Prince Returns…Twice

Prince can be called many things: weird, unpredictable, innovative, genius, and other things. But one thing he has always been is generous, especially with his music. He was one of the first music superstars to provide new albums on the Internet, released 3-4 disc collections of new or unheard cuts, and his last album was available for free exclusively in European tabloids and newspapers. Considering the artist formally known as The Artist has made 10 platinum albums out of 32 in a nearly 40 year career, you’d think he’s some guy passing out unmarked discs at a garage sale and not one of the biggest and most influential artists of all time. It’s been 4 years since Prince has put music to a record, but he’s stayed busy playing intimate surprise shows, chatting with Arsenio Hall, and eating pancakes with Zooey Deschanel. More notably, Prince has been playing shows with his new all-girl backing band 3RDEYEGIRL. Now, Prince is giving the world twice the beat in two different ways with a new solo album and 3RDEYEGIRL’s album debut. So what fits Prince better: rock and roll frontman or the purple funk freak the world knows and loves?

Well, if you have a far reaching knowledge of Prince, you’d know that he is an excellent guitar player (along with all of the other basic instruments he can play). Because of his original stance as an R&B legend, that skill hasn’t been highlighted as often as he would like. With 3RDEYEGIRL, he’s able to really flex his fingers with a six-string. On Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL’s new (confusingly titled) album “PLECTRUMELECTRUM,” Prince shreds his distorted, fuzzed-out guitar like he’s Jimmy Page on “Pretzelbodylogic,” “Fixurlifeup,” and “Funknroll.” 3RDEYEGIRL themselves sync up with the purple one very well. Bassist Ida Nielsen slaps each note of “Boytrouble” and make great rhythm sections with drummer Hannah Ford Welton on “Stopthistrain.” The group as a whole give off a great Led Zeppelin meets Sly & the Family Stone sound, but manages to slow things down for intimate moments on “Whitecaps” and tear through cuts like “Anotherlove.” Prince sounds more free and fun on “PLECTRUMELECTRUM” than he has in quite some time.

Prince’s solo disc “Art Official Age” is another story. Here, he never kicks things into high gear. His solo take on “Funknroll” always manages to forget to turn up to 11 when it needs to, while the title track and “The Gold Standard” has too many vocal effects and not enough killer breakdowns to make 5-star tracks. In fact, “Art Official Age” shines brightest when Prince slows things down. Take “Breakfast Can Wait” for instance, where Prince makes sex before pancakes sound like the ultimate come-on, especially with the use of less vocal effects, a drum beat and smooth guitar. “U Know” on the other hand has Prince sing-rapping into a vocoder with a skittering beat to back his purple freshness. “What It Feels Like” has Prince laying out his desire for his future girl, while “Breakdown” has Prince looking back on lost time. It’s a good record, but half the songs here feel like something’s missing.

Where “Art Official Age” shines on slow jams, “PLECTRUMELECTRUM” burns through funk-rock like there’s no tomorrow. If 3RDEYEGIRL is Prince’s new musical direction, it sounds as electric as his guitar he probably has turned up to 11. Out of the new releases, “PLECTRUMELECTRUM” seems to stand out more for its volume and spirit. “Art Official Age” has its moments that prove Prince is still smoother than anyone will ever be, be his upbeat tracks need more authentic instruments and not Pro Tools. The world will love Prince either way (it’s impossible not to like at least one of his songs), but 3RDEYEGIRL may be the vehicle he needs to release his inner-Hendrix. Either way, Prince loves music so much, he’ll give it to the world in two ways, God bless him.

Final Verdict (“Art Official Age”): 3.5 out of 5 stars
Final Verdict (“PLECTRUMELECTRUM”): 4 out of 5 stars

U2 Take a Sales Step Forward, But a Sonic Step Back

This is it? This is all we get after 5 years?

Well, it looks like U2 are finally enjoying the perks of being the Biggest Band in the World. For those unaware, being the Biggest Band in the World entitles this Irish quartet, with over 150 million records sold and the highest grossing tour ever, to much leisure: global recognition when a new song or album is released, instant buzz on the album being either a “return to form” or “artistic leap forward,” top notch producers or songwriters, methods of releasing new material in ways nobody else could, and the most popular perk to global music stardom; phoning it in.

Now, it wouldn’t be a big deal if anyone else made a half-assed record that’s just an advertisement for how awesome they are (see The Rolling Stones’ output from 1986 to 2005). But it’s a bit more distressing when U2 is pulling back on the throttle. Hearing that Bono and company, men that dared to mix post punk with politics and then German industrial music with visual overload, decided to unleash their new album upon iTunes and Apple users for free (in return for a reported $100 million from Apple themselves) seems more like an annoying email from your professor about homework than a new statement from the best stadium rock band alive today. Regardless, “Songs of Innocence,” the first U2 album since 2009s criminally underrated “No Line on the Horizon,” is here to remind listeners that U2 are back…kind of.

Despite main production of the album being from Danger Mouse (Beck, Gnarls Barkley, The Black Keys) and songwriting credits from Ryan Tedder (of bore-rock king OneRepublic, who U2 should stay as far away from as possible) and Paul Epworth (Adele), “Songs of Innocence” sounds incomplete with only half the effort of a traditional U2 record put into it. Nearly every song here sounds like something is missing, like the band doesn’t capitalize on the great build up each songs gives off.

Lead single and opening track “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” has the typical fuzzed out riff from The Edge and “ooo aahh oo”s in the background. The lyrics are Bono thanking the late Ramones lead singer for enlightening him through punk rock (“I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/Heard a song that made some sense out of the world/Everything I ever lost now has been returned/The most beautiful sound I ever heard”). It’s a nice thought, but the Ramones’ spirit is drowned out by electronic effects and a lack of drive from the band. “Volcano,” driven by a bass line The Black Keys probably want back, could’ve been a real fist-pumper thanks to the bass and Edge’s fuzzy riffs. But again, they never go for the jugular and just stay a little above mid-tempo (despite Bono really trying to pump himself here on the vocals). Tracks like “Raised By Wolves,” 
“This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” and “Iris (Hold Me Close)” could’ve used a big production boost to leave a more lasting impression, perhaps from previous U2 collaborators like Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, or Steve Lillywhite. Instead, tracks like “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” do just that; put the listener to sleep.

Musically, “Songs of Innocence” sounds like a collection of unfinished demos. The good news is that the lyrics are very autobiographical and intimate. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is a loving tribute to Bono’s mother (“You took me by the hand/I thought that I was leading you/But it was you made me your man/Machine, I dream where you are/Iris standing in the hall/She tells me I can do it all”). Meanwhile, the dreamy sound of California rock gets a nod on “California (There Is No End To Love),” via back-up vocals mimicking The Beach Boys “Barbara Ann.” They even showcase both sides of a relationship: the beautiful beginnings (“Song for Someone”) and the fear of the end (“Every Breaking Wave”). U2 even make room for Swedish singer Lykke Li for album closer “The Troubles,” where U2 deal with age creeping up on them and shaking it off (“I have a will for survival/So you can hurt me/And then hurt me some more/I can live with denial/But you’re not my troubles anymore”). By the album’s end, it’s clear this is U2 taking a good long look at themselves instead of everything in the world. It’s great to hear U2 looking inward now and understanding their age. They’re not going to be around forever, so they’re proudly reminding who they are, where they came from, and they still want more.

If only they sounded like all of those things. Whether it be from a production team that’s holding them back sonically or if this was a rushed job to make a souvenir for the iPhone 6, “Songs of Innocence” is disappointing. A U2 album about who U2 are is great on paper, but the delivery needs more of a kick. All of the songs on here are sonically half-baked with nothing to make it memorable. Nothing here sounds as huge as stuff like “Beautiful Day” or “Bullet the Blue Sky” and the intimate moments of album are too few or too boring. No wonder Apple already released a device to get this album off people’s devices, because everyone’s needs more room for their photos of cats and food. Actually, that might be the saddest thing about “Songs of Innocence”; that it’s competing for space on iPhones. Yikes.

Final Verdict: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Essential Tracks: “Every Breaking Wave,” “”California (There Is No End to Love),” “Song for Someone,” “The Troubles.”