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 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.

Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You”

Album cover for Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You"

I’ve been listening to Aretha Franklin’s 1967 album “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” for lessons I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Unfortunately, the world lost Aretha Franklin the day before I started my week with her album. This was an amazing album and I fell in love with several of the songs almost immediately. Unfortunately, I’ve been struck by a double ear infection that is sapping much of my energy; it’s difficult to concentrate to write as much as I usually do for these albums, but I’ll still talk a little about my favorite tracks. Her singing is tremendous and that remains true on every song.

“Soul Serenade” quickly became my favorite. I especially like the use of horns between the vocals in the chorus. They hit on the 3rd, 4th and 1st of the next measure. It makes that 1st beat feel like a 5th beat.

I also really liked the song “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man” particularly for the smooth extending of syllables during the chorus with backing vocals providing rhythmic repetition. The sparse accompaniment provides a good backing for Aretha’s voice on this slower track. The organ plays extended chords with the piano mostly tinkling occasionally on individual notes, and a basic drum pattern keeps the beat.

As I said this was an amazing album from start to finish. Definitely one that I will return to again and again in the future. I wish I felt better, so that I could do it more justice in writing. So instead, I’ll close with this great video of Aretha Franklin performing the opening track of this album, “Respect.”

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.