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Since Prince passed away 3 years and 2 months ago, leaving no will or notes regarding the posthumous treatment of his fabled vault of recordings, the scramble to make money has appeared at times to resemble the ugly scenes of the first day of Harrods’ sale. Unseemly merchandise, hastily concocted exhibitions and “tell all” memoirs have all done their best to cheapen and dilute what should be a brand for all eternity.
And then there’s the music.
Ask a hundred Prince fans what they want from the vault and a hundred different answers would come your way. It is a thankless task to be the people in charge of releasing the undoubted gems that lurk secretly in some dusty corner of a storage facility in some undisclosed location. Take the release of the Deluxe Edition of Purple Rain that surfaced two years ago—if ever there was a case of the old adage “you can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time,” then this was it.
With such a dizzying set of possibilities and such a varied potential audience, running from newcomers to die-hards, it is mind-boggling to imagine being charged with the responsibility to choose what sees the light of day and when. Which brings us to the newest release, Originals, which collects a variety of songs written and originally committed to tape by Prince himself, but subsequently recorded by other artists.
As a concept, it works in finding a common ground that may appeal to all types of fans. Not only might it find a home for people who utter the familiar words “I never knew he wrote that,” but it might also offer a chance for die-hards to hear his versions of the songs in higher quality than the dubious bootlegs that line their shelves.
It is abundantly clear from the get-go that these are demos that are precisely that—demonstrations. They are decidedly unragged and not at all roughly hewn—they are not sketches but fully formed (admittedly he may have put a final flourish or two on them if he’d kept them for himself, given his never-ending reshaping of material) and signposted versions of songs that other artists could follow and replicate.
This accounts for the fact that some versions do not differ enormously from those released by the original artists—why they did not stray far from these demos may be testament to the power of them or the fact that most of the recipients still orbited in Prince’s sphere of influence.
Having the songs all together (even if you know them already as separate entities) is a powerful reminder of the sheer breadth and depth of his skills as a songwriter. Each and every iteration of Prince, the songwriter, is present on the collection. The swooning romantic balladeer pops up on “Noon Rendezvous,” infused with a brittle vulnerability courtesy not just of the sparse and beautiful piano play, but also with the coarse quality of his voice as he slides into falsetto.
Elsewhere there is the swaggering funk braggadocio of “Jungle Love” (originally released by The Time) that loses the tiniest pinch of atmosphere due to Prince’s version having one voice on it. The Time’s version has the feel of a crowded club owing to its call and response with the rest of the band. That quibble aside, it features one of the funkiest men to ever stride the earth doing his thing to perfection, so, you know, swings and roundabouts.
There’s space even for the leftfield, slightly weird Prince—“Make Up” throbs with mechanized, industrial menace and warped lines of melody. A less welcome Prince parachutes into view with the overwrought, pompous guitar solo at the beginning of his version of Mazerati’s “100MPH,” before hanging around for the insipid “You’re My Love.” Prince injects it with more melancholy phrasing than Kenny Rogers did and that is for the better, but the tune itself is dangerously close to MOR territory (for these ears at least).
From that point on though, the quality doesn’t dip again. A typically quirky funk workout comes courtesy of “Holly Rock.” The lascivious funk ballad “Baby You’re A Trip,” originally recorded by Jill Jones, has the benefit of being sung by a far better singer this time around and “The Glamorous Life” loses some of the Latin flourishes that Sheila E. sprinkled liberally on her version, in favor of a harder funk feel.
Forlorn, player heartbreak comes on Prince’s version of “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” and his version of “Love Thy Will Be Done” is more heavenly than Martika made it—his multi-tracked backing vocals are spine-tingling and a reminder of just what an incredible singer and arranger he was. More evidence that he gave Sheila E. incredible songs comes in the form of his more guitar-orientated “Dear Michaelangelo” and it also benefits from having a stronger voice and greater depth to the backing vocals.
Closing the album is the inspiration for the collection, the original “Nothing Compares 2 U” that was released a year ago and reclaims the place of definitive reading to its originator. One of my favorite (and sometimes overlooked) versions of Prince is as purveyor of perfect pop ditties. That crown here is taken by the dreamy “Manic Monday,” a song so perfect that it narrowly missed hitting the number 1 spot on the US singles chart by his own monstrous funk entity “Kiss.” Chuck in the joyful, exuberant infectious “Wouldn’t You Love To Love Me” (originally released by Taja Sevelle) and you have a perfect encapsulation of all aspects of his musical mastery.
Hearing this set of tracks (mainly) taken from his “golden age” only serves to underline exactly how golden it was and how future eras, while providing many a great tune, would fail to live up to the time from 1981 to 1988. How could they if these were the songs he gave away? This album bolsters his reputation as not just the most prolific, but also as the greatest all-around artist of his generation. He may be dearly departed but he is also dearly beloved.
Notable Tracks: "Dear Michaelangelo" | “Love…Thy Will Be Done” | "Manic Monday" | “Noon Rendezvous”