Piano & A Microphone 1983 is an unpolished Prince gem, while Metric loses focus on Air Of Doubt, and Lonnie Holley is louder than ever on Mith. Plus, we take a look at Carrie Underwood’s sixth LP, Cry Pretty.
Christine And The Queens’ excellent Chris is also out today; read our featured review here.
Prince, Piano & A Microphone 1983
A prized rarity among collectors and bootleggers, Prince’s Piano & A Microphones captures the late “1999” and “Purple Rain” singer between those career milestones, seated at a piano and whirling through portions of nine songs in a single take. The recording is raw—Prince can be heard instructing the engineer to turn down his vocals and flip the cassette over—but that’s also its power. Here’s a notoriously polished artist vamping his way through embryonic versions of future classics, some (a cascading run through “When Doves Cry” B-side “17 Days”) a few months off from seeing the light of day, at least one (a “Strange Relationship” that begins with its Sign O’ The Times stomp, before veering in more abstract directions) still years away from its final form. Piano & A Microphone 1983 verges on postmortem voyeurism, but it’s also a unique insight into the way a notoriously private artist’s creative impulses fired. With “Purple Rain” and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You” side by side, you can really hear the Canadian singer-songwriter’s influence on Prince; before “Strange Relationship” crops up, its meteorological intro gets interpolated into the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep.”
RIYL: Home demos. Hearing Prince’s voice in registers you’d previously assumed were merely post-production trickery. Wrestling with ethical questions about whether or not you should even be hearing these recordings.
Start here: The unreleased tracks that conclude Piano & A Microphone 1983—the bluesy goof “Cold Coffee & Cocaine” and the pleading “Why The Butterflies”—are the least complete of the session. But they’re preceded by “Wednesday,” a Purple Rain outtake whose gorgeous aching is only highlighted by the track’s lack of resolution. [Erik Adams]
Lonnie Holley, Mith
“My thing as an artist, I’m not doing anything but ringing that Liberty Bell, ding, ding, ding, on the shorelines of independence,” Lonnie Holley told The New York Times in 2014. On his third album, the self-taught visual artist and musician resounds louder than ever. Mith finds his intuitive, free-form compositions filled in by friends including Laraaji, saxophonist Sam Gendel, and the late Richard Swift. Their playing—soft as a singing bowl here, red-hot and glowing there—supports Holley as he traces a painful lyrical path from the space dust of the cosmos to the foaming wake of a slave ship. His voice is rich and often phlegmatic; the vocal lines he unwinds are knotted and frayed. Songs, shapeless and lengthy, seem to permeate one another, and Holley mostly eschews traditional verses and choruses. But the musical spaciness only enhances his already-considerable dignity and the gravitas of his songwriting, making Mith a powerful, prophetic collection.
RIYL: Gil Scott-Heron. Baby Dee. Sun Ra.
Start here: On opener “I’m A Suspect,” a multi-tracked Holley sings movingly about being a black man in the U.S.A. (“Battered up and down / Been whipped around”) with a mournfulness that sets the stage for the angry glitches of single “I Woke Up In A Fucked-Up America.” [Marty Sartini Garner]
Carrie Underwood, Cry Pretty
Carrie Underwood, rare still-relevant American Idol winner, had a horrible 2017, including a fall resulting in a number of stitches in her face, and, as she recently revealed, a series of miscarriages. So it’s not surprising that sixth album Cry Pretty, which was completed during this time, contains significant emotional depth; the title track is her own rallying cry to get through this exceptionally trying year. Underwood has always excelled at bringing to life three-minute vignettes, as her biggest hit, “Before He Cheats,” can attest. Here the bluesy “Drinking Alone” transports you to a smoky bar where two lonely strangers find each other above their beer bottles, while “The Bullet” is a strong and surprising anti-gun-violence message from a country star. But it’s Underwood’s considerable resilience that shines through here: The lovely “Kingdom” depicts the glowing family life that she treasures above all else (she and husband/hockey star Mike Fisher are now expecting their second child), while Ludacris helps her pay tribute to her own invincibility in “The Champion,” considerably straying from familiar country territory.
RIYL: Short stories. Front porches. Sweet tea. The Country Music Awards.
Start here: “Love Wins”’s stirring anthem for unity (“Politics and prejudice / How’d the hell it ever come to this”) even transcends its unfortunate pronoun usage (“I believe you and me are sisters and brothers”). [Gwen Ihnat]
Metric, Art Of Doubt
[MMI/Crystal Math Music]
Pre-release hype around Art Of Doubt, Metric’s seventh album, suggested a return to the days of jagged guitars and indie-rock grooves, but little here has changed from the vibe of Pagans In Vegas, save for a couple dark riffs on songs like opener “Dark Saturday.” Instead, the band delivers an album even more awash in ’80s sounds than its past few records (a good portion of it wouldn’t sound out of place in a jukebox from 1985). But while some songs retain the urgency of the band’s best work—the title track hearkens back to Live It Out, while album standout “Risk” delivers a slick and insistent groove with lyrics about trying to cut through layers of emotional distance—too many tracks find themselves lacking the enticing hooks that fuel so much of Metric’s appeal. From the anthemic stomp of “Underline The Black” to the balladry of “Seven Rules,” Emily Haines’ vocals feel distant in the production, obscured by too much reverb and aimless melodies. It’s a rare misstep for a band so skilled at stepping to the (retro-catchy) rhythm.
RIYL: A rock ’n’ roll version of Air. So That’s What I Call Music! Vol. Negative 17.
Start here: “Risk” is a classic Metric cut, with a nimble beat and memorable refrain in which Haines bemoans how she and her estranged object of desire “start to lose control the moment we accelerate.” [Alex McLevy]