Prince and the Revolution’s “Purple Rain”

Prince Purple Rain album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to Prince and the Revolution’s album “Purple Rain” from 1984. As a listener, I know few albums more than this one. I was seven years old when it came out; My teenage aunt was a big fan and I really got into Prince through her. About this time, I told her that I wanted to grow up to be a rock star like Prince or Michael Jackson. that I wanted My mom bought the record and I recall I was NOT allowed to listen to “Darling Nikki.” That’s the song that pushed Tipper Gore to start the PMRC, which lead to the Parental Advisory stickers on albums.

About five months ago, I spent time with “Sign O’ The Times” and I was not particularly impressed. Many authoritative voices praise “Sign O’ The Times” higher than “Purple Rain” and I absolutely disagree. “Purple Rain” is a wholly conceived and beautifully performed and recorded funk pop-rock album. Even though this album has been endless played and has influenced so much that came after, it still maintains a fresh sense of risky inventiveness and stellar musicianship across the board. 

I like to choose three songs from each album to look at specifically; this was not an easy task for “Purple Rain,” but ‘et’s get to it.

The seventh track “I would Die 4 U” opens with a high note, presumably on bass guitar. This leads to a pulsating synth line that plays the rhythmic role often assumed by the hi-hat, giving the song a 16th note disco feel. I believe this is also doubled by a hi-hat sound (likely from Prince’s favorite drum machine, the LM-1). This keeps a gentle sense of urgency throughout the song, only broken for a few seconds before the coda. The lines of “I would Die 4 U” become a chant towards the end, especially during live performances.

As good as the music is, the lyrics are daring and unusual. On one hand, the song comes across as a love song, with a chorus repeating, “I would die for you, Darling, if you want me to.” However, this idea of being so devoted to a lover that you would sacrifice your own life is paralleled with images of Jesus Christ. He opens the song with the memorable, “I’m not a woman; I’m not a man; I am something that you’ll never understand.” An fitting line from a man whose androgynous personality was amplified for the stage, making many 80s parents uncomfortable. 

Then later, he explains that’s not “your lover” or “your friend,” but rather “your messiah and you’re the reason why.” It’s difficult to say if Prince is proclaiming himself to be a messiah, saying that his sense of devotion in love is like that of a messiah, or speaking from the perspective of a love-god concept. This ambiguity leaves the song open to multiple interesting interpretations, but the subject matter begs interpretation. I don’t think he means this in a martyr sort of why, but rather the speaker is the listener’s messiah, because the listener is worthy of a messiah. Or as he says later on, “All I really need is to know that you believe.”

The hit song “When Doves Cry” remained in the number 1 spot for 5 weeks becoming the top-selling single of the year. This song, too, is full of unusual lyrics for a pop song; again with a thread of ambiguity. The verses dream of idyllic love between the speaker and the listener; in contrast, the chorus speak of how they fight. But look at how they conflicts are addressed: the speaker assumes responsibility and looks for answers in their upbringing:

How can you just leave me standing?
Alone in a world that’s so cold.
Maybe I’m just too demanding.
Maybe I’m just like my father: too bold.
Maybe you’re just like my mother:
She’s never satisfied.
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry.

The album closes with its title track “Purple Rain.”  The song combines stylistic elements of rock, gospel, soul, and blues. It carries the audience along at a slow tempo: just under one beat per second. To simplify it, the chord progression is a I-vi-V-IV (coincidentally the first four chords of a circle-of-fifths progression). From what I’ve found online, it’s a little more like a I9-vi7-V-IV (or more precisely Iadd9-vi7add11-V-IV)

As we also know, the song bears a resemblance to Journey’s “Faithfully” which had an earlier release date. I do not know if it is certain if Prince drew inspiration from “Faithfully” or it was a coincidence; apparently Prince was a fan of Journey guitarist Neil Schon and called Journey to get their OK due to the similarity.  The songs share the I-vi-V-IV chord and similar endings.

In my twenties, I also did a lot of home recordings using a Tascam portastudio. I frequently found my way of thinking about starting and ending albums resembled the construction of this album. The song “Purple Rain” launches into a heartbreakingly affirming solo full of atmosphere and then drifts off into lingering strings. And this closes the album. I’ve always felt that was so perfectly beautiful and effective.

The Doors’ “The Doors”

Album cover for The Doors' self-titled debut album

I’ve been listening to the Doors‘ 1967 self-titled debut album this week. My real introduction to the Doors came around 1992 from the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s biopic.  Around the same time, I saw a documentary about Andy Warhol that introduced me to Velvet Underground. Their song “Heroin” was also featured on the soundtrack.  As a high school freshman, I found great inspirations for creativity. Among those were Warhol and Morrison.

I soon read Jerry Hopkin‘s biography of Jim Morrison, “No One Here Gets Out Alive.” It was years before I actually saw The Doors movie. Of course, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t as good as Hopkin’s book. The teenage poetry scrawled in my notebooks became slightly less self-centered as I tried for more mystical universal themes. My dreams of going to film school were inspired by Jim Morrison, Stanley Kubrick, and William S. Burroughs. I didn’t really hear much of the Doors beyond what was featured on the soundtrack, but listened to it over and over again. It was years before I actually saw the movie and I didn’t like it as much as Hopkin’s book.  From the soundtrack, I was enamored with “Ghost Song“, “Riders on the Storm“, “Love Street“, “When the Music’s Over“, and especially “The End.” This was rock music tinged with otherworldly exoticism fronted by an intelligent poet who exuded a heady sense of danger.

I finally acquired a copy the Best of the Doors compilation album in my early 20s. At some point, I lost appreciation for Jim Morrison and the Doors and so managed to miss out on some tracks on this debut album.  I laugh to realize now how into them I was without having ever owned proper album.

“Soul Kitchen” is one of the most Doors sounding Doors songs. It features many stylistic elements found in their songs, as well as some of the better lyrics on this album. Morrison, considering himself a poet,often follows strict rhyme schemes. I can’t say the results are always good. I think their hit song “Light My Fire” has terrible lyrics, though Morrison’s not to blame here, as guitarist Robby Krieger wrote them.

The song opens with organ playing a riff that emphasizes the 1st, 2nd beats, and then dances with syncopation across the 3rd. It’s very similar to the organ in their later song “When the Music’s Over” which is also one of my favorites. The bassline bounces down and up from the 1st and 3rd beats of each measure. Drums join in, playing a standard 8 beat rock rhythm with guitar adding some bluesy rhythm riffs.

The Doors did not have a bass-player, but rather organist
Ray Manzarek played a bass synthesizer with his left-hand. This is often how pianists play, with the left-hand providing bass-lines and the right-hand play chords and/or melodies. What’s unique about Manzarek’s playing, though, is that the bass is a separate instruments and he often maintains a separate personality for each. He provides more soul-funk basslines, claiming Ray Charles as a big influence. However, the right-hand plays a variety of styles, often combining influences from blues, classical, jazz, and even middle-eastern music.

I could write a whole thing on just this song and the lyrics of most of the tracks. So, I will not do that, but I do want to point out one of my favorite verses, which is from “Soul Kitchen.”  The second verse. The four lines are two couplets of perfect rhymes, which in turn are slant rhymes with each other. The first line speaks of the fingers of the owner of the soul kitchen, describing their movements as if weaving minarets. Not a word frequently found in rock lyrics, minarets are skinny towers from which the call to prayers are made. Beautifully ornate Arabic lettering frequently covers these towers and their accompanying mosques. It’s possible that Morrison’s “secret alphabets” is both a reference Arabic calligraphy as well as suggestion that there is a covert shared conversation with the owner.

Well, your fingers weave quick minarets
Speak in secret alphabets
I light another cigarette
Learn to forget, learn to forget

This album closes with one of the Door’s more infamous track,s “The End.” The band also frequently ended concerts with the song. It begins as a goodbye to a lover with “This is the end, beautiful friend […] Of our elaborate plans, the end. Of everything that stands, the end. No safety or surprise, the end. I’ll never look into your eyes again.”

Then, from there, Morrison and the Doors take us on a mystical journey along the California highways. But the journey becomes increasingly sinister, like the boat ride in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.  Until in a fairly similar way, the singer speaks for the listener, “Driver, where you taking us?” This takes us to the Oedipus section of the song. Morrison is known to have been involved in a school production of Oedipus Rex, and the Fruedian idea of Oedipus Rex was still widely discussed at the time. Apparently Morrison tied some additional ideas to the “Kill the father, fuck the mother.” He saw this as a metaphor for doing away what from the past was holding us back, and returning to embracing nature and the Earth. 

The killer awoke before dawn
He put his boots on
He took a face from the ancient gallery
And he walked on down the hall
He went into the room where his sister lived, and then he…
Paid a visit to his brother, and then he…
He walked on down the hall, and
And he came to a door
And he looked inside
“Father?”
“Yes, son?”
“I want to kill you. Mother? I want to…”

While he does censor himself during this section, he chants “fuck” several times throughout the song otherwise like a rhythmic punctuation. It manages, however, to make this section so much more dark and sinister that he leaves out the verbs for bad things the killer does. Much the way good horror films like 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby” lets the more disturbing imagery happen in the imagination rather than on the screen.

I’ll jump back now from the last song on the album to the third, “The Crystal Ship.” This beautiful song  of lost love allows Morrison’s voice to lean a little more towards his crooning. I know that he idolized Elvis Presley, but I learned this week that he also felt the same for Frank Sinatra. This track does combine some elements of both of those singer’s slowerly songs.

As with many albums of the time, the Doors’ self-titled album has hard-panned instruments either all left or all right. Thankfully, unlike the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul“, this keeps vocals in the center, and often another instruments like piano to join. This means there are three positions in the stereo field utilized. Unfortunately, the Doors seemed to have been recorded with greater isolation than the Beatles, so those instruments that are hard left or hard right feel extremely unnatural in headphones.

I’m glad to have spent a full week with this album, I’ve come to love the Doors again. Also, it was good to really hear all of these songs enough times to get to know them. Great stuff, the Doors.

The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul”

The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" album cover

I dedicated this week to listening to The Beatles‘ sixth album “Rubber Soul” from 1965. Of course, I’m well aware of the Beatles. My tastes, especially since a teenager, was for their later work from 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper” on. I thought I wasn’t quite so familiar with “Rubber Soul,” but some of my favorites are on this album as well. With so many great songs, it’s difficult to choose only a few songs to focus on.

One of the most noticeable things about “Rubber Soul” on a whole is the hard-panning. During this period, albums often saw both a mono and a stereo release. The mono mix was given more care and attention, often bands like the Beatles were present and involved in the mono mix. The stereo mix was considered by some to be unnecessary, a slight variation of the mono, or worse, a gimmicky trend. 

I’ve seen two main reasons given for the Beatles stereo mixes using hard panning (each track (instrument) is completely in the left, right, or center.) Limitations of the studio equipment provided the first reason. Up until the late-60s, mixing consoles had a three-position switch for panning: Left-Center-Right, or LCR.

Another reason came from concern of playback equipment and what might happen if the stereo record was played on mono equipment. This second reason lead to the Center position being avoided. One “Rubber Soul” everything is either Left or Right. So, if the two channels were summed together as mono, the mix levels would be preserved.  That separation ccan sound nice in a room with wells-spaced speakers; However, it’s a very strange feeling in headphones to have the center be a void and everything is right in one ear or the other.

The album’s second track “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” is a slower folk-rock song in ¾ time with Indian influence. Not only incorporate influence from music of India, it was also the first rock song to feature an actual sitar rather than just imitating the sound with guitars. George Harrison had a genuine interest in Indian music and culture, which had an influence on much of his work.

Lennon’s lyrics about a less-than-satisfying love affair perhaps don’t reflect any sort of connection to the Indian flavor. Though there is a sense of exotic strangeness to the girl’s house, which can be like being a stranger in a foreign land. Apparently the last verse is about burning her house down, but it’s so vague it’s difficult to say. Though, knowing that Lennon has used the phrase “Norwegian wood” to refer to cheap wood paneling helps a little.

And when I awoke I was alone

This bird had flown

So I lit a fire

Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

The intro and verse probably have no real chord progression, but rather stay in the I chord continuously. At the very least a chord progression of I-v7-IV is implied by the melodic riffs. In this way, the accompaniment further imitates drones heard in Indian music. The sitar plays a riff in the left channel, which doubles the melodic portion of finger-picked acoustic guitar in the right channel. The same melody is almost completely followed by the vocal melody.

I have loved the Beatles “Nowhere Man” as long as I can remember, so definitely since I was a young child. It’s one of those songs that can be appreciated at any age. Gershon Kingsley recorded a great instrumental version of the song using Moog synthesizers that I have adored since first hearing it about 15 years ago. I love the sounds Kingsley has designed for the song, but I also really like the melody of this song. Again, the focus of most Beatles songs is the melody and the accompaniment supports that melody. 

The Beatles keep the instrumentation pretty simple on this track. In the left channel, we have drums, bass, acoustic and electric guitar. The acoustic guitar strums through a I-V-IV-I-ii-iv-I-I chord progression for the verses and iii-IV-iii-IV-iii-ii7-ii7-V7 for the chorus. I especially like that sound of the iii-IV-iii-IV part of the chorus. Still, though this is not a common chord progression, the acoustic guitar strumming pattern definitely is. The bass guitar, as I’ve noticed in several Beatles songs, plays the most interesting part of the accompaniment. McCartney gives the music a groovy counterpoint to the vocals. 

The electric guitar in the left channel mostly plays small melodic riffs during the short pause between verses. Another electric guitar in the right channel plays a solo after the first chorus. Backing vocals are also in the right channel, going ‘ahhhh, ahhhh, la la la’ during the choruses and doubling the lead vocal during verses.

I recognized during the week that one of my favorite tracks “I’m Looking Through You” sounds the most like a Monkees song, and I do love the Monkees. The bit after the chorus gets my attention. Right after they sing “I’m looking through, you’re not the same!” The organ and electric guitar pick up in energy getting a little louder and driving. The organ hits two chords along with the guitar and then guitar continues with a pattern of rapid notes. This interaction adds great energy to the song.

The percussion for the song consists mostly of Ringo tapping his fingers on a box of matches. There’s a few instances of tambourine, which seem to have perhaps been played in the background and picked up by another microphone. During the post-chorus sections, Ringo also plays a minimal but effective pattern on the drum kit. 

“Rubber Soul” deserves more praise among Beatles albums. I liked this album far more than “Revolver.” But, I also like “Abbey Road” more than “Sgt. Pepper“. Anyway, this was definitely another great album and one I’m glad I’ve gotten to know better. I’ll continue listening to this one for years, I’m sure.


The Who’s “Who’s Next”

The Who's "Who's Next" album cover

I’ve been listening to The Who‘s 1971 LP “Who’s Next” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. I wasn’t much into the Who growing up. My parents had the soundtrack to Tommy; This was not the album “Tommy,” but rather the songs re-recorded with performers from the film adaptation. I loved it growing up, fascinated by the apparent story from a movie I wasn’t allowed to see. From oldies stations, I knew a handful of their earlier songs.

In my late teens, I saw the film “Quadraphenia” on IFC at night. I fell in love immediately.  Soon, I discovered that my father-in-law had a copy of the album which I borrowed and never returned. This has long been my favorite Who album. When I went to school for painting, I probably annoyed my studio mates with the frequency I played it. Anyway, except for a couple of songs, I wasn’t really too familiar with “Who’s Next” and I found this album to be great as well; Not as a solid work like “Quadraphenia,” but better perhaps as a collection of individual songs.

The album opens with the electric arpeggio texture of an analog synthesizer. That synth may’ve been an EMS Synthi like Pink Floyd on Dark Side of the Moon. This is joined by piano playing chords in a two bar pattern. This hits the first and fourth beat of the one measure, which leads into the second measure where one the first beat is struck. The bass and guitar soon join in giving this simple rhythm an epic percussive sound. Of course, alongside the constant synth, Keith Moon drives away on the drums. He uses the crash cymbals to emphasize the rhythm. This rhythmic pattern of hitting the first beat of each measure and using the fourth beat to lead into the next second measure gets used in some form throughout the album.

The chords played here follow a classic rock I-V-IV pattern. Though occasionally the order may change some, this is effectively a three chord rocker. The chorus takes a break from the big rock pattern with a V-I-V-IV-I-V-IV pattern coming solely from the synth.  

Roger Daltrey’s vocals complete the sound of the song; they fill it with that punk rock musical passion that The Who were able to pull off. He sings “Out here in the fields, I fight for for my meals, I get my back into my living.” It’s important to know that several of this album’s songs where originally written for a scrapped rock opera called “Lifehouse.” this opening track was to be sung by a farmer heading into London. Townshend wrote the “teenage wasteland” bit as a bit of negative reaction to seeing drugged-out kids at Woodstock

The fourth track “My Wife” was also one of my favorites this week. The use of horns during the second half of the song, really just to punctuate the beat, got my attention first. Each measure start with a full chord strum on the first beat. Again, we hear that classic Townshend straight-forward overdriven electric guitar sound. I think it’s fantastic. Then there’s some partial strums, occasional muted lower notes and arpeggio higher notes. The piano plays syncopated chords bouncing in rhythmic conversation with the guitar. This conversation has been emphasized by panning the guitar left and the piano right. 

The chord progression is not as heavy as the I-IV-V of the first track. I’m not sure I’m getting this right, but this is what I believe the chord progression to be. The verse is I-VI♭-VI♭-IV-III♭-III♭-IV-I then ii-ii-VI♭-IV-III♭-VI♭-V-V. So much for the class rock progressions we heard earlier in the album! This is more the sort of stuff you’d expect from Cole Porter. Rock music typically doesn’t use so many chords in one song, especially borrowed chords.

The track is a bit of a folk-country ballad (in the classic ballad sense) with the Who rock sound. The speaker tells the story of how he got thrown in jail for getting drunk and the trouble he’s in at home because his wife thinks he was with another woman. The tale is dated, but it does make for a good song.

The closing track “Won’t Get Fooled Again” stands as one of the Who’s strongest and most iconic songs. (I’ll reuse the word “iconic” in a bit) The song starts with a lone overdriven guitar power chord that fades out naturally. Beneath this flows another pulsating rhythmic arpeggio synth texture similar to the opening “Baba O’Riley.” Pete Townshend explained the sound is actually an organ played through a sample-and-hold modulated filter. This is heard clean in the left channel with through a delayed-reverb in the right channel to give it depth.

The verses run a I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-V-V chord progression. The chorus also make use of a repeating I-IV progression, though at twice the speed and close with III-V7-III-V7-III-IV-IV7-I. That major III in the chorus gives a more majestic feel than the typical minor iii. Also to be noted is that Pete Townshend prefers to give these more rocking strong anthems simpler chord progressions. These gives the listener something easier to immediately grab unto.  Also, again, the majority of the guitar work is bursts of overdriven strums allowed to ring out. It’s also worth noting that, except for vocals, The Who don’t really have a lead instrument. So, Townshend at times will ramp up from rhythm guitar to a lead-rhythm. 

This 8 minute 33 second song is the climactic closer of the album. At 7:44, Roger Daltrey produces a nearly four second scream of “Yeah!” that is the climax of the song. It also remains one of rock n roll’s most iconic moments. That filtered organ sound is another, and they’re both in the same track. After that “yeah,” he delivers the punch-line (and message) of this lyrics about revolutions: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” After this, the song quickly wraps up The song leads up to that 7:44 mark. A first-time listener might not be aware what they are building up to, but Townshend and crew were seemingly aware that repeat listeners would be. They give a similar moment at 4:29, with a 2 second “yeah” that does not have quite the same power but does tie the two parts of the song together. 

This is an amazing album from start to finish; It really shows what can be done with the essential instruments of rock n roll (drums, bass, guitar, vocals) in the hands of impassioned talented experts. Each member of the band is amazing at what they do. True, Pete Townshend is typically not playing anything technically difficult or complex. People who love Joe Satriani’s showy lead guitar are not necessarily going to be impressed, but I am. Keith Moon always impresses me. I’ve often heard complaints that he didn’t know when to calm down, but I think they just aren’t hearing the whole catalog. Anyway, I love this album.  I still think “Quadraphenia” is better, but we don’t really need to compare, do we?

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Electric Ladyland”

This week, I’ve been listening to the 1968 album “Electric Ladyland” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. About six months ago, I spent time with their first album “Are you Experienced?” That album was released just 17 months before this, their third and final album.

They certainly evolved over this short period of time. While I truly enjoyed their debut album, I absolutely loved this one. The first album was more of a psychedelic blues rock. This album takes that sound and launches into the stratosphere, pushing the experimental psychedelic elements. They’ve also folded in some ingredient of soul and funk.

The album opens with intro track  “And the Gods Made Love” which is some slowed down stuff. It’s kind of neat the first couple times and then I found it annoying. I wanted to talk here about the first real song 
Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland),” but I like to include a video link of the songs here and it’s not available on YouTube. Anyway, it is a great track and from the first thirty seconds, I knew I was going to love the album. It’s opens as a rather soulful funk-aware R&B song. Strange things are happening with the rhythms as the song seems to swirl upon itself. Experimental yet immediately accessible.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded a fantastic cover of Bob Dylan‘s song “All Along the Watchtower” for this album. From what I’ve read, Hendrix got ahold of Dylan recording pretty early and liked this song immediately. The Experience worked on their cover for a few months and it was released within a year of Dylan’s original.  As great as Dylan’s lyrics are, the incredible soundscape of Hendrix’s version towers above the words. I know many of the words, but don’t really know what the song is about because what’s happening musically is so amazing. The verses serve more as passing narrative between the real action: Jimi’s lead guitar. 

A twelve-string acoustic guitar strums the chords throughout the song simply.  The lead guitar gives the track much of its psychedelic blues rock flavor. Jimi’s plays his stratocaster through a chorus and fuzz, with expressive filter modulation provided by a wah pedal. This sound of this combination of guitar and effects is all over the album. To see how the wah pedal is used to create these sounds, check out this excellent video by fuzzfaceexp. Some additional use of delay provides depth to the leads as well.

Another great song is “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” towards the end of the album. Again, the track mostly provides a space for Jimi’s chorus-fuzz-wah lead guitar to soar into wildly expressive explorations of sound. This starts with the opening measures, one of the Hendrix’s most famous riffs. One that I, unfortunately must admit, first hear in middle school as sampled in a 2 Live Crew song. The Hendrix track has a marvelously live jam quality to it; Even though it features use of overdubbing additional tracks, it was initially created as a jam.

I continue my complaint about the Jimi Hendrix Experience and overuse of stereo panning as an effect. Sometimes it adds something to a song, but mostly I find it annoying and distracting. Better, I feel to use panning of a delay effect, but that may not have been as readily an option as it is today.

Overall, I loved the album “Electric Ladyland.” There’s more playful experimentation than found on “Are You Experienced?” as well as a greater sense of skill and experience with their direction and recording.  Great album.

Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions”

Stevie Wonder: Innervisions album coverThis week, I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder’s 1973 album “Innervisions” for lessons I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriter. For years, my only real awareness of Stevie Wonder was his work in the 1980s. At eight years old, I saw his appearance on the Cosby Show. I watched it many times on VHS and used to sing the song “I Just Call To Say I Love You” throughout my childhood. By the time I hit my teens, I grew to find songs like this and “Ebony and Ivory” were just cheesy. I didn’t become aware of his fantastic 1970s work until fairly recently. Some of the stuff I had heard before without realizing who it was. I absolutely loved spending a week getting to know this album.

Wonder is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and plays many of the instruments on the album. Every instruments on “Living for the City” is played by Stevie Wonder. Fender Rhodes electric piano opens the song spinning left-right through the stereo tremolo. As with much of the album, Wonder makes use of the legendary TONTO for fantastic synthesizer  sounds. Once the drums start, the kick hits on every quarter note through the verse and chorus, though changes for the bridge.

The chord progression is very simple for the verse: I – ii – I7 – ii, with the synth bass mostly bouncing on on the tonic every quarter note. The chorus rises through a IV-IV-V6-V7 progression. The da-da-da-da bridge contrast with the rest of the song by being in 3/4 time as borrowing a series of chords from outside of the key. The first chord of the bridge could be vi7♭5,  then to vi♭ to v♭ coming done to ii♭ back to I.

Though the music is funky with a definitely bouncing groove, it would feel rather laid back without the vocals. Wonder’s singing gives the track its energy. He sings the verses with a rhythm and a simple melody; it’s almost rapping. He also punctuates the rhythm with non-verbal grunts, pops and ‘hee’s;’ Michael Jackson undoubtedly drew influence from Stevie Wonder. The synth bass and electric piano may be the heart of the accompaniment, but the vocals are the drive.

One of my favorite tracks, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” closes the album. Wonder provides all vocals and plays all instruments except the electric bass guitar. Acoustic piano plays chords throughout. The chord progressions runs I-I7-I6-iv6-I-V-IV for the verses and a bridge/chorus of ii-I-IV-V-vi7-V-I-ii7. This use of extended chords provides interesting movement while essentially staying in the same chord.

A different idea for me, that seems so natural in the song, is the use of multiple time signatures within the verses. The whole song is in 4/4 time with an exception at the end of each verse. Every verse has the refrain “He’s miistra Know-It-All” in 2/4 time.

I like the use of synthesizers to add little magical flourishes to the top end of the piano lines. Sometimes they are like soft sparkles drifting into the air.   At the half-way point, Stevie’s vocals pick up in energy and hand-claps increase the sense of energy. It also helps the song feel like it’s coming to a close.

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.