105: She Spoke 2 Me

Girl 6 (1996) / The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
The first half of this 1991 recording debuted on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Girl 6, but faded out as it approached the epic jazz breakdown. We had to wait until Warner Bros finally released The Vault in 1999 before we were hit with the full eight minutes. And they were worth the wait. Prince is “stuck in some groovy wet dream” and while the edit could be called dreamlike, the extended version with its white-water rapids ride down freewheeling jazz more closely resembles the rapid-eye-movement of deep sleep. Images and moods cascade as a bassline walks on air and Morpheus dances to a circadian rhythm. Dive down and fill your canteens. A reserve of high imagination is needed for the return to the surface struggle of waking life.

178: When the Lights go Down

The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
A couple of years ago I saw Stan Douglas’ film Luanda-Kinshasa in an art gallery. Or at least I saw part of it. The full thing is six hours long and consists solely of a jazz-fusion funk band jamming in retro garb. The film’s music was captivating – no peaks or troughs, just a simmering, Escher groove that could unfold forever. Musical manna. If the gallery wasn’t about to close I could have easily lasted the whole 360-minute duration. When I listen to the smokey lounge jazz of When the Lights go Down I feel similarly in awe. I just don’t want it to stop. The intro is two and a half minutes long (four of The Vault’s ten tracks will have already finished by this point) but there’s no rush – It’s a delight to bask in the sound of a band at the top of their game. And when the vocals do arrive it’s like the loving embrace of a long lost friend. Some of Prince’s creations floor you with their otherworldliness and others hit you with their virtuosic flawless execution. When the Lights go Down is a textbook example of the latter.

238: Old Friends 4 Sale

Unreleased (1985) / The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
l never used to understand the scorn for the updated Old Friends 4 Sale. Maybe because I heard it before the unreleased original, but to me the two versions didn’t sound too dissimilar. Yes, the haunting melancholy has been slightly bleached with time and we’ve lost the personal references about Dez leaving and Wendy joining The Revolution (first verse), The Time disbanding and the subsequent fallout with Morris (second verse) and Prince’s bodyguard selling an exposé to the National Enquirer (third verse). The newer, vaguer lyrics barely make sense, but the string section is the same one recorded in 1985 and still the shining jewel in this ballad of betrayal. Or so I thought. Not long ago I heard the pre-orchestral demo and realised the strings were a distraction all along. Without Clare Fischer’s input we’re relying solely on the vocals to carry us along and hooo boy do they move. A pit of bleak despair has opened up for us to fall into and it’s now clear his later performance is more 9pm showtime than this 4am hotel room rendition, bloodshot and wrecked. There’s no clearer contrast than in the dying seconds: compare how Prince struggles to summon the lifeforce to deliver the final lines in the 1985 recording, while in 1991 he’s chipper enough to throw in a Louis Armstrong-style croon afterward. Pain has been replaced with theatrics; despair replaced with flair. If you’re after authenticity then the original wins hands down, but is hearing somebody’s spirit break in real time really entertainment?

273: 5 Women

Night Calls (1991) / The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
To the dismay of any musicians who’ve spent their whole career trying to create blues perfection like 5 Women, Prince rustles this song up in an afternoon and throws it over his shoulder for Joe Cocker to catch like it ain’t no thing. And blues isn’t even within his top 10 genres! That’s gotta hurt. Eventually, Prince realised the outtake was a keeper (although he’s walked away from better songs than this) and rerecorded and released a version himself to see out his Warner Bros contract. The smooth centre of a smooth album. If this hasn’t in your life soundtracked a late night card game then you’re missing out my friend.

329: Sarah

The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
When Van Morrison wanted to see out his contract he wrote over 30 nonsense songs about ring worm and danishes. Lou Reed churned out an album of nothing but guitar feedback. And Prince submitted a short but damn fine album of leftover jazzy rock and blues that lesser mortals would go full Faust for. It may have been an anti-climax to the hyped up hordes expecting true Vault diamonds but ‘not being Moonbeam Levels‘ is a crime I can excuse. The album’s penultimate track Sarah was the most recent song recorded for the project and is three minutes of good ol’ funky, bluesy rock. Although I will concede that the lyrics are rushed at best. I’ve met at least two girls who were named directly after Bob Dylan’s Sara but I doubt this song has had the same inspiring effect on new parents. Prince’s “girl, you sho’ is looking pretty” poetry can’t compete with the baby boomer bard’s “scorpio sphinx in a calico dress”. However the music more than makes amends, featuring arguably the best line-up of the NPG having fun in the studio, under no pressure to create a platinum classic. If this was recorded as a Warner Bros kiss-off it doesn’t show. Spite can be a creative force – Morrison’s Ring Worm is freaking hilarious and Reed’s Metal Machine Trio was one of my favourite concerts of 2010 – but there seems to be no dark motives powering Sarah. Just masters of their craft kicking back and lettin’ the good times roll.

347: It’s About That Walk

The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
Coated in irony and full of fisticuffs, catcalls, even a Mutley laugh, It’s About That Walk is Peach for the Vegas set. It’s one of the more immediate cuts on the Vault comp and like most fast burners it has a certain number of plays before it loses its charge. Even so, it still has the capacity to surprise, as I found out this morning when my run for a bus coincided with the breakdown two minutes in. I felt like Jack Kerouac’s character in the Dharma Bums running and leaping down the Matterhorn, invincible to gravity. And as it crescendoed into horns my feet left the ground and part of me’s still flying two hours later. Ooooo-wee!

380: There is Lonely

The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
I’m lucky to have lived a charmed life where there’s been incredibly few times when this song would have keenly resonated. But it’s good to know that There Is Lonely and Solo are there to wallow in should that dark hour arrive. In fact, in order to purge all residual grief from this shipwreck of a year I may play them on December 31st, along with Bowie’s Blackstar and Cohen’s You Want it Darker and dissolve into the floor, waking up reassembled in a better year. A year of compassion. A year where you turn on the telly and every other story ISN’T telling you somebody died. Written for the same film soundtrack as The Rest of my Life and My Little PillThere Is Lonely suffers from a similar affliction of sounding like a sketch of a song, but hey, a fragment of a Prince song trumps anything found in your average discography and wanting it to be longer is barely a criticism. Featuring his lowest register and sandwiched between two more songs about loneliness, it forms the dark, melancholy heart of his The Vault comp. A Spanish-guitar laden black dog. It’s not only the lights that go down after track five.

384: The Rest of my Life

The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
A canapé of honky-tonk piano and jazz saxophone written for the doomed I’ll Do Anything soundtrack but fortunately one of the few contributions to be saved from its destined obscurity. Plucked, scrubbed, gilded with horns and placed gleaming bright at the start of his Warner Bros kiss-off album, The Rest of my Life is a brisk, in-charge-of my-own-kismet, pep talk. Although not long enough to get its hooks in deep, the production (as with the rest of the album) is faultlessly pristine and doesn’t mess around, throwing you straight into the Vegas-style action with a series of focusing, self-applied cheek-slaps. For all of its forward facing lyrics it lays out the album’s retro blueprint – a warm, analogue nostalgia. Perky in isolation but when compared to the otherworldly Beautiful Strange that Prince unveiled on the same day, you can begin to detect the musty smell of seven years’ storage.

447: My Little Pill

The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
It stretches the definition of the term ’song’ but like Tom Wait’s What’s He Building? or a Dr. Octagon skit it’s a fantastic, passing glimpse into a fully formed universe. Written for the I’ll Do Anything comedy film but ending up on his Warner Bros contractual sign-off comp instead, My Little Pill is a strange, somewhat frightening concoction. It’s a short tale of a single mother taking a pill to escape her troubles and I’ll skip over the unwelcome poignancy later events would shroud this with. I love all 69 bizarre seconds of this psychotropic amuse-bouche but fear I may be in a minority amongst Prince fans. It’s certainly one of the strangest things he’s recorded and the music twists and warps around the half spoken / half sung lyrics like the unravelling fabric of reality. It sounds like one of Frank Zappa’s stress dreams or (and I’m going esoteric here) the animated cupcake scene in 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes (just YouTube it) but I would lap up a whole album of these hallucinogenic oddities.

473: Extraordinary

The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
Prince in Vegas mode. The consummate professional at matinee, walking amongst the audience, dragging his fingertips across the backs of chairs and ruining your expectations for every hotel lounge band you’re ever likely to experience henceforth. Extraordinary was originally earmarked for a Rosie Gaines album but recalled to be the closer on Prince’s The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale collection, an overlooked track on an overlooked album and the requiem for his Warner Brothers contract. Later it was given a new lease of life on his live disc One Night Alone at double the length and incorporating a sax solo by Candy Dulfer. Happy, Shiny brilliance that never loses its sheen. I’ve had it on repeat in order to write this and it gets better every time. Never been a fan of the word ‘extraordinary’ though – that silent middle ‘a’ is an abomination. Pronounce it or ditch it!