Sunday, January 10, 2010

Musical Interlude: Prince

Let's travel back in time to 1986, when Prince dropped the single, "Kiss" (from the album, Parade). When I would describe the song to friends, I'd simply say that it was funk stripped down to the basics. If asked to elaborate, I'd go on to say that the spare arrangements brought to the forefront pure, unadulterated, raw passion. And that cat could really sing falsetto. Damn! I hadn't been much of a Prince fan, but this was the song that won me over.

Prince - Kiss

Anthony | MySpace Video

An interesting review of the song can be found at
By completely dropping the bass tracks from the final version of his 1984 smash "When Doves Cry," Prince demonstrated his willingness to take chances on highly unorthodox arrangements. Yet not even he knew quite what to make of "Kiss," the chart-topping single from 1986's strange and arty Parade; reportedly, he was never completely satisfied with the version that ended up being released, nearly leaving it off the album and retooling its arrangement multiple times for live performances. Yet it's one of the most brilliant moments in a catalog filled with them. Repeating the no-bass trick of "When Doves Cry," "Kiss" essentially strips funk down to its barest essentials and then cuts a little bit more. When the song starts, there's only the sketchiest outline of a harmonic structure in the instruments behind the melody, partly because those instruments are nearly all electronic percussion. The backing is fleshed out a bit more as the song moves along, but much of the time it sounds like disembodied bits of an arrangement floating out of nowhere, especially the backing vocals during the verses. It's a weird, alien soundscape, and added to that effect is the fact that Prince sings nearly the entire song -- except for the last line and one note leading into the last chorus -- in the upper register of his generous falsetto range. The distance in pitch between his voice and the very few instruments playing on the track creates the impression that there's even more space left open, and at that point, all one can really do is marvel that the song works so well with so little. Aside from the drum machine and backing vocals, there's a faintly murmuring keyboard and a gently wah-wahed guitar that mostly plays seventh chords, whether during the chorus or the solo break. Lyrically, "Kiss" can be read as a plea for genuine warmth in the middle of the prosperous, image-conscious '80s, though at bottom it's probably a simpler homage to women with confidence and maturity; given those two traits, the singer of "Kiss" welcomes all comers, regardless of just about anything else. Few other songs in Prince's catalog demonstrate his idiosyncratic genius more startlingly.

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