Prince’s “Sign ‘☮’ the Times”

Prince's Sign O The Times album coverI’ve been listening to Prince’s 1987 Double LP “Sign ‘O’ The Times” for the past seven days. I devote each week to a different great album in order to learn as a songwriting musician. It also exposes me to a lot of great music. When “Purple Rain” came out when I was seven years old and I’ve been a fan ever since. Still, this week was really my introduction to “Sign ‘O’ The Times” which I’ve mostly ignored until now.

Despite some incredible high points, I found the album on a whole to be underwhelming. Some of that may be the expectation that it was going to be better than other Prince albums, due to collective critical acclaim. I just don’t think it is. I feel like much of it sounds like interesting song ideas and experiments that need more work. However, the album carries several great songs that I will definitely come back to.

The second track “Play in the Sunshine” was the first to get my attention. This upbeat track combines dance music with psychedelic pop. The chord progression is mostly I-I7-IV-IV7 repeated with a break between verses. The live percussions helps this track stand out. We can hear Prince’s favorite Linn LM-1 all over this album. His expert use of this machine leads to innovative and distinctive patterns; unfortunately he doesn’t incorporate enough variation within the tracks. “Play in the Sunshine” provides a great exception Even though the song only has a 100 BPM temp, the energy feels like much more. The use of the snare outside of the typical 2nd and 4th beat contribute to this.

There’s a sparse layering of instruments. Drums and bass play almost constantly; there’s a couple of keyboard lines that add effects and melodic color. I love the guitar solo in this song, even though it has little more than style. There seems to be a mixture of light flange with heavy distortion as he plays and bends screaming notes, adding a little wah towards the end.

Housequake” sounds like Prince had fun, but the fun didn’t last over repeated listening for me. There’s some great use of James Brown influence on the track. I really hear it in the funky clean guitar riffs and the way the real and synth horns are used. I also pick up on some George Clinton Funkadelic influence in the vocals. Especially in the way he’s being goofy and creating a character to encourage people to dance. But where Clinton could keep a repetitive groove going and maintain my attention, “Housequake” just doesn’t do enough with it’s 4 minutes and 42 seconds.

The track “It’s Gonna be a Beautiful Night” more successfully goes for that funk jam party feel. The kick drum hits on every beat for a dance-worthy four-on-the-floor rhythm. With snare and handclaps hitting on the 2nd and 4th beats. Parliament-inspired chants like “We are beautiful, it’s gonna be a beautiful night” encourage audience participation. Another chant repeats the Wicked Witch’s guards “Oh-wee-oh” from The Wizard of Oz. The chant reminds me of the “Oh-wee-oh-wee-oh” of The Time’s “Jungle Love” which was primarily written by Prince. This song manages to keep me engaged and feels like a good time to listen to. The greater use of variety throughout the song is an improvement over “Housequake”. I also suspect that other musicians had great input, which can enrich a song.

Starfish and Coffee” instantly became one of my favorite songs. The song opens with digital piano simply playing the chord progression of I-ii-V-I-vi-ii-V-I. This is based on the Circle Progression which is common turnaround progression in jazz and pop music. Vocal and drums then begin. Prince sings a simple melody that encourages sing-a-long, especially withe use of doubling backing vocals. Swirling synth pads give the song the psychedelic feel that the lyrics ask for. The lyrics are another strong-point for this song. They are narrative and provide a vignette of Cynthia Rose, a colorful unique character in the classroom.

Several moments of this album remind me of how I frequently hear Prince’s influence in the work of Trent Reznor. The track “U Got the Look” could very well be an NIN industrial track if the heavily distorted guitar was brought forward. The track also features a lot of great percussion work, with toms and bongos getting extra attention. Marching-band style rolls add an interesting texture to the track. I also just really love the sound of Prince’s guitar. I believe there’s some light flange or chorus with mixture of overdrive and distortion and a subtle reverb. It’s a great sound.

This album grew on me as the week progressed. I don’t personally agree that it is Prince’s greatest album. To simplify the story, Prince mostly wrote and recorded “Sign ‘O’ The Times” after suddenly firing his band The Revolution. I believe it suffers from being too much of a solo album. Perhaps we can all learn from this. The input of others can improve what we do, even one as incredibly capable as Prince. On the other hand, he’s also experimenting with combining genres and sounds. This experimentation is at times exciting, but sometimes leaves things feeling unfinished raw. Overall, a fantastic album, but not his best.

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”

Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album cover This week I have been revisiting Michael Jackson‘s 1982 album “Thriller“. I’ve been listening for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician from this great album. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was a huge part of my childhood.

I was six years old when the famous 14 minute”Michael Jackson’s Thriller” video first aired on MTV. This was a major event. MTV even announced the times of each broadcast of the full video. My neighbor friends and I would get together to watch, and dance with, the video as often as possible. I still have the vinyl record of the album that my family had then. I still love this album; while it has definitely had its influence on me, I found it difficult to listen objectively to an album I’ve known so well for so long.

Drum machines and synthesizers feature prominently throughout the album, but real guitars, bass, drums, and even some brass are heard on several songs. The rhythm of most songs emphasizes the fourth beat, especially of every second measure; the rhythms are usually built on 2 or 4 bar patterns with the last quarter not of each accented. This emphasis is created by adding a handclap to the snare, adding an echo to the snare, and/or by stopping the bass or other instrument on that fourth beat. Otherwise, there’s usually the standard kick on the first and third beat and snare on the second and fourth. Syncopation is created by guitars and other instruments. These rhythms work well with Jackson’s dances.

The groove of “Billie Jean” stands as one of the greatest in pop music. The song opens with an extremely basic kick and snare. The use of a subtle reverb with an 8th note delay gives that opening sequence a distinctive feel. Synth maracas on the syncopated 8th notes encourage movement. And then enters the bouncing synth bassline, which plays on nearly every 8th note. A soft synth plays staccato chords on the first and just before the third beat, adding a little hop and a touch of the sinister.

The slow pop “Human Nature” remains one of my favorite tracks. Steve Porcaro of Toto wrote the music; Having just learn this, I do notice some stylistic similarities between “Human Nature” and Toto’s “Africa“. Michael Jackson’s song, though, has much more of a quiet storm feel. The tempo is extremely slow at about 46 BPM. The relaxed vocals and gentle groove of the song provide an fairly flowing feel to the music.

I enjoy the additional of quiet backing vocals that are easily missed without headphones. At the beginning of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’“, Michael can be heard in the left channel singing along “bada bada bump” with the funky electric guitar line. In the same track, some sped-up vocals repeat the line “You’re a vegetable.” These subtle additions add some character and depth to the sound.

Of course the title track, “Thriller“, grabs the listener’s attention and imagination. The tempo travels at a standard 120 BPM. This common tempo makes people want to move and is particularly easy to dance to. The key is an unusual C#m, and actually plays with a lot of 7th chords, without sending particularly jazzy. Except for the choruses, most of the song stretches out I7-IV7 chord progressions. The repetitive and simple bassline and drums keep that a sense of urgent drive throughout the song. There’s synthesized hand percussion and pluck sounds that add interest to the otherwise basic drums.

At about 4:15, when most pop songs would’ve ended, the famous Vincent Price section starts. In fact, the song builds up to what normally would’ve been a conclusion, but the drums keep going and the song is reduced to a very simple but menacing bassline pulsing twice on the first beat. An synth pipe organ hauntingly moans in the back. Michael provides various scat singing underneath Vincent Price’s spoken word. It’s really an excellent effect.