Passion is a six-letter word


I've been suspicious of one-named thrushes since Robyn started scoring points beyond the Top 40 crowd (hell, since we confused appreciation of Aaliyah's overrated albums with spectacular consistency with singles), but a handful of listens to Amerie's Because I Love It confirms that she's got the avidity we demand of a wannabe pop sensation. Make no mistake: this is the year's most consistent pop album, terrific for confirming that lyrical banality does not equal performative banality -- that, indeed, performance scours banality until truth remains. As a stand-alone single, the galumphing "Gotta Work" reminded me too much of Beyonce's grim careerist anthems, long on determination, short on euphoria; on the album, it's a nicely modulated manifesto, preparing us for "Hate 2 To Love U," "Some Like It," and a sequence of tunes whose consistently inventive, glistening overtones bring to relief an undertone even a Battles fan can appreciate: sometimes there's gonna be days like this, so you smile and you endure. I realized there was something special going on when the synths on "Crush" obliquely interpolated a theme from New Order's "Thieves Like Us," one of their most underrated singles, and one that's taken years for me to warm to; I kept looking, hopelessly, for Bernard Sumner's wink to the audience.

That fervor's obvious in most of Amerie's performances. She's the Diana Ross of "You Keep Me Hangin' On," aware of the thin line between acceptance and hysteria, although thankfully Amerie's still not quite big enough a star for the awareness to ossify her energy into the rictus grin of "Muscles" and "It's My Turn." Unlike Beyonce, she can make her ballads signify beyond mere intimations of vulnerability. As Tim Finney remarks, her producers are savvy enough to luxuriate in the tension between her multitracked choruses and crisply enunciated verses, but this theory does little justice to what Amerie accomplishes on an "American Idol" readymade like "All Roads," on whose final forty-five seconds she's actually allowed to sing herself hoarse. It's a stunning moment: this is no Jennifer Hudson sustained aria of indestructibility, it's weakness, unmediated. It's what we expect "American Idol" to be instead of sell.

Re Amerie's "Crush" versus Ciara's "C.R.U.S.H.": were I to extend the New Wave diva analogy I started here, I'd say that Amerie is Alison Moyet to Ciara's Annie Lennox. The marketplace is responding in this manner, unfortunately, as Because I Love It's release date has been pushed back for months and I rarely hear Amerie on the radio. Meanwhile cooler-than-ice-cream Ciara will likely enjoy an audience likely to follow her into continued adult-contemporary remuneration. In the U.S. it's rare enough to see distance triumph over investment that this seems at best a mixed victory.

(crossposted with Humanizing the Vacuum)

Club Nouveau – "Why You Treat Me So Bad"


I give these hacks credit for nothing: while the near-genius manipulation of space, synth strings, and programmed pitter-patter in the first minute sounds amazingly fresh in 2007, it also reminds me of Genesis' "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight." I wouldn't put it past creator Jay King to think that Tony Banks is some kind of keyboard god either.

Sign 'O' the Times (1987; dir. Prince)


[Note: This was written for a reading I recently did from my volume in the 33 1/3 series on Prince's Sign 'O' the Times, along with Douglas Wolk, who read from his book on James Brown's Live at the Apollo and played an amazing record about James Brown by one of his acolytes. The piece is meant to rectify my utter failure to include the Sign movie as part of the book, which I wrote in two weeks following my overseeing a pair of cover packages at my then-new job at Seattle Weekly. Call it the missing chapter of the 33 1/3, and enjoy.]

"He wants to settle down," Prince's dancer and backing vocalist Cat Glover explains in voiceover during one of the handful of needless interruptions in Prince’s only theatrically released concert film. "I want to know why a wolf is dressed as a lamb." The camera then pans out her bedroom window and onto a stage where Prince begins singing "If I Was Your Girlfriend" . . . in a white fur coat. You gotta love the guy--extolling the virtues of monogamy while dressed as a pimp. No wonder Rick James hated him.

That’s not the only reason, of course. As quiet as it’s kept in the wake of the closely timed double whammy of his death and his elevation as nationally beloved caricature in the hands of Dave Chappelle, Rick James was a very limited talent. Prince, especially by Sign ‘O’ the Times, seemed nearly limitless as a musician. The album demonstrated it flatly, and while the movie can be thought of as an extension of the album, and thus a like demonstration, it can also be seen as an attempt to do something grander. Sign ‘O’ the Timesthe album came together by concentrated work, yes, but also by happenstance, its initial three-album length shaved down unwittingly at first, the handful of binding concepts eventually jettisoned in favor of 16 songs that were both more various and more coherent. Sign ‘O’ the Timesthe movie, though, is anything but a scrapbook. Once Prince figured out the shape of his masterpiece, he could play with it, and he could also use it as a springboard to try to go beyond what he’d accomplished.

That’s the shape the movie takes. Or rather, that’s the shape the music in the movie takes: at no point in his career would anybody not on the artist’s payroll claim Prince was a filmmaker. Saul Austerlitz, in his recent history of music video, asserts that Prince’s videos were often stiff because they relied less on visual or storytelling canniness than on the electricity of their star’s persona and stagecraft. I like Prince’s videos a lot more than Austerlitz does but I’d be lying if I said he didn’t have a point. Purple Rain was magnetic, the stuff of instant myth. Something really was coursing through the air at the time, and the movie really did capture it. It wasn’t a very good movie, granted, but myths have been built from less, and the live scenes remain among the greatest ever shot.

Still, Prince’s film limits are suggested by watching the 20th anniversary DVD of the film released in 2004, which is appended by videos for every single released from the album. Aside from “When Doves Cry,” featuring nakey-Prince emerging from the tub, every single piece of film these clips use is taken from the film, which means you see the same images over and over and over again. (The DVD also contains badly kept footage of MTV’s coverage of the film’s premiere, which is catnip for scholars of the period, largely by its touching reminder that the channel was nearly as gawky as real life before even musicians had all the spontaneity media-trained out of them. The only person with any real degree of comfort in front of the cameras, the VJs included, is Eddie Murphy, whose answer to what brings him to the premiere--“’Cause Prince is bad!”--is accompanied by a stare so withering he wouldn’t approach it again until the scene where he’s about to shoot up in Dreamgirls.)

Sign ‘O’ the Times repeats motifs from Purple Rain as well, such as Prince showing us, during an interlude, a display window with a ring in a giant pink heart-shaped cushion. (He’s already playing the guitar from the same display window we saw in Purple Rain.) But this isn’t quite what Purple Rain would have been had they killed the backstage bullshit. For one thing, Sign moves much of the bullshit onstage, starting with the opening sequence: Gregory Allen Brooks and Cat Glover having a fight you’d have to strain to dub “elliptical.” He: “Just tell me what you want.” Rat-a-tat-tat. She: “Trust.” He: “No, nuh-uh.” Rat-a-tat-tat. She: “Love.” He: “Mon-ay.” She: “Sex.” He: [nods vigorously]. She: “Talking.” He: “Bullshit.” Finally, something everyone watching can agree with.

Sign ‘O’ the Times was originally shot live in concert in Rotterdam and Paris, but much of it was later reshot at the then-recently built Paisley Park studios, where Prince redubbed most of the soundtrack as well. In one way, the musical sequences are very of their time: lots of MTV-style editing, plenty of crosscutting between band members, a semi-coherent “plot” intercut between the music, and sometimes in the middle of it--during the second song, “Play in the Sunshine,” a painfully dubbed Prince asks, “Hey Cat, wanna go out tonight?” “Fuck off,” she responds. This is also the song that features another, cough, “plot point”: Prince introduces, “On the drums, Sheila E! Not bad--for a girl,” which cues a close-up of a snarling Sheila, mid-beat. Most drummers look like they’re about to spit cud while playing as hard as she does on this and many of the other songs, but we get the idea, because we’re meant to, that this cues a romantic rivalry between the two women for Prince. This will be resolved, oddly, with “If I Was Your Girlfriend”: showing what a sensitive guy you really are makes everything all better—right, fellas? Sheila gets to be coequals during “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” too, when Prince hi-fives her while she takes the microphone for her “rap” (read: reciting an Edward Lear poem really fast) as Prince plays drums. There is a really nice double-dutch routine between Sheila and Cat, and Cat gets to “beat up” various male band members. Girl power, or something. And of course we end on “The Cross,” with Prince in an artfully scuffed blue denim jacket and Nehru pants. If you’re gonna sing about Jesus, looking like Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon at their most messianic probably doesn’t hurt.

You can ignore this imagery or not, though it’s clear the artist would prefer you didn’t. Either way, most of what is worthwhile about Sign ‘O’ the Times--which is to say, a lot—is the way Prince uses this rivalry purely to push his stagecraft. That isn’t to say the filmmaking, per se. The cutting isn’t as simple as in Purple Rain, where the sequences built because the cameras largely stayed put, or simply followed the star while the Revolution burned behind him. That made sense, musically: the Revolution was somewhat anti-virtuosic as a rule. The Sign band had one bona fide virtuoso besides the leader. Sheila E plays a drum set so ridiculously tricked out it would have made Neil Peart squeal even higher. But the Revolution helped make Prince a rock hero because it rocked. It funked, too, but Under the Cherry Moon wasn’t a concert film. Either way, Sign was more dynamic than anything Prince had ever done, and the band that toured it could keep up with its entire range in a way that’s harder to imagine the Revolution doing.

Of course he wanted to show them off. The mid-set cover of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time” is intended not just for a costume change or a rather silly sequence involving sidekicks Gregory Brooks and Wally Safford playing cards, fistfighting, and getting arrested, but to allow longer close-ups of the players: saxophonist Eric Leeds and trumpeter Matt Blistan, a.k.a. Atlanta Bliss; keyboardists Boni Boyer and Dr. Fink, the Revolution’s sole holdover; guitarist Miko Weaver, shirtless, with black cloth hanging over his glasses; bassist Levi Seacer, Jr., who would later switch to guitar and become Prince’s key collaborator during the ’90s (not the faint praise it might sound like; Prince’s ’90s isn’t on par with his ’80s but it still deserves serious re-evaluation). Sheila, of course, climaxes with a drum solo ending with her playing the cymbals with her hands. There are other close-ups of band members, my favorite of which is Boni Boyer doing an absolutely joyous whole-body dance during “Housequake.” The entire performance of that song is incendiary, and it peaks with the movie’s finest shot, an audience-eye camera that starts on Cat, only to have Prince emerge from the bottom of the frame, propelling himself across the stage while flat on his back.

That moment has the feel of a live show, but you can spot the hefty number of re-shot sequences. They’re blended well enough that you’d have to study it closely to spot the difference. The band’s entry during the opener, “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” is probably some of both. After the song proper, featuring Prince on guitar, Dr. Fink buried in the background on synth, and Cat dancing furiously, with a drum machine keeping the beat, the rest of the group enters playing the tattoo on marching-band snares. It’s impossibly dramatic and completely effective--so much so that D’Angelo would steal it outright for the beginning of the shows on his 2000 tour behind Voodoo.

Maybe most audacious of all, Prince he incorporates the video of “U Got the Look” as, get this, a “dream sequence,” with montaged show footage and backstage stuff (everyone preparing to hit the stage, a group prayer) during the song’s intro to connect it. It’s kind of ingenious, really, from a budget standpoint: he made a video for the song featuring roughly the same stage setup, so why let it go to waste?

I’m convinced, though, that at least one of the audience shots was redone at Paisley as well. Looking at Purple Rain again on that 20th anniversary DVD, I noticed something about the crowds at First Avenue: They were overwhelmingly white. Since I’m from Minneapolis and in fact worked for two-and-a-half-years at First Avenue, this wasn’t the least bit surprising. Minneapolis is a very white city; the first serious black population influx came in the wake of Purple Rain, in fact. Watch the audience in most of Sign ‘O’ the Times and you’ll see much the same thing: Prince filmed shows in Europe, not the U.S. But during “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” you’ll notice something different about the audience. Where did all the black people come from? And why did they appear during this song? Because it’s about a pregnant mother of one whose man runs away from her? White people do that shit, too, Prince.

I’m concentrating on visuals here partly because a lot of the music is very similar to the album. “I Could Never Take the Place” here has a very different intro: runaway drums more headlong than anything else in the film broken through by an absolutely lovely piano run of the melody, then horns that are very Broadway, after a fashion, appropriately so since we get a full blown scenario enacted by Cat, Greg Brooks, and Wally Safford as a bartender. He ad-libs during the second verse, after “You wouldn’t be satisfied,” “At least I wouldn’t,” with the biggest smile of his life. Then he solos, and note for note, inflection for inflection, it is almost exactly the same as on the album. The editing finds a nice steady rhythm here, and it’s wonderful to watch him throw flowers into the crowd from atop the piano, then wail away on the guitar solo’s second half, completely in his element.

Jade - "Don't Walk Away"


The swagger of Seduction combined with the squeaky-cleanness of the Supremes plus utterly of-the-moment New Jill Swing production made for a sublimely sublime single. Perfect, and unfairly lost to the mists of time; what it's time for is a Jade comeback. Oh yes.

Valentines Day Mix


A mix I did this morning in celebration of this most romantic of days.


Raydio- A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)- Arista 1981
New Edition- Mr. Telephone Man - RCA 1984
Bobby Caldwell- What You Won't Do For Love - Clouds Records 1978
Chaka Khan- Through The Fire - Warner Bros. 1984
Jeffrey Osborne- On The Wings Of Love - A&M 1984
Stevie Wonder- That Girl - Motown 1982
Ashford & Simpson- Solid - Capitol 1984
Dionne Warwick- Heartbreaker - Arista 1982
Switch- I Call Your Name - Gordy 1979
Zingara- Love's Calling - Wheel 1981
Force MD's- Tender Love - Island 1985
Donny Hathaway- A Song For You - Atco 1971

Ju-Par Universal Orchestra- "Time"


The Ju-Par imprint only lasted for a meager few full lengths and an assortment of 7" singles. It was distributed by Motown from its inception until the late seventies, when the label ceased to exist. Its homebase was 13801 W 8 Mile Rd. For local readers of BAF who want to get a sense of location, that's right around the 8 and Schafer area, on the east side of the Lodge. Rumors also have circulated from local record collectors for years that Ju-Par was funded by the small but vibrant mafia community that was active in Detroit during the time.

Featuring the stellar guitar playing of Phil Upchurch and some seriously sick ivory playing by producer/arranger Dick Boyell, Ju-Par Universal Orchestra's first and only release was an exercise in jazz/funk/soul that compliments many of the film scores from blaxplotation films being released en masse during this time. It has also in recent years become much in demand with record collectors.

"Time" is track 03 of Detroit 1976-1984. It was released on Ju-Par's Moods And Grooves LP in 1976. Download it and then purchase it.

The New Dance Show: A Very Special BAFTV


It goes without saying that if you were from Detroit, you knew about The Scene or The New Dance Show. Airing on WGPR throughout the 70s well into the 90s, TS/TNDS were two of Detroit's most important and original dance music programs. Yes, there were others that came before (Swingin' Time, Teen Town etc.) in the 60s, but none managed to capture the raw energy that Nat Morris/RJ Watkins managed to during this magical period. It also was a bonafide phenomenon. From a recent passage in Gordon Castelnero's excellent book TV Land Detroit, Detroit DJ Scott Gordon (the guy who, in my opinion, schooled a young Richie Rich Hawtin on the decks) sums it up very accurately:

"It had a lot of impact on me as far as being a deejay and being exposed to music I wouldn't ordinarily be exposed to...and incorporating that into my own shows at the weekend teen clubs I was playing for. All these very lily white kids from neighborhoods like Waterford and these far outlying suburbs at the time loved the sutff that they had never heard before. Alot of subcultured white kids were affected by The Scene, and I was one of them."

Below is an excerpt of an on-location shoot of the New Dance Show at Detroit's Cooley High, and the play list is Grade A all the way through. Following that, another excerpt of an on shoot location from 1992 and 1989, respectively.

And of course, this post that's been making the rounds like wildfire.. a clip from 1982 featuring another one of Detroit's finest, A Number of Names' single "Sharevari".

The BEST part could very well be the commercials from that era:

And finally, if i haven't worn your attention span down enough...a dance line

Thanks to the generosity of a few kind souls these videos and more have been making the rounds on YouTube, and have been a kind comfort in the midst of a rather brittle and cold winter.

Al Green - "Your Love Is Like The Morning Sun"


I wrote about this great obscure Al Green album track today; here's another, to which I alluded but failed to provide the space. "Your Love Is Like The Morning Sun" may be the quiestest song Green ever recorded. His voice a horny murmur still a-quiver after a night of revelatory coitus, Green forces Al Jackson to eschew the heavy bottom for which he was deservedly famous in favor of steady rim tapping, counting the minutes until Al's revved up all over again. "...Morning Sun" has the sound and feel of a hymn, a lubricious update of the St. Francis serenity prayer; the celestial becomes the carnal, signified by Green's taking the line "No one can take your place" down the scales, one note at a time, from the empyrean to the bedroom. One of my all-time favorite moments of self-referentiality occurs in the last forty seconds: Green stringing together the titles of "Tired of Being Alone," "I'm Still in Love With You," and "Let's Stay Together." Needless to say, it's more moving than Sting's similar attempts in the early nineties.

Harvey Mason - "Spell"


It is doubtful this will be the hottest thing you encounter during our suspect Detroit '76-'84 survey, but if you have a sweet spot for sub-EWF MOR R&B from the early '80s (100% guilty here), you ought to find a copy of Harvey Mason's MVP. Session demon Mason is not from Detroit (he's from Atlantic City, to be precise), but Deon Estus -- who is featured throughout the album and happens to be responsible for many of the via-search hits we get -- is from the city. He's present on bass and vocals throughout MVP, and "Spell" is one of the songs he had a hand in writing. As far as mellow twilight numbers made for slowly rocking back and forth go, it's real nice. We'll talk about Estus again when we reach Brainstorm. (We will stop short of Wham!)

"Spell" is track 02 of Detroit 1976-1984. It was released on an Arista LP in 1981 (or maybe it was 1980). Download it and then purchase it.

Different 10 of '06


Okay, I'll bite. There's a part of me that wants year-end mini-polls for every genre, anyway (a la Nashville Scene's Country Music Critics Poll).

And we're sticking to R&B, right, no hip hop? Okay.

01 Ciara - "Promise"
02 Kirk Franklin - "Looking for You"
03 Beyoncé - "Ring the Alarm"
04 Justin Timberlake featuring T.I. - "My Love"
05 Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z - "Deja Vu"
06 Prince - "Black Sweat"
07 Justin Timberlake - "SexyBack"
08 Mary J. Blige - "Be Without You"
09 Mariah Carey - "Fly Like A Bird"
10 Ne-Yo - "When You're Mad"

Also: Christina Aguilera - "Ain't No Other Man," Chris Brown - "Yo (Excuse Me Miss)," Jamie Foxx featuring Twista - "DJ Play A Love Song," Anthony Hamilton - "Can't Let Go," Janet featuring Nelly - "Call On Me," Ne-Yo - "So Sick," Robin Thicke featuring Pharrell - "Wanna Love You Girl"

-Omarion's "Ice Box" and Fantasia's "Hood Boy" are on my '07 list (the same way that MJB's on my '06).
-I know "Wanna Love You Girl" came out in, what, 1994? (Sure seems that way.) But it's on an '06 album - and made an impact on me in '06 - so here it is.
-I didn't include "Promiscuous," but did include "SexyBack." It's a matter of degrees, I guess.

And good Lord, my list feels dull. So major-label, so radio-ready. But this is what I liked in the past year, so it is what it is.