As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Like many Prince fans — unfortunately, perhaps like most Prince fans — I’ve been out of touch with His Purple Majesty for several years now. I’d argue that he reached his peak in the late ’80s circa Lovesexy and The Black Album. Many say his pinnacle was even earlier, that it’s been downhill since Sign O’ the Times or even Purple Rain. But few would argue that Prince’s output in the last decade or so has been essential.
With each album seeming more obscure and less relevant, Prince started seeming like a happy memory instead of a still-vital music force. For the last couple of years Outkast, with its eccentric funk and tomfoolery, has done its best to fill the void that was once Prince’s territory.
But there’s good news: with his new album, Musicology, Prince proves he’s not ready for the nostalgia circuit just yet. The album is a sweet joy that reminds you of the splendor of the artist’s greatest years without feeling retro.
You can feel the confidence in his lyrics. In the title song, a celebration of “old school” funk, he evokes James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire, Sly, Chuck D, Doug E. Fresh and Jam Master Jay. He doesn’t come out and put himself in that pantheon. But he deserves to be there — and he knows it. By “Life ‘O’ the Party,” which includes a nod at Outkast and its Atlanta funk, there’s no false modesty or any question who the life of the party is.
As in his best work, there are some great, funky booty-shaking jams — the aforementioned tunes plus “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” — as well as some soul-shaking love ballads — “Call My Name,” for instance.
One of my favorites is “On the Couch,” a bluesy, gospel-drenched tune you could almost imagine the late Ray Charles covering. The horn section on the latter includes former James Brown sideman Maceo Parker and Dutch treat Candy Dulfer on saxes.
There are even some political songs here. “Cinnamon Girl” (not the Neil Young song) is about a girl of “mixed heritage” who is arrested for some unspecified crime after Sept. 11 but prays for peace “as war drums beat in Babylon.”
In “Dear Mr. Man” Prince rages against war, pollution and poverty, quoting Scripture and concluding his “letter” by saying, “We tired, U’all!”
It’s great to have Prince back. Hope he sticks around.
Some refried soul
*The Best of the Funk Brothers: the Millennium Collection. Here’s a strange situation. This is both a best-of album and, technically at least, a debut album.
The Funk Brothers, as documented so well in the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, were the house band for Detroit’s most famous record label. The group played on hit records by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and the rest of the Motown stable.
But until now, they never recorded as the Funk Brothers. They released instrumental albums under the name Earl Van Dyke & the Soul Brothers because, so the story goes, back in the mid-’60s the word funk was considered to be just this side of obscene.
Most of the tunes on this album are the Motown hits we know and love. “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Come See About Me,” “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You),” (most of these done with Van Dyke’s organ taking the place of Diana, Marvin, Levi or whoever) all the way up to “What’s Going On” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
This collection is a good listen. And it goes without saying that keyboardists Van Dyke and Johnny Griffith; bassists James Jamerson and Bob Babbit, guitarists Eddie Willis, Robert White and Joe Messina; and percussionists Benny Benjamin, Uriel Jones, Pistol Allen, Jack Ashford and Bongo Brown deserve credit for creating the sound behind some of popular music’s greatest records. Without a doubt, it was a stupid injustice that Motown never credited its instrumentalists until Marvin Gaye shamed them into it on What’s Going On in 1971.
But this album disproves one of the troubling contentions of Standing in the Shadows of Motown — that the Motown singers were interchangeable, that with a band as great as the Funk Brothers, it didn’t really matter all that much.
Well, the singers did matter. And if you can’t tell Levi Stubbs from Stevie Wonder, or the Temptations from the Vandellas, then you shouldn’t call yourself a music fan.
The fact is, most of these cuts, despite the first-rate instrumentalists, sound half finished. You need those singers. Only the last few cuts — specifically the Temptations’ “Runaway Child Runnin’ Wild” and a Van Dyke original called “The Stingray” sound like actual songs instead of potential karaoke tracks.
And ironically, this collection commits an injustice of its own. They don’t list the horn players, who are essential to many of the songs, especially the late-period stuff included here.
Who were these guys? I guess we’ll have to wait for the documentary "Standing in the Shadows of the Funk Brothers."
Hear “Sweet Hour of Prince” on Terrell’s Sound World, 10 p.m to midnight Sunday. (The Prince segment will start shortly after 11 p.m.) And don’t forget The Santa Fe Opry, same time, same channel Friday night.
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