Monday Mixtape August 20: Prince, Death Cab For Cutie & Elle King
Every Monday, Up All Afternoon delivers the Monday Mixtape. It's six tracks to start your music-consuming week off the right way.
Prince, "Acknowledge Me"
Even more than two years later, the death of Prince still looms. Unlike many of the legends we have lost in the past few years, Prince still seemed to be finding career peaks. He was never going to eclipse his God mode run from Dirty Mind through Sign O The Times (which includes Purple Rain, perhaps the best album in the history of pop music), but he was still bench testing the elasticity of increasingly wicked funk grooves and still maintaining an adventurous and mischievous musical spirit. Up until the very moment of his death, the narrative on Prince was that he was an artist who had only recently emerged from an artistic desert and was working steadily—both in the studio and on the road—to reclaim his rightful place in the pantheon.
Some of that narrative is about to be rewritten. Prince's lost years, which generally run from his post-Warner Bros. liberation album Emancipation in 1996 through his return to chart-topping status in 2006 with 3121, are fascinating. However, they have been difficult to assess in recent years, as the bulk of those albums drifted long out of print on CD a while ago and their complicated rights (Prince distributed the bulk of those albums on his own or paired with large labels for one-offs) made their appearance on streaming services impossible. But somehow the Prince estate made a series of resolutions, and we now have just about ever piece of music Prince ever formally released to the mainstream at our fingertips.
This is an especially thrilling development in the case of the 1998 triple-disc extravaganza Crystal Ball, a clearinghouse record that was initially only made available through Prince's website (or, if you didn't have AOL, you could order directly from him by dialing 1-800-NEW-FUNK), though it later appeared in limited release in select Best Buy stores. Thanks to its relative scarcity even when it was new and its general absence from the Internet, CD copies of Crystal Ball have fetched well over $100 online, though now the tracks are available to anybody with a Spotify or Apple Music subscription.
Crystal Ball is technically an album of leftovers (some were originally written or recorded as far back as 1993), though their status as also-rans speak more to Prince's insane work ethic and insatiable creative hunger than the quality of the work. Throughout the early '90s, when he started referring to himself as custom-built glyph and was writing "SLAVE" on his face in videos, Prince complained that his recording contract with Warner Bros. was too oppressive. At the time it seemed like the situation was a typical major label story wherein a successful artist is still somehow broke thanks to legal shenanigans, but what we found out later was that Prince was frustrated specifically because Warners wouldn't release all the music he wanted to release. Famously, Sign O The Times was initially conceived as three separate albums: A straightforward pop collection called Dream Factory, a project called Camille recorded entirely as Prince's female alter-ego, and a sprawling prog-funk beast that was supposed to be called Crystal Ball. Prince couldn't understand why his music business bosses didn't want a fresh double-length from him every single year (the bulk of Prince's last run of albums with WB, including Come and The Gold Experience, were initially conceived as multi-disc collections). He wanted to make music at the speed of his creative mind, and he wanted people to be able to hear it just as fast.
A lot of the songs left over from the Sign O The Times sessions that didn't end up on subsequent Prince releases found a home on Crystal Ball. Across three discs (plus the bonus acoustic album known as The Truth), there lie the same ratio of ill-advised experiments as on any latter-day Prince release, but there are some absolute gems as well. My favorite is the Gold Experience leftover "Acknowledge Me," which is another one of Prince's grand approximations of New Jack Swing (but with an extra bit of buzzsaw guitar thrown in for good measure). It even has the best of Prince's (admittedly terrible) raps. There's still a lot more to discover in the recent streaming dump of Prince's semi-lost material, and not all of it is forgotten genius (the less said about the jazz fusion odyssey The Rainbow Children, the better), but "Acknowledge Me" is a grand place to start.
Death Cab for Cutie, "When We Drive"
I really hated the first single from Death Cab for Cutie's new album Thank You For Today. It's called "Gold Rush," and it's a clunky tune about gentrification that never really finds a zone (and repeats the title in a way that becomes mildly hallucinatory and definitely irritating). But luckily that song is an outlier, and the balance of TYFT is classic DCFC: Equal parts hope and ache, all driven by Ben Gibbard's mastery of his own voice.
Camila Cabello feat. Swae Lee, "Real Friends"
Her "Havana" just won her the VMA for Video of the Year, but the best song on Cabello's debut album is this unfussy tribute to BFFs. I don't know why she felt compelled to add one half of Rae Sremmurd to the mix, but Swae brings the same type of bug-eyed joy he brings to his own records, and "Real Friends" is better for it.
Elle King, "Shame"
As evidenced by the combination of her pop breakout "Ex's & Oh's," her undervalued Ghostbusters theme song "Good Girls" and this new single, Elle King (who, as a reminder, is Rob Schneider's daughter) quickly figured out her lane and intends on staying in it for the time being. But she is so good at this one thing—spinning country groove heartbreak into arena-sized garage riffs, all while announcing her own badass empowerment—that it's hard to get mad at her. Live, King likes to roll around in Zeppelin-esque guitar swirls, but I think I actually prefer the drum-heavy studio buffoonery that buoys her best stuff.
The bulk of Mitski's third album Be the Cowboy feels like a slight step back as far as song dynamics go (the middle section of the record is very dreamy and dry), but she occasionally finds the grooves that were abundant on her previous release Puberty 2. "Nobody" has a nice underlying disco thump that somehow makes her deeply personal revelations all the more hard-hitting. Mitski's ability to express very specific elements of female anxiety make her a poetic treasure and a welcome beacon for empathy. Plus, "Nobody" kind of rocks.
This Mortal Coil, "Song to the Siren"
A few weeks ago, while listening to First Wave on SiriusXM, I stumbled across a band and a song I had never heard before: Shriekback's "Nemesis," a raucous ur-industrial goth groove that I instantly adored. I got so excited that I made a playlist on my phone specifically as a delivery system for it, and I fleshed it out with a bunch of other '80s dark wave tunes. (The playlist is called Black Nail Polish.) One of the songs I added was this Tim Buckley tune reimagined by This Mortal Coil and sung by the Cocteau Twins. I've never thought much about the Cocteau Twins (I guess "Heaven or Las Vegas" kind of bangs?), but the vocal by Elizabeth Fraser on "Song to the Siren" makes me feel strangely vulnerable and uncomfortably emotional (particularly when she hits that trill during the recurring phrase). "Song to the Siren" also gets bonus points for its inclusion in David Lynch's Lost Highway.