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.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Are You Experienced”

Jimi Hendrix Are You Experienced album cover

I devoted the past week to Jimi Hendrix Experience‘s 1967 debut LP “Are You Experienced” to learn as a songwriting musician. Hendrix did not much appeal to me when I was a teenager. His status as a god among guitarists gave me the wrong expectations, something like Joe Satriani, who I never liked anyway. I found Jimi’s guitar playing sloppy and didn’t initially care for his singing. Years later, I heard second chance without the expectations. What I heard as sloppy before, I now hear as human expressiveness. I hear an innovative guitar-player deeply connected with their instrument. In contrast to Joe Satriani’s technically brilliant guitar playing, Jimi’s confident playing exudes heart and soul.

Album opener “Purple Haze” starts with a short strange percussive march played on guitar and bass before breaking into one of rock’s greatest guitar riffs. Throughout the song, bass, guitar and drums work together to create a monument. The bass provides a full strong foundation upon which the fuzz guitar builds a wall of harmonics-ladens rock. At the 30 second mark, Jimi shouts “Purple haze all in my brain!”. The vocals drip with heavy reverb and are oddly panned full right.

The usage of panning throughout the album is often awkward and disorienting. The use of reverb on the vocals in “Purple Haze” make the panning feel even more unnatural, because the reverb also is completely in the right channel. I understand that these decisions were results of many era-specific factors: limitations of the recording equipment, a sense of youthful experimentation because stereo was still fairly new, limitations of listening equipment as some listeners were probably still on mono equipment. The drums were nicely recorded in full stereo, so they are spread across the stereo field in a way that feels natural. I’m obviously not saying that things need to feel natural, but the use of stereo effects on this album can distract from the music rather than add to it.

One of my favorites, “Love or Confusion“, makes a wonderful combination of guitar-playing and guitar-experimentation. While the bass provides a solid textural groove, Jimi strikes power-chords and individual notes letting them ring out with fuzzy bliss until they just start to grab a little feedback. My love of fuzz and feedback made this song instantly grab my attention. Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep their fingers off the pan knob and the guitar will occasionally dive left then right. This movement flattens the guitar by making it obvious that it takes up a single point in stereo field. But still, that use of drums and bass to create an rhythmic bed while the guitar produces an atmosphere of noise is amazing.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience arranged these songs strategically well. Instruments, including vocals, take turns having focus while the others pull back to support the lead. This often shows up with vocals and guitar taking turns as lead, which undoubtedly comes from the blues. In some songs, it’ll be that the guitars do something to punctuate the beat, then they fall back for a vocal line, then return to the guitar, then vocals.

For the most part, I find the lyrics on the album to be better than average, but not necessarily amazing. Most of the tracks, like “Manic Depression”, feature very direct lyrics that I think are well-written sincere expressions of their subject. This writing and performance without posturing contributes heavily to the album’s greatness.

The Wind Cries Mary” stand out for me as the best on the album, which was apparently written after he and his girlfriend (not named Mary) had had a fight. The last verse makes brilliant use of imagery in a way that everybody can relate to. Jimi uses word-choice here like a palette to paint this scene of loneliness and regret. The room is so empty that the speaker’s absence is felt even though they are in the room.

The traffic lights they turn blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed
The tiny island sags downstream
Cause the life they lived is dead

The song “Hey Joe“, written by “Billy Roberts, has long been one of my favorite songs. Even when I didn’t care of Hendrix so much, I enjoyed “Hey Joe” and it’s definitely for the music. I do like some murder ballads, but I don’t particularly enjoy the words of this one. The single chord progression repeats throughout the song. It feels like a non-stop coda from the opening that could go on forever. Probably because this song in E minor never fully resolves to the chord of E minor. The chord progression goes C – G – D – A – E (VI – V – VII – IV – I). That’s a very unusual chord progression for me, though it doesn’t sound strange at all. This leads me to think about the possibilities of not fully resolving a chord progression; I appreciate the non-stop cyclic feel it produces here.