Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Purple Snow, William Onyeabor, Saada Bonaire

Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound – Various Artists (Numero)

It takes a village to raise a Prince. Right?

When Prince blew up with Purple Rain in 1984, one of the more curious aspects of his mystique was that he was from… Minneapolis? His futuristic, sexy amalgam of new wave synths, rock pyrotechnics and R&B swagger came out of a frozen town so far north it’s practically in Canada—how did that even happen?

Turns out Prince was less an anomaly than one might think. Purple Snow digs deep to find Minneapolis recordings from 1974-84, discovering no shortage of talented musicians slugging it out in bands that were lucky to release a single or two. The scene was undeniably competitive; to rise above everyone else around there—and then to be taken seriously by New York/L.A. standards, considering you came from such a backwater—you almost had to be as ridiculously gifted as Prince.

He appears here as a session musician on only two tracks; as much as this package is peripherally about him, the real joy is discovering everyone who taught him how to sing falsetto, how to work those analog synths and drum machines, how to strut, how to borrow and steal from everything around you to come up with something new. Between 1977-83, Prince was not a visionary: he was merely in step with what was happening in his city at the time; his solo work evolves with the rest of the city, from R&B influenced by Earth Wind & Fire to synthy new wave.

The premise here is a bit odd: the claim that the Minneapolis sound went on to be massively influential in the wake of Purple Rain. The album’s extensive liner notes admit that’s hardly true, with one exception: superstar producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men) appear in several acts here (they left The Time before that group’s appearance in Purple Rain; the group is oddly absent here). Future R&B star Alexander O’Neal was kicked out of The Time by Prince; he has two solo tracks here that are far better than what he was later known for. Prince’s closest high school friend, André Cymone, who later married and cowrote with Jody Watley, has one track. 

Purple Rain was the culmination of the Minneapolis scene, not a launching pad. And despite the fact that I've just spent most of this review taking about Prince's biggest album, there's very little here that actually sounds anything like it. 

Purple Snow is a collection of should’ve-beens and never-weres trying to heat up a frigid town. Some are incredible, therefore earning the desired reaction of any rarity compilation (i.e., How did that never become a hit?!). Some are mired in the cheese of the era, but, remarkably, there is no dud among these 32 tracks. And the deluxe packaging—including a 142-page book—is suitably reverent and incredibly well-researched, as one expects from the Numero label, who chose this to mark their 50th release. It looks and sounds suitably regal.

Download: Herman Jones – “I Love You,” Sue Ann Carwell – “Should I Or Should I Not?” Alexander O’Neal – “Do You Dare”

 Saada Bonaire – s/t (Captured Tracks)

In the ’80s, Leonard Cohen liked to use an oud, an Arabic stringed instrument, on top of his drum machines and synthesizers. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, few others followed his lead (in Western pop music, anyway)—except for Saada Bonaire, a no-hit wonder from Germany, circa 1983, whose never-released album was issued (as opposed to reissued) late in 2013.

Saada Bonaire was conceived by a Bremen club DJ who employed his fiancée and her friend, neither one of them singers, both of whom dressed like Bedouin women, to front a band of 20 musicians found at a local immigration centre, as well as a German reggae band and a jazz saxophonist who’d played with Stan Kenton and Charles Mingus. The album was made in Kraftwerk’s studio by the man who engineered the Slits’ album Cut. It was bankrolled and championed by an EMI employee who was simultaneously working on Tina Turner’s soon-to-be blockbuster Private Dancer album.

That employee ran afoul of EMI management for going five times over budget with Turner, and for failing to curb costs with the decidedly bizarre Saada Bonaire. Guess which of those two artists got the cut. Only one single was released; it became an underground hit in Greece, and later a sought-after DJ trophy, which cleared the path for this resurgence of interest.

There’s no way this album could sound as good as its backstory. It doesn’t. The singers’ Germanic deadpan vocals (in English) are unintentionally hilarious—and grating, after a while. In small doses, however, Saada Bonaire is exotic in every sense: the incongruous elements miraculously coalescing in a rare time-capsule example of ’80s production and studio musicianship salvaging a pretty thin surface.

Download: “You Could Be More As You Are,” “More Women,” “Shut the Door”

William Onyeabor – Who is William Onyeabor? (Luaka Bop)

Indeed. What we do know about the mysterious Onyeabor is that he is a Nigerian musician who put out eight albums between 1977 and 1983, filled with futuristic Afrobeat that took Fela Kuti’s vision, mixed in some Kraftwerk and disco and messages both apocalyptic and spiritual. No one knew where to find him, however, and this compilation was more than five years in the making; once found, the elusive Onyeabor refused to answer any direct questions about that period in his life. He’s spent his post-music career as a successful businessman in the semolina trade.

This collection makes a solid case for Onyeabor’s forward-thinking innovations and ability to fill a dance floor, with 10-minute trancelike epics with stipped-down rhythms, female backing vocals, insistent single-string rhythm guitar tracks, and percolating synths—all of which demand to be played at maximum volume for full effect. This is not background music.

Maybe knowing more of Onyeabor’s backstory would make this music sound better than it already does—but that seems unlikely.

Download: “Body and Soul,” “Something You Will Never Forget,” “Let’s Fall in Love”

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