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Of Ass and Ax

PRINCE
at Staples Center, March 29

Prince’s signature high-pitched “Owwooo” on “DMSR” was piercingly intact, but he no longer pleaded with the femme of his obsession to “work your body like a whore.” And he assured her that “I’m spiritually attracted to you” on his deft reclaiming of “I Feel 4 U.” Otherwise, it was the lack of changes that was often so awe-inspiring when Prince rolled through with his greatest-hits tour: He looked far younger than his wrinkle-free 45 years, and he moved — in glittering high heels, no less — with a graceful, sexy physicality that wove in the epileptic shudders of the Harlem Shake. The man has stage-swamping presence, and can still get away with wearing skintight pants that emphasize one of pop’s great asses.

But since this is Prince, you can’t reduce his spectacular in-the-round concert to its visual elements. Whether he was blistering through guitar solos on assorted hits (“Let’s Go Crazy,” “Controversy”) or delving deep into Muddy Waters’ stank blues for a fantastic midshow solo segment that transformed “Little Red Corvette” into a hypnotic sing-along, it was Prince’s platinum level of musicianship that made fans lose their minds. It would be easy to quibble with the set list — nothing but the title song from Sign o’ the Times, for instance. Regardless, there were so many nods to the range, influences and protégés of the Purple One (his gospel-inflected version of “Nothing Compares 2 U”; tossed-off instrumental passages from Sheila E.’s “A Love Bizarre” and “Glamorous Life”; the sampled phrase “We don’t like new wave,” lifted from the Time’s debut album and blasted through speakers twice) that Prince proved again beyond a doubt he’s one of American music’s idiosyncratic greats.

THE STROKES, THE SOUNDS
at the Universal Amphitheater, April 2

Maybe it’s ABBA’s gargantuan shadow, but the same Swedish songwriting knack that spawned hits for Britney and the Backstreet Boys is echoed in Scando critical crushes the Hives, Sahara Hotnights and tonight’s openers, the Sounds. The Sounds may be the perfect pop band: crafted-to-sound-casual new-wave hits, up-and-at-’em beats and ludicrously chummy A-ha synth countermelodies. Their Blondie parallels transcend music: Insanely gorgeous front gal Maja Ivarsson is part prime-time Debbie Harry, part downtime porn star, with a too-tight leather jacket and a peroxide thatch framing cheekbones visible from the cheap seats. Her in-your-face/in-your-dreams shtick holds the already full amphitheater, while her energized bandmates propel punky, blurred-neon blips of escapism, optimism and parking-lot romance. Ivarsson’s accented delivery and second-language lyrical clichés, atop dollops of Duran, make one wonder why the Sounds aren’t bigger: It seldom gets better than this.

It’s easy to hate the Strokes: five superconnected trust-fund toffs playing rock band. The hour’s stall before gracing us with their presence, plus singer Julian Casablancas’ drunken ramblings, hardly endear, either. But crafty bass lines, a rare appreciation for the intertwining roles of lead and rhythm guitar, and Casablancas’ languid, loungey crooning mean the Strokes wring the best from already tingling tunes, their retro-garage signature tinted with arpeggiated Cure/Smiths atmospherics. Despite an annoying light show and minimal onstage movement, the Strokes can survive on strength of material alone. Though their star has faded somewhat (releasing essentially the same album twice hasn’t helped), they waft whiffs of lasting greatness. (Paul Rogers)

CARINA ROUND
at Spaceland, March 30

Despite Carina Round’s early opening slot, there’s a breathable buzz and an unusually healthy crowd for the Brit chanteuse. The PR folks have done their work, and apparently more of this audience have heard about her lauded sophomore album, The Disconnection, than have actually heard it. But this is a rare case of believe-the-hype — in the absence of the far-from-prolific Fiona Apple, Round’s sultry, subtly dangerous delivery satisfies public pangs.

Backed by a sparse but effective three-piece band, Round is a somewhat ungainly yet commanding presence, a high-street Björk who channels Patti Smith, PJ Harvey and Tom Waits through her seductive phone-sex inflections. Like The Disconnection, tonight’s set starts with the stark “Shoot,” all bleak snares and gently obsessive vocal, flecked with bass runs and vibratoed guitar. Even without the recorded version’s keys, the song’s after-hours atmospherics and lurking menace are not only intact but accented by Round’s more dynamic live delivery. “Motel 74” apes Apple, Round visiting a male register amid a road-movie soundtrack, while the vulnerable icicle crescendos of “Into My Blood” leave lingering stains.

However, while Round and her band faithfully deliver The Disconnection and then some, they plateau early, the audience chitchat increasingly audible as the momentum flags. These see-and-be-seen shows are like that — as much about occasion as music, with many in the crowd clearly unfamiliar with Round’s authentic expressions. During the final number, “Let It Fall,” her seemingly preconceived convulsions betray self-consciousness — understandable given the weight of expectation — and there’s little clamor for an encore. Tonight wasn’t traffic-stopping, but Carina Round has the tunes, the timbre and the persona to be an enduring presence. (Paul Rogers)


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