Friday, August 7, 2020

"Heavenly Angels Crying" - Why Prince is a Beast at Vocal Arrangement - Pt. 1

"Every voice that he's adding is a different character he made up in his head." - Chuck Zwicky, engineer

*Photo by Scott Woods 
Painting by Lisa McLymont

It would have been enough to be a keyboard wiz. It would have been enough to be a guitar god. It would have been enough to be a falsetto king. However, Prince was also a master at vocal arrangements, putting effort and creativity into even some of his most basic tracks. We need to talk about this more. The list below is a starting guide to Prince's brilliance in this area. 


Notable Tracks (Ranked)

13) "Planet Earth" - It's a slow burn and not made for heavy rotation, but once you make it through, you'll be blessed with some vocal gems and a soaring guitar solo. 

Best Part: 2:40-3:21

12) "Last December" - Sometimes, Prince will tease a vocal arrangement that you wish would go on forever. I would've loved to see him stand onstage with a group of backup vocalists, just singing his heart out a cappella. If anyone has this footage, hit the "contact me" button on this website. 

Best Part: 7:03-7:30 

11) "The Sacrifice of Victor" - Speaking of short bursts of inspiration, the "Amen" coda is everything. 

Best Part: 5:26-5:32

10) "An Honest Man" - This has never been my jam, but I have to admit the harmonies are impressive.

Best Part: 0:00-0:43

9) "For You" - I love that the first song on Prince's first album has these beautiful, stacked harmonies; it lets you know this was a talent and interest he had from the beginning, and we should pay more attention to that. 

Best Part: 0:04-0:47

8) "Tamborine" - I often forget how quirky and cool Prince's harmonies are on this because I'm too busy air drumming and doing the screaming part. 

Best Part: 1:55-2:10 

7) "7" - Prince's mastery of unique, stacked vocals is only matched by his mastery of apocalyptic messaging. 

Best Part: 0:00-0:35

6) "Condition of the Heart" - A brilliant, odd, interesting Prince classic. Sometimes, he hits a note that takes your breath away. Clara Bow would agree. 

Best Part: 5:07-5:25

5) "Thunder" - Even fans who are really hard on the Diamonds and Pearls album have to admit this song is inventive and dope. We're also seeing a pattern of amazing a cappella openings, aren't we? 

Best Part: 3:00-3:24

4) "And God Created Woman" - Some of Prince's strongest songwriting, from the Biblical subversion to the musical arrangement to the vocals. 

Best Part: 1:33-1:53


3) "Come" - Very underrated in terms of music, meaning and vocal arranging. 

Best Part: 10:20-10:30 

2) "Gold" - That can't-get-out-of-your-car-til-the-song-is-over, tears-stinging-your-eyes brilliance. 

Best Part: 6:05-7:23

1) "Adore" - How did he hear all of this in his head? 

Best Part: 2:18-3:02; 5:45-6:31 

*Check out the Spotify playlist here


Notable Albums

Elixir - This might be his best work as a writer and producer on a female protégé's album. Is Bria Valente the strongest singer? No. But I truly believe her voice was a good match for Prince's vision, and she conveyed his vocal arrangements really well. 
(You may @ me.) 

20TenPrince made an excellent choice hiring Shelby J., Liv Warfield and Elisa Fiorillo Dease to do background vocals. As Fiorillo Dease said, they were his "angels."



Notable Live Material

"Dark" - Speaking of the trio of women on 20Ten, there's a rehearsal featuring their harmonies on this song. Beautiful. 

"Now" - Prince was smart to isolate the background vocals during "The Ultimate Live Experience" tour. If he didn't emphasize that vocal arrangement, I never would have heard it buried on the recording. He should've opened or closed the track with that alone. 

"The Second Coming" - If you want to attempt to make the return of Jesus Christ compelling for your listeners, this is the way to do it. 


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Friday, July 31, 2020

"Get Loose!" - Favorite Performances on "The Ultimate Live Experience" Tour


To promote The Gold Experience album, Prince embarked on The Ultimate Live Experience tour from 1995 to 1996. Like the Act I and Act II tours in 1993, this outing had two legs with different vibes. That's because, both times, a milestone took place in the middle of the tour. 

Prince changed his name to the Love Symbol between Act I and Act II. His relationship with Warner Bros. was also becoming strained, and you can see the impact of his frustration--and boredom--on the second leg, which made it an inferior show. The opposite occurs with The Ultimate Live Experience. Prince had been pressuring the record label to release The Gold Experience, and he finally got his wish between the two phases of the tour. Additionally, by the second leg, he was much closer to being emancipated from his contract. That show takes on a more loose, creative vibe than the previous iteration. 

But both legs are enjoyable. In fact, I think it's slowly becoming one of my favorite Prince tours! Though the set looks like it took a while to construct, the concert is relatively stripped down. The NPG is smaller; the horns are gone and Mayte Garcia is the lone dancer. If you catch the right footage, you can see how Prince responds to a band member's error (not a pretty sight). Otherwise, he appears to be in good spirits, and even relaxed on some songs. You see him let his guard down and even sing in his lower register on tracks like "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" and "Letitgo." Overall, this is some of his best dancing, singing and playing. Seriously.   

Here are the performances that stood out to me.

"Shhh" 

Confession: I often skip this track when I'm playing The Gold Experience. To me, "Eye Hate U" is the better ballad on the album. While Michael Bland's drumming is spectacular, the lyrics are rather bland to me. But live, Prince's guitar sings. 

"Days of Wild"

This..,might be my favorite of the very few Prince raps I enjoy. However, it's all about that bass guitar, especially on the second leg of the tour.

"Now"

This song seems silly at first, but it is a really well-done production (love that baritone sax). I let it play because it's fun, and I enjoy hearing Prince's singing get more frantic with each verse ("This about the freaks doing everything they wanna do now!"). But when you hear it live...whew! Prince isolates the background vocals, which are a treasure trove of harmony and arrangement. He is a master! (The rapping is a little...less precise.)


This is here only because of the choreography. His double turn is clean. 


Prince has some pretty intriguing arrangements on this tour and "Pink Cashmere" doesn't disappoint. He finds a way to swing this song, and I love the dramatic ending. He's got some soulful vocal runs in there, and Tommy Barbarella's hair flips are on 10. 

"(Lemme See Your Body) Get Loose!"

This is when I woke up during the show. I am not a fan of the original version of this song, but after viewing Prince's wild, ridiculous and mesmerizing dance solo, I am now hooked on this remix. I've stopped skipping the version on the Crystal Ball album now, which I never thought would happen. ("Motherf*$%#@s!") 

"I Love U in Me"

This isn't a song I revisit often, but there's something about hearing it live on guitar instead of on piano on the record. It's captivating. 

"Starfish and Coffee"

Here's what I tweeted after I saw this for the first time.

"Man, the NPG was getting even tighter at the beginning of ‘96 before #Prince switched up the band. Watching them perform this Latin jazz rendition of “Starfish and Coffee.” Good lord, Michael, Sonny and Tommy!"


"The Cross"

The guitar solo is a must-hear.

"Vicki Waiting"

I'm biased because this is one of my all-time favorite Prince songs. He takes it to church live. Mayte Garcia and the props are a little distracting here. Just try your best to enjoy the organ. 


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Saturday, July 25, 2020

"Annie Christian" - Song of the Month

Each month I will share some brief, personal thoughts on one of my favorite Prince songs.



I'm intrigued by "religious Prince" and "quirky Prince," so it makes sense that "Annie Christian" is one of my favorite tracks on his 1981 album, Controversy. Though I was too young to remember the "Satanic Panic" in popular culture, it was alive and well in my Christian household. I grew up believing in the existence of the devil and his effect on the world, which I expected to end at any moment. I will always be interested in unpacking good and evil, and I enjoy analyzing how Prince did this in his music. Discovering "Annie Christian" as an adult, I dug into his narrative of the Antichrist--characterized as a woman--committing real-life crimes (the Atlanta child murders, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, etc.) and considered different interpretations. Beyond the lyrics, I fell in love with the music, a brilliant combination of punk and funk. It's certainly the album's oddest track, with its keyboard wizardry, handclaps and chants, but my favorite part is the way the guitar line adds color throughout the track.

Prince took "Annie Christian" to another level live; there are some musical alterations and both he and Dez Dickerson are absolutely shredding on guitar. It's electrifying! Hearing the song with a full band made me more impressed that Prince composed and recorded all of the parts himself. Before I found other Prince fans online, I tried in vain to turn a couple friends on to "Annie Christian." One liked the line, "I'll live my life in taxicabs," but wasn't moved by the message of looking over your shoulder in a world of unspeakable evil. Another liked Prince as a guitarist, but complained that the live version was "a little too out there." There are plenty of Prince songs I don't like, but I'm not sure any are too weird for me. Perhaps I'll give that some thought for a future blog post...



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Friday, July 17, 2020

"A Lonely Painter" - Favorite Tracks on "One Nite Alone"

It's no secret that Prince's 2001 album, The Rainbow Children, is extremely important to me. It's really the reason for my life's work--my book. It's funny that I don't have the same relationship with the One Nite Alone album, which was released just one year later. Honestly, it's probably because it just wasn't available to me at the time; I literally plucked The Rainbow Children from my local library. One Nite Alone wasn't there.

I came to One Nite Alone much later in life, and I have many hours to spend with it before I can form an in-depth opinion. But I'm excited to talk about it right now because I can focus on the music and lyrics instead of its connection to my life, with the exception of "Arboretum," which is dear to my heart.

 Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

It was difficult to select just a few favorite tracks because the entire album is really strong. It showcases his talent on piano; there are moments when I'm actually shouting, "Come on, Prince!" I'm looking forward to finding even more gems when I listen with headphones. I also hear the influence of Stevie Wonder on both "Objects in the Mirror" and "Arboretum." And Prince's voice, as always, is impeccable.

Prince also shows off his skill as a poet. The songs tackle everything from sex and domesticity to heartbreak and happiness. There's also a discussion of race.

Here are the songs I have on repeat.

"Have a Heart"

In my opinion, this is the best track on the album. I wish it were longer, but I'm happy he brings the theme back in the very next song, "Objects in the Mirror" (what a great metaphor), which I'd like to claim as an extension of "Have a Heart." First of all, I literally wrote down the word "savage" in my notes because the lyrics are biting. You wouldn't necessarily think he was taking digs, given the tone of the music. I can't get the melody out of my head, and his vocal arrangements are golden ("Everybody's had one seeeee").



"Avalanche"

I get chills each time I hit play. This is one of those occasions when Prince tells a very specific story in a song. There are several layers here. There's shock that some may feel at learning--or being forced to face--the true views of Abraham Lincoln, who is supposed to be an American hero. Then, there's the overall message that Black people do not have total freedom in this country. Think about the Emancipation Proclamation not being immediately enforced and the loopholes in the 13th Amendment--or take your pick from the various forms of systemic racism oppressing people from Reconstruction to the present-day. It's no surprise that Prince also sings about the inequality in the music industry; he mentions another figure, white record producer and talent scout John Hammond, credited with furthering the careers of Black artists like Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, Aretha Franklin and George Benson. Though Hammond is beloved and celebrated, Prince may have been concerned about possible exploitation of Black artists, and their introduction to a music industry that has historically swindled them out of ownership of their songs and fair compensation. Prince also makes a reference to the killing of Native Americans. He compares individual acts of racism to "every snowflake in an avalanche," which, to me, is a fitting metaphor for the massive impact of white supremacy.

 


"U're Gonna C Me"

Prince's acoustic albums are never quite acoustic. I love the extra, ambient sounds on this song. It might have just been "OK" to me, but the descending piano lines and chords take it to another level. I also love that the track is unresolved at the end. There are some naughty lyrics, corny lyrics and charming lyrics--but I like it all. Also, Prince is not always up-to-date on his technology references, so I'm proud that he talked about the two-way pager, which was actually popular when he released this album. However, by the time he re-recorded this song for MPLSound in 2009, it was out of style. Heck, when he sang, "In this digital age, you could just page me," on "Somewhere Here on Earth" in 2007, I was looking at him a little funny.



"A Case of U"

Joni Mitchell's music really suits Prince's falsetto and singing style. Pay attention to his vocal arrangements. I love how he puts his own, gospel-flavored spin on the song with his piano chords and the addition of the organ. It's also delightful to hear his brief, vocal exclamation when he's feeling his solo. I don't think I'm a huge fan of the coda; I wouldn't mind if he just played one measure and faded out right away so we'd all go, "Wait, what was that?" He was smart to leave it out when he submitted the song to the 2007 tribute album to Mitchell. The song is also dedicated to his father, John L. Nelson, who died a year before the album came out. I like to think of this whole Prince era as a tribute to him.




Related Content
Prince and Joni Mitchell
"The Rainbow Children": Three Bible Verses to Know
"Up All Nite with Prince" podcast



"Pearls B4 the Swine"

What a bright, beautiful ditty with an undercurrent of sadness. Using a Biblical reference, Prince lays out what seems to be deeply personal commentary on a relationship, be it with a life partner, the music industry or both. Also, the chorus is absolutely gorgeous.



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Friday, July 10, 2020

"Deliverance" - Donna Summer + Prince (Part Two)


Both complex and creative superstars, Donna Summer and Prince were marginalized as sex symbols, despite their profound spiritual journeys. Many of their similarities were explored in part one, which covered their childhoods and early success. Much of the research was based on Summer's 2003 memoir, Ordinary Girl: The Journey. 

The remainder of their lives and careers is explored below.

Racism & Music Industry Struggles

Sadly, the oppression faced by Black artists in the music industry, especially in the '70s and '80s, is common. Prince and Donna Summer did not escape that reality. From an early age, Prince sought to circumvent as much of it as he could; he crafted his image, sound and interviews so he could avoid being limited to the "Black" chart (as it was called back then), Black radio and underfunded marketing departments.

Building her career overseas, Donna did not immediately feel the baggage of being Black in the mainstream music world. But that all changed when she moved back home and had her first hit, "Love to Love You Baby," in the mid-70s.

"Although I grew up on and loved R&B music, I was much more of a pop-rock, folk-oriented artist," Summer wrote in her memoir. "But my skin was brown, so I was automatically packaged as an R&B act." Of course, the eternal "Queen of Disco" label didn't make life easier for the songstress.

"No one in America had any real clue that I had an extensive and quite successful European background in live and musical theater, or that I could actually sing other types of music," she continued.

Just as Prince had other talents (fashion, dance, producing/engineering), Summer was also a painter; her work can actually be found on eBay--which is a bit shocking.

As a woman, Summer had it harder than Prince; she said Casablanca Records President Neil Bogart was a "Svengali" figure in her life, controlling what she wore, where she socialized, what staff she hired, how often she toured (relentlessly) and what she sang. He even tried to give away her 1979 No. 1 hit, "Bad Girls"--which she co-wrote--to Cher! She composed both the lyrics and music for "Dim All the Lights," which reached No. 2 that year. But Bogart went behind her back and released "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)," her duet with Barbara Streisand, which prevented "Dim All the Lights" from going to No. 1.


"I'm not overlooking the fact that I now had three songs in the top five," Summer wrote. "My personal goal of achieving a number one song as a singer-songwriter had been short-circuited."

Summer eventually parted ways with Casablanca Records after a legal battle.

Though Prince wrote all of his songs and was able to branch out into different genres, he was still limited by Warner Bros. in many ways. His battle over creative control and ownership of his work was well-documented in the media.

Spiritual Awakenings & Career Changes

In 1979, Summer was at the height of her career, but felt something was missing from her life. She'd struggled with depression in the past, and was taking medication, but she couldn't shake the emptiness until she rededicated her life to God.

"I was finally filled by God's Holy Spirit and gloriously born again," she wrote. "I lived with this impending fear of doom, a fatalism that controlled my life until the day I accepted Jesus into it."

Summer said she was carrying insecurities from her childhood and shame from decisions she made as an adult. While she didn't elaborate on changing her music in her book, she spoke about the influence of her religion in a 1981 interview with the Washington Post.

"I basically do all my songs, but I do them differently," she said. "I don't do them the way I used to do them and eventually I will cast them out. ... I have a commitment to fill and it would be unfair to people who are waiting to see a certain thing; that's what I did and unfortunately I'm stuck with doing it -- until I can get it to the point where it's changed, writing material that I don't mind doing, that's not an infringement on my new beliefs."

Summer's next album, The Wanderer, included the song, "I Believe in Jesus." She also began adding a gospel segment to her tours. She told the Washington Post she had plans to break with longtime producers, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte because she was looking for someone "born again." She did end up working with other people, but the decision appeared to be more about record label politics than spiritual beliefs.

Summer also cut back on performing to focus on her spiritual development and motherhood.


Prince had his own spiritual awakening in 1987, famously replacing The Black Album with the more uplifting Lovesexy, on which he proclaimed his belief in Jesus. He had a couple "born again" phases, though. After a period of additional spiritual searching in the '90s, he converted to the Jehovah's Witness faith in the early 2000s. He began echoing Summer's sentiments about changing his music, eliminating profane lyrics and retiring some songs altogether. He also encouraged his band and staff to attend Kingdom Hall services.

Passionate about fatherhood, Prince may have also taken a break from performing and recording; he said as much in interviews when his first wife, Mayte Garcia, was pregnant, but their son passed away after he was born.

Final Years & Legacy

It's common for artists to get reflective with age, and both Summer and Prince wrote memoirs, though Prince died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2016 before completing his story. Both artists were recording less, though Prince was more prolific overall. They embraced TV appearances, Summer working as a judge on talent shows, and Prince surprisingly guest-starring on "New Girl." They were also working with younger, popular artists.

Summer was passionate about developing her own biographical musical, Ordinary Girl, but it never came to fruition. After she died of lung cancer in 2012, "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" opened on Broadway. Prince had an interest in theater decades before his death, but towards the end, he was gravitating toward other activities, like writing, more than playing guitar.

Summer did not have the same challenges with drugs, but reflected on the issue in her book.

"I honestly believe that if you are going to be a great singer, songwriter or musician, you must at least be acquainted with pain," she wrote. "There's always a danger on the part of the performer that the pain will be unbearable, which is why, I think, so many performers have substance-abuse problems. They don't really understand or know how to control the emptiness or the pain, and finally it overtakes them."

Both Rock and Roll Hall of Famers are remembered as legends who broke down barriers; for example, they were both among the first Black artists to receive airplay on MTV (Prince with "Little Red Corvette" and Summer with "She Works Hard for the Money"). With her 1977 hit, "I Feel Love," she, Moroder and Bellotte are credited as electronic dance pioneers. And Prince's genius in the studio and onstage will never be seen again.



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Friday, July 3, 2020

"Unwind Your Mind" - Self-Care Break



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Friday, June 26, 2020

"I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" - Song of the Month

Each month I will share some brief, personal thoughts on one of my favorite Prince songs.


When I watched Prince perform an acoustic version of "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" on MTV in 2004, I wasn't as familiar with the song as I am now. (The audience wasn't singing along with much confidence, either.) When he finished playing, he asked, "Remember that from high school?" I'm a little jealous of fans who can say they do; I was just a toddler when the Sign O' the Times album dropped in 1987. His '80s period was not the soundtrack of my childhood. I developed a deeper relationship with his music as an adult. So, for me, "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" brings up memories of riding two buses to my grant-writing job at the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra. For some reason, of all the tracks on the album, I added that one to my commuting playlist. I remember being especially impressed by the last two and a half minutes. Prince always gets me when he goes beyond the perfect, three-minute pop ditty and taps further into the emotion of the song with his guitar. I listened closely to each lick and the silence, which reminds me of what he said during the Piano & a Microphone show on January 21, 2016: “The space between the notes, that’s the good part. How long the space is … that’s how funky it is or how funky it ain’t." Sheesh. That last section of "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" is truly funky and it is why I even listen to the song. I'm still hearing new things! And just think: He wrote this song in 1979--eight years before its official release. I can't wait to hear the early version on the forthcoming remastered edition of Sign O' the Times.


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