Prince’s discography gets weird after Emancipation. Leaving the world of long-term major label contracts, the Purple One began to experiment with new forms of distribution. He created his own imprint, offered mail order releases, and will even eventually have CDs stuffed into issues of a British newspaper. He also increased the volume of material released, which makes it a little overwhelming for your faithful scribe. I warn you, I will be making decisions that are bound to bother the True Completist.
Starting now. Please forgive me, my Purple Friends: I’m going to skip Crystal Ball and The Truth, both released initially only to fans who pre-ordered them. That’s not to demean the indie releases—come on, my whole life is an indie release!—but my private tribunal has ruled Crystal a 3-CD collection of outtakes. Yes, it shared a title with the planned 3-CD release that became the more svelte Sign O’ The Times, but it seems like most of the prime cuts went to Sign. I will also confess that I am worried about wading through another triple album, since Emancipation just about ground this whole Project to a halt.1
The next stops on our journey, then, come out in the fall of 1999. The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale was released by Warner Bros. in August, to finally, once and for all, end all of Prince’s contractual obligations, and Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic came out less than three months later on Arista. Rave was a one-off with Clive Davis, who’d had success with kick-starting the sales of other superstars, most famously Carlos Santana. One of these records, then, should be filled with stale leftovers from the Prince Buffet, and the other should be a sleek machine, genetically engineered to sell lots of copies. The unlistenable one, though, is the one Prince so desperately wanted to be a hit.
I’d never even listened to Vault. This marks the moment in Prince’s career, and my life, where I just didn’t have the energy or interest to check out everything he did. When I listened recently, I was surprised at how entertaining and odd the whole thing is. “The Rest of My Life” is a charming opener; jazzy, swingy Prince is in the house, and he brought along a great bass lick. If it sounds like it belongs in a musical, it’s because it does—it’s one of several tracks on the album that were written for a James Brooks movie that was going to be a musical, until test audiences were so confused all the songs were cut. “My Little Pill,” which was recorded by Julie Kavner for the movie, and “There is Lonely,” sung by Albert Brooks (!) for the soundtrack, are both included, and while they are more sketches than finished songs, it is interesting to hear them. In the trailer for the still-musical version of the movie you can hear snippets of a song called “Wow,” which sounds less interesting.2
Even the title track, which was not written for a movie, has a cinematic flavor. Maybe more James Bond than James Brooks, thanks to that super cool horn work, and it floats along in a wonderfully free form groove, a chorus of stacked Princes bringing it along nicely to a close. I like this rehearsal recording, and it’s always nice to get to hear Prince bark out instructions to the band—and then add that sweet “very nice” at the end.
The longer tracks work well, too. “She Spoke 2 Me” breaks out info full-on would-be jazz combo for its last half, but it’s not an awful move, and “5 Women” slinks along with a deep and satisfying funk groove. Turns out Prince gave the song to Joe Cocker, of all people, and it sounds like Joe followed Prince’s guide closely. Michael Blank and Sonny Thompson are back on drums and bass, here to remind us all how crucial they were to the Diamonds and Peals era.
Don’t get me wrong—nothing on Old Friends is mandatory listening, but after my first, close listen, I cranked it up and cleaned the kitchen with it on, and its relaxed vibe worked very well for that. The record sounds even better if you listen right away to Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, that one-off with Clive “Hey it worked with Santana!” Davis and Arista.3 The stacked vocal opening is one we have heard before, but for some reason it sounds flat, and things don’t get much better after that. “So Far, So Good” is a duet with Gwen Stefani that is, I think, supposed to make us remember “Take Me With U,” and it’s fine? The guitar lead and breakdown that follows work well, but the track is just dull enough that I never need to listen to it again. There’s a cover of Sheryl Crow’s “Everyday is a Winding Road,” evidently because Prince thought it was a great song, but his version feels thirty minutes long, complete with awkward rap chants over the extended outro. I am not convinced we needed one version of this song, never mind two. They do seem to be having fun on this live version, and I’ll watch Prince play guitar on, like, anything, but even leaves the stage before the song is done.
The duet with Crow is more fun, in part because there’s a tight band chugging along, but there are also some very awkward spoken word spots that someone should have muted. The album ends with “Prettyman,” and if the title has you worried it will be another forced attempt to get everyone out on the dance floor, well, you’re right.
The search for some hidden gem was a bust, but “Wherever U Go, Whatever U Do” sounds like a Lovesexy B-side, and that’s not a terrible thing. “Tangerine” feels more like an extra bit from the Parade era, two minutes of vibe that at least doesn’t sound like it’s trying to be a hit.
But sadly, most of Rave feels very much like Prince is desperate to have that Santana From The Dead smash. Forced Prince has always been the weakest of our Princes, and listening to these two records, he loses agan, even to Throwaway Prince.
1 But what about The Truth, completists ask? It did not receive any of individual release for many years, so I’m gonna go ahead and call it part of the Crystal Ball closet cleaning.
2 Versions sung by the cast members were recorded for the movie, and supposedly they can be found out there in the world. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-02-20-ca-24943-story.html
3 For a more positive review, and some back story: https://www.billboard.com/music/rock/prince-rave-un2-the-joy-fantastic-album-8542107/