Thursday, February 12, 2009

32 Greatest Albums: Prince - 'Under The Cherry Moon'

Prince is one of those artists whose persona eclipses his work. Somewhere along the line the person becomes more of a fascination than the actual music. With some people this is part of the plan. Ahem, Madonna. Britney Spears. In my opinion this helps them because the music isn't all that memorable, the person is.

But with Prince I feel quite differently. And this album more than any other suffers because of it. When Prince released this album he was famous in a way that few other people have ever been. Along with the album came a movie. This movie was the follow-up to 'Purple Rain' which had catapulted him into some heretofore unknown area of celebrity. 'Purple Rain' is quite a good movie, Appolonia and the costumes and the little purple motorcycle aside. 'Under The Cherry Moon' is most definitely NOT a good movie.

This is unfortunate because the music that accompanies it is some of the most sophisticated of all time.

Everyone knows 'Kiss'. The song and video rank right up alongside the all-time MTV moments of Michael Jackson dancing on light bulb pavement and Madonna kissing the Black Jesus and Sinead right up against the camera bald and crying (and singing a song written by Prince, lest we forget).

Prince dancing around the oriental screens in matador pants while licking his hands and caressing himself will never be forgotten. But the rest of the album has been and I must cry out against this injustice.

Imagine a snow globe of Paris. The Paris of Baz Luhrmann's 'Moulin Rouge'. This snow globe is special because it allows you to roam the streets while keeping your modern perspective. Sure there are cobblestones and hansom cabs but all you have to do is snap your fingers and you are back in your well-appointed apartment playing with your iPod.

On this snow globe Paris street, you stop in front of some burlesque theater with a name like "Les Jambes Ouvertes". You take the name to be a good sign so you drop in. The band has somehow gotten hold of modern instruments and electricity. They play music hall tunes for les filles to strip to but they have all the finesse and versatility of Parliamnet Funkadelic.

Now the strange thing about this album is that the songs sound miniature. They are compressed. In 'Purple Rain' you heard a man bursting out of the pressure packed vacuum of an extraordinary childhood. Minnesota would never be the same. On this album it is like he decided to turn that vacuum inside out, rendering the bombast in as delicate a manner as possible.

The songs seem like cubbyholes in a box by Joseph Cornell.

I was one of the many who was underwhelmed when I first heard this album. Where was the kickass? Where was the freakshow? Well, Prince had other things on his mind than what I expected of him. His world had fractured to a level that must have seemed unreal. Thus the music mirrored this. Now that I mention it, a mirror is an apt metaphor for this album. Some imaginary fun house where a kaleidoscope unfurls reflected all around you, using your deepest fantasies and fears as a backdrop.

I would say that if we could listen to Prince dream it would sound like 'Under The Cherry Moon'.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

33 Greatest Albums: Billy Bragg & Wilco - 'Mermaid Avenue'

I'll never scoff at a gushing parent again. In fact, I may start some sort of a political action committee designed to stamp out scoffing at baby-struck parents.

To me it is the height of cynicism to view a parent in the throes of new baby love as anything other than the perfect articulation of all that is potential in the fruition of billions of years of DNA. We are supposed to lose our minds in love. Some of us wind up mistreating, beating, even killing our own children, so it seems to me that the new infant love train is one that ought to be cultivated, encouraged, celebrated.

Now, full disclosure. I probably wanted to be a parent more than I wanted anything else. So I am one predisposed to this sort of emotional response. And to top it all off, my kid was so cute people wouldn't let me pay for my morning coffee. Connecticut Muffin on the southwest corner of Prospect Park in Park Slope consistently gave me the 'cute baby' discount, giving Cashel and I free coffee and bagels repeatedly over the years we lived there.

So if you are one of the converted I am preaching to, hello. If not, if you are one of those who smirks when they witness a parent cooing over a little bundle I just feel sorry for you. And I look forward to the day when you have your own kid and you have to look at yourself in the mirror and inwardly apologize to all the people you slighted with your scorn.

In any case, this album is intricately intertwined with my son's childhood. It is a collaboration between a Socialist bi-sexual pop star from England and an eclectic American roots rock band. Woody Guthrie's granddaughter found all these old song lyrics and wanted to pay homage to him. So she gave EVERYTHING in the vault to Billy Bragg who called Wilco. They recorded two albums of material. 'Mermaid Avenue' and 'Mermaid Avenue, Vol 2'.

My wife (soon to be ex) gave me a copy of the album. I'd not heard of it at all so I was shocked at the triple combo. I popped it on the stereo in our little apartment right off the park. My son, under 2 and in diapers, immediately started dancing.

I have film of him on all fours bouncing his rump to the strains of 'HooDoo VooDoo'. The look of delight on his face was almost too much to bear. Kids have a direct line to joy. They chase it relentlessly. When they find it they surrender completely. We hide our pursuit, we temper our release.

Unless we're holding our newborns. Then we remove the obstacles. Then we say, 'Nothing will stop my joy.' And some of you have a problem with that?

Shame on you.