Prince: Art Official Age Prince & 3RDEYEGIRL: PLECTRUMELECTRUM (both Warner Bros.) From the exciting graphics of these album covers, which between them seem to signal a possible return to his Around The World In A Day gaudy psychedelia persona, to the sudden wealth of new music here on his former record label, it would appear that Prince Rogers Nelson is back and, er, shorter than ever. And there’s a certain comfort to be had in the deliberately varied grooves stalking Art Official Age that warmly recall some of his very best moments, true. But that familiarity is just one step away from the same-old/same-old, and in 2014, no matter how it’s all dressed up, Prince records now seem to have that peculiar air of those too-numerous, George Clinton-related LPs that haunted record stores in the late-‘70s and early ‘80s—not sonically, but as pieces of indistinguishable, market-saturating product. Though Prince’s groove is inimitable, his chops and his taste remarkable, and his perspective unique, the typical man on the street in 2014 could likely only hum a few bars of “When Doves Cry” and “Purple Rain” if asked. I find the second album here, the one with the girls on the cover, the more interesting of the two—it’s all over the place—but have to wonder, upon hearing the title track, if sounding like Chicken Shack or Savoy Brown in 2014 is incredibly subversive or just a happy coincidence. This one I like loads.
Little Jackie: Queen Of Prospect Park (Plush Moon) This is the third album Imani Coppola has released under the Little Jackie persona—officially in tandem with producer/musician Adam Pallin—and like 2008’s The Stoop, it is a joyous, rhythmic, streetwise, cocky, overly verbose, absolutely fantastic pop album. Play it through and you’ll hear echoes of ‘60s beach music, Motown rhythms, Laura Nyro, Todd Rundgren and Archie Bell & The Drells, all capped with Coppola’s charmingly cynical/weary and strikingly intelligent lyrics, enthusiastically sung and floating amid Pallin’s ultra-commercial arrangements. There are at least three songs here—“Oprah,” “Wait For It” and “We Got It”—that are easily among the best I’ve heard all year, and were you to hear them, I think you might agree. Really, really good.
Robin Gibb: 50 St. Catherine’s Drive (Rhino) I’m not sure anyone expected so substantial a posthumous album from departed Bee Gee Gibb, whose death in 2012—though no one can possibly rank these things—was particularly painful for fans. Though the commercial acclaim he enjoyed with his brothers was truly phenomenal, the critical acclaim he similarly deserved—for his early solo work, released or otherwise, and his slightly skewed ‘80s sets—was inevitably muted by comparison. This set, compiled by Gibb’s wife and son, offers a wealth of fascinating new Gibb recordings, including a redone version of early Bee Gees’ track “I Am The World,” the positively bouncy “Alan Freeman Days,” and the moving album closer “Sydney”—his final recording, a demo, which he intended to complete in the studio with his brother Barry. Though released after his death, there’s nothing lacking in terms of material, polish or songwriting here that would indicate the typical sort of money-grab the cynical among us might suspect; 50 Catherine’s Drive is instead a beautiful capping of one of pop music’s most memorable careers, and further evidence that the Brothers Gibb were singers, songwriters, players, and musicians of the highest order.
Stevie Nicks: 24 Karat Gold: Songs From The Vault (Reprise) Peculiarly out first as a double-vinyl LP and as MP3s and then next week as a CD—you’ve got to love it—this new set by the famous Fleetwood Maccer is in fact her re-appraising and redoing older stuff, material she’d planned to unleash since those early ‘70s years of Buckingham Nicks but never did. It’s all of it quite good actually: the songs seem like genuine works of their time—heartfelt lyrics rather than effort-laden approximations of former glories—and Nicks still sings very well. The music is well-played and tastefully arranged, ironically evoking the “Americana” word among her excitable fan base, and the lyrical concerns—romance, relationships, mystical stuff, an actual “cathouse,” songs with titles like “She Loves Him Still”—are about as Nicksian as you’d ever expect, or want. Very solid stuff, and something to whet the appetites of those gearing up for the upcoming reunited Mac tour.
Bryan Adams: Tracks Of My Years (Verve) As its title indicates, pun one, pun all, the songs contained on renowned Canadian rocker Bryan Adams’ first studio album since 2008’s 11 are oldies all—the songs he, I, and anyone else who’s a baby boomer grew up hearing on the radio. Which is fine, conceptually. But the songs selected are so well known—“Any Time At All,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Never My Love, “ “Sunny,” “The Tracks Of My Tears,” etc.—you really can’t help focusing on much but Adams’ singing and interpretation, which is probably the idea. And no one in the world could really knock his singing here. Except, maybe, Rod Stewart—for it is the famed rooster-haired vocalist Adams completely clones on “You Shook Me,” the closing track on the bonus edition of this album, and one of the most memorable songs Stewart himself sung back in the days of the Jeff Beck Group. Truly, your jaw will drop. Two years ago, David Foster produced Merry Christmas, Baby, an album of Rod Stewart singing Christmas tunes. And now here he is, co-producing Adams sounding like Rod Stewart. See what he did there?
Stories: Stories Untold: The Very Best Of Stories (Real Gone Music) Speaking of Rod Stewart, one could argue that Ian Lloyd, lead singer of ‘70s cult combo Stories, had a bit of that characteristic rasp in his vocals—but “derivative” was not how the band was regarded, then or now. Best known for their hit cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Brother Louie” in 1973, the band is more often remembered by rock-critic types for the presence of keyboardist/songwriter Michael Brown following his stint in ‘60s band the Left Banke. Stories released three albums in the early ‘70s, but the drop-off in song quality following Brown’s abrupt departure after second album About Us was simply too much, and the band split. Real Gone are to be commended for their reissue approach here: Aside from the best songs from the three Stories albums, the album includes the two post-Left Banke tracks recorded by Brown and his former LB combo (credited to lead singer Steve Martin, and appearing on the 1972 Hot Parts film soundtrack), and some post-Stories tracks by singer Lloyd. It is a compact, concise, and worthwhile look back at some still unheard, very good pop music.
The Script: No Sound Without Silence (Columbia) It is difficult to object to the raw professionalism and craftsmanship that is unfailingly displayed on albums by the Script—and indeed, they have been called “Ireland’s biggest band since U2” and, it is said, have sold over 20 million records. This, their fourth album, is remarkably catchy on a song-for-song basis, contains two fcompelling tracks in “No Good In Goodbye” and “Without Those Songs,” and is the first album I have heard in close to two decades that repeatedly made me think of Mr. Mister while I was driving to work. That rarely happens. They have a way with words, they are clearly very likeable, and they are making music for us. Often, that’s enough.
ABBA: Live At Wembley Arena (UMe) The time couldn’t be better to sit back and re-appreciate the greatness of ABBA, thanks to this 2-CD document of the quartet’s 1979 performance at London’s Wembley Arena. Extremely well recorded—the sound is unbelievably crisp, the vocals of Agnetha and Anni-Frid crystal clear, the soundstage exemplary—and the songs, all 24 of them, are your basic ABBA greatest hits set. If you’re a thinking, feeling human being, by the time “Dancing Queen” starts up, you’ll be tearing up and quivering with raw excitement. Guaranteed. They are so good.