracks, but collectively The Vault sounds like a bunch of oddments. Mostly, it's a reminder of a huge talent which mysteriously went awol.
While "legends" like Stevie Wonder or Bob Dylan or James Brown have had clearly defined periods where they were great and clearly defined
periods where they sucked, Prince has always mixed garbage with greatness. Certainly, between the release of 1999 and Lovesexy it was
more hit than miss; conversely, the period post-Lovesexy has been the era of generally bad albums highlighted by occasional great songs.
However for years, fans have been telling non-fans that decidedly unappealing albums like Graffiti Bridge and Diamonds & Pearls only told
part of the story because the "really good" songs were still locked away. Finally, last year, Prince opened the doors to his legendary "vault" of
unreleased music with the triple disc Crystal Ball. But marred by an absurdly high price tag, the scattershot collection of remixes and subpar
outtakes mixed with a small sampling of truly wonderful music was ultimately disappointing. And the general consensus was that Warner Bros.
was the problem. After all, the big evil record company had made poor Prince a slave and surely held all the best music to release at their
Well, supposedly, The Vault is all they've got. And if this is all they've got, Prince really is a big jerk for foisting Crystal Ball on his fans, since between the two sets, exactly none of his best outtakes are represented. However, though Old Friends 4 Sale doesn't contain his best outtakes, it does -- like Crystal Ball -- contain some very good ones. The title track was originally recorded in 1985 for inclusion in Under the Cherry Moon, but was re-recorded in 1991 and given to Joe Cocker. While the original version was a creepily personal tale of betrayal, this later version assumes poetic distance and (thanks to sweeping strings and bombastic production) winds up sounding rather ordinary. Nonetheless, it's still a beautiful and touching song. Also recorded for Joe Cocker (what's up with that?) was "5 Women," a bluesy, piano-based number that is probably the best breakup song ever written. Accented here by beefy organ and a sulky horn lines, it's truly affecting.
Also represented are some of the songs Prince wrote for the ill-fated James L. Brooks musical I'll Do Anything. Although the musical numbers were removed from the movie, it was probably due less to the quality of the music ("The Rest of My Life" and "My Little Pill" are quirky, cinematic ditties, sure, but "There Is Lonely" is a crushingly great ballad) than the suspension of disbelief that would have been required to watch Nick Nolte sing them. "She Spoke 2 Me" was featured in truncated form in Spike Lee's Girl 6; this version is about three minutes longer. Among the other songs, recorded for various other reasons, the highlights are the warmly groovy "When the Lights Go Down," "It's About that Walk," a giddily loose paean to the female posterior, and the luscious ballad "Extraordinary," which features tempo changes and harmonies that only Prince could get away with. And, though 10 songs is a painfully slight representation of the breadth and quality of Prince's unreleased work, The Vault nonetheless is an intriguing album, since, at the very least, it's starting to give some indication of what the man has always been capable of.
The message in the title is clear enough for this collection of 10 previously unreleased tracks, recorded between 1985 and 1994
when the Artist was still just Prince, and made available now to fulfill part of an agreement ending the singular pop craftsman's long,
and ultimately strained, relationship with Warner Bros. Records. Not unexpectedly, the album offers no heart-stoppers--no "When
Doves Cry" or "Kiss" or "Diamonds and Pearls." But these casual, sometimes glib castoffs include a soulful ballad, some
lighthearted funk-pop and a couple of playfully lascivious numbers that mostly remind us of how formidable a creative force Prince
was at the height of his powers. Never very satisfying, The Vault hovers between intriguing and disappointing. Complete with lavish
horn arrangements and filigreed strings, such bluesy numbers as "There Is Lonely" and the Al Green-esque "5 Women" are crafted
with a big-band sensibility. The mournful title track even recalls the old-time sophistication of a bluesy Frank Sinatra or Billie
Holiday jazz crooner, with wiggier lyrics. |
Yet the percussive funk of "The Rest of My Life" is so fluffy it practically floats away, and the dark, brief, spoken-word bit "My Little Pill," while odd in a pixie-dusted, Brian Wilson way, hardly qualifies as a song at all.
Los Angeles Times