PRINCE at the Hollywood Palladium, May 4
You don’t have to be rich . . . to see the post-squiggle Prince . . . but when you’re shelling out 75 bucks for a general-admission ticket, it might help. Still, the line for the sold-out-in-210-seconds show rectangles all the way around the Palladium, and it’s all stripes and sizes: Red-hot couples dressed to the leopard-skinned nines, white Valley girls in leather jeans with butt-length hair, tight-pantsed Prince freaks with “Controversy” tank tops, 40ish sweetheart secretaries from Yucaipa, and what seems to be most of L.A.’s black cultural elite. The mood is impatient but anticipatory — the scene feels so good outside that even the presence of that damn Dennis Woodruff, slowly circling the block in his giantheadmobile, is strangely tolerable.
Finally, an hour and a half late, those of us without counterfeit tickets are in. And within minutes of His Purple Majesty taking the stage and immediately getting down into a stomping medley of “Uptown,” “Controversy” and “Mutiny,” one thing becomes glaringly obvious: the word genius is used much too loosely these days. Because here is the rarest kind of performer — a cocky, preening flower-in-teeth ecstatic singing dancing soul-elevating awe-inspiring joyous sexy guitar funk-force — for whom the highest terms of acclamation should be reserved: words that are used to describe no one else.
Twenty-one years down the line from Dirty Mind, backed by an airtight six-piece New Power Generation (and occasional backup singers and dancers), Prince is a miracle of continuous, multitalented inspiration who doesn’t seem to have aged a minute: a hit parader reinventing old favorites while tackling fresh jams (“The Work”) like a tuff-talking James Brown working out “Hot Pants” with his new band in ‘71. His singing is all aces: falsettos and coos, screeches and grunts. His between-verse dancing is marvelous, his stage presence open, charming and generous: He preludes “Housequake” with “L.A.! I play for U — would U dance 4 me?” and invites a gang of ladies from the audience up onstage to share the spotlight for a couple of songs. (When he does the same thing for the fellas during the second encore for “Come On,” a roly-poly bearded-and-eyeglassed white fella gets so funky mammalian that the Purple One almost blushes.)
And then there’s his electric guitar playing: fantastic fuzzy lines all over the set-closing “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a brilliant intro to “Little Red Corvette,” and some lengthy soloing at the stage’s western edge at the end of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” that’s flamboyant and cocky, sensitive and soaring — a model of effortless, beautiful economy, accompanied by those coy eyes of his that dart, rove and roll so suggestively . . . and by enigmatic, purposeful hand motions that seem to finger-point the guitar’s trailing notes directly into some collective id. When Prince’s backup vocalists croon “Ain’t your soul divine” on a slow gospel-blues, it’s not a question they’re asking — it’s a statement of beautiful fact. Awesome, extraordinary and, yes — genius.
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What do you do when you go from Next Big Thing to Never Really Happened in the blink of an eye, with nothing to show for it except some minor MTV buzz and lots of cover stories in trendy British magazines? If you’re reggae singer Finley Quaye, you simply shrug and move on. His debut record, 1997’s fantastic Maverick a Strike, did garner some major awards in the U.K., where he behaved as badly as a young rock star with newly minted privileges can (alienating the media, publicly feuding with his equally mercurial nephew, Tricky, and giving indifferent live performances). Maverick was a near-flawless fusion of roots reggae, ’60s R&B, folk and pop, the sum often wildly, eccentrically exceeding its parts. Considering Quaye’s poster-boy looks and coolly seductive voice, the package should have made a much larger pop impact than it did.
On Vanguard, the same basic formula is employed, only the emphasis is much more on reggae influences, and the experimentation with genre boundaries is considerably toned down. There’s still much that shines, however. Drum ’n’ bass beats on the opening track, “Broadcast,” lie just beneath a lilting island groove, then give way to a raucous rock workout on “Spiritualized.” Reefer madness is the only explanation for the nonsensical stream-of-consciousness rhyming and riffing on “Broadcast” and “Chad Valley,” where the sheer force and funkiness of the grooves mitigate artistic disaster. (Digs at the culture of celebrity and at the music industry are tucked deep inside such babbling as “I signed with Sony, you ride a pony/You wear stilettos, check your history/I love to burn weed, I love electro.”)
The album’s highlights are “The Emperor” and “Burning.” The latter is a moving love song where Quaye’s voice creaks and cracks with both devotion and the effects of too many blunts; the overall impression is one of ridiculous sexiness. The former song would make Bob Marley himself proud; strings shimmer behind the singer’s vocals as his voice — so achingly lovely — conveys both mournfulness and defiance. It’s a protest song drawn from spiritual strength, from deep reserves of conviction, and almost single-handedly makes Vanguard worth owning. (Ernest Hardy)
Depeche Mode’s mid-’90s traffic-stopping stardom crept up on us, and before anyone could really savor it, the backlash began — singer Dave Gahan’s drug and marital problems, culminating in attempted suicide, reported in every dismal detail. While all this extracurricular activity blunted the band commercially, their tribulations duly delivered arresting art: 1997’s bleak but consistent Ultra and now the entrancing and considerably more optimistic Exciter.
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Once eschewing traditional instrumentation, the Mode have thawed with time, and recent releases have been warmed with smatterings of strings among the stark electronica. The beauty of D.M.’s approach is that they use these tools only when they truly have something to say with them, and the resulting restraint is stunning. Exciter jumps from the gate with the achingly exquisite intro to “Dream On,” the tiniest of loops and bass blips beneath a melancholy acoustic guitar, a snapshot of D.M. past and present. Arguably their most endearing quality is that Depeche Mode, for all their riches and sonic opulence, have retained the wide-eyed songwriting style spawned as teenage bedroom synth-pop pioneers. Twenty years later, they continue to communicate through fresh-faced, uncomplicated melodies and deceptively simple lyrics that might come over as merely cute if they weren’t sung so sincerely. Gahan can deliver a potentially hackneyed hook like “No hidden catch/no strings attached” (“Freelove”) and make it sound like life or death. No longer teetering on the ledge, he still takes lingering looks into the abyss and describes the view with subtlety and genuine distress. D.M. are here to remind us what desolate soundscapes and obsessive lyrics really sound like; shunning escapist shock-rock, Gahan sings of everyday dark gods, everyman’s demons, while head honcho Martin Gore bursts techno bubbles around him.
Mellow, dramatic and bathed in atmosphere, Exciter is the sound of a band at the height of its powers. Depeche Mode may have become an institution, complete with tribute albums and imitators, and they’ve undoubtedly had a huge influence on contemporary radio fodder from Moby to Manson, but they deserve respect for what they’re doing, not for what they did first. (Paul Rogers)
Phonography: A Blue Note Mix (Blue Note)
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Whatever Happened to Gus
In the red, hot and blue-noted mix of Phonography, DJ Smash follows the jazz bloodline that interrelates the divergent tribes of urban dance music, and flows through the passageways that connect today’s underground with black American music’s very first. The material is taken from the more contemporary crates of the 63-year-old jazz label Blue Note Records: 14 tracks in all, each remixed by the likes of DJ
Spinna, Joe Claussell, Todd Terry and a host of others.
Smash does a couple of his own remixes on the album, but his more essential presence lies in the smooth, smart arrangement of his hard-to-find track selections. He begins on the hip-hop down-low, with Guru informing the mic on Medeski Martin & Wood’s “Whatever Happened to Gus” and via Ronny Jordan’s “A Brighter Day” featuring Mos Def, before acknowledging the breakbeat era with Kingsize’s remix of Tim Hagans’ “Are You Threatening Me?” After dropping a few Afrobeat rhythms, Smash then takes you on a full body-and-soul flight through the global scene of house, which includes Blaze’s upswing remix of St. Germain’s already essential jazz-house hybrid “Rose Rouge.”
Yet even after repeated listening, the album never quite prepares you for its most remarkable moment of discovery, a remake of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” by Bob Belden, remixed by the Amalgamation of Sounds. Add some hip-hop drumbeats, a clarinet in the wings and the soul-tender voice of Jhelisa, and what once sounded like a flower-power pep talk for a dour-faced kid suddenly takes hold of you as an inner-city cry, sung by a woman looking out from her fire escape and wondering if her younger brother will ever return home. It’s ultimately because of the deliberate way Jhelisa sings the curiously extracted line “go out and get her”; in the cultural remix of our generation, you could almost swear that she was saying, “Go out and get help.” (Tommy Nguyen)
The Best of Nick Gilder: Hot Child in the City
(Razor & Tie)
Well, it’s about damn time. The missing link between the Sweet’s Desolation Boulevard and Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight, Nick Gilder specialized in hard-candy pop loaded with plenty of glitter-rock decadence and new-wave hooks. The London-born front man of Canadian glamsters Sweeney Todd (who had the dubious distinction of giving Bryan Adams his first break), Gilder moved to L.A. in 1976 with Sweeney Todd guitarist James McCulloch. Despite often facing unfriendly audiences — I was too young to get into L.A. clubs back then, but several friends and colleagues remember him being bottled off the stage at the Starwood and the Whisky — Gilder scored a deal with Chrysalis, eventually repaying the label’s faith with 1978’s “Hot Child in the City,” Chrysalis’ first-ever No. 1 single. Now, 23 years later, he finally gets a greatest-hits CD.
Razor & Tie’s welcome new collection draws exclusively from Gilder’s three Chrysalis albums — 1977’s You Know Who You Are, 1978’s City Nights and 1979’s Frequency. All three are unsung classics of the power-pop era, filled with punchy rockers and ethereal ballads, most of which concern themselves with the seamy doings of late-’70s Sunset Strip scenesters. Yes, there’s still something innately creepy about hearing Gilder wrap his fey, androgynous voice around sleazy tales of skintight teens, trench-coated perverts and rock & roll ’lectric boys, but that’s also part of the fun. Gilder’s lyrical perspective was never leering or moralistic; the young hustlers of “Hot Child” and “Roxy Roller” are respected for their ability to survive on Hollywood’s mean streets, while “Got To Get Out” and “Runaways in the Night” empathize with their reasons for leaving home in the first place. “Into the ’80s,” the synth-swathed meditation on the future that closes this
compilation, is all the more moving for its total lack of rock-star bravado.
It’s great to finally have this stuff on CD, but Razor & Tie’s decision to limit the collection to 12 tracks (thereby excluding the singles “Here Comes the Night” and “Electric Love,” as well as several other key tracks) is frustrating in the extreme. So, too, are the liner notes, which include some basic biographical info but offer no real insight into the man himself. (What, he was too busy to sit for an interview?) Hopefully, this CD will generate enough interest to spur someone to reissue the first three albums. Razor & Tie, you know who you are. (Dan Epstein)