Ben Greenman’s new book, Dig If You Will The Picture (Henry Holt), looks at the life and career of Prince, the Minneapolis genius who passed away a year ago. The book investigates many aspects of Prince’s work. In this exclusive piece, original to Okayplayer, Greenman looks at two of the strongest Prince covers projects. What are your favorite Prince covers?
Among Prince covers, there are the clear standouts. Everybody knows them: Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You,” Tom Jones and Art of Noise’s “Kiss,” and of course Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Those versions overtopped the originals, in some cases, or at least stood proudly beside them. There are also lesser-known entries that are just as worthy, from the tranced-out “When Doves Cry” Patti Smith included as a bonus track on her greatest-hits collection, Land, to the ramshackle “Raspberry Beret” bashed out by the Hindu Love Gods, a one-off side band composed of much of R.E.M. and Warren Zevon, on their one and only album.
Two of the most interesting attempts to cover Prince took the form of album-length tributes. The first is That Skinny Motherfucker With The High Voice—named, of course, for Prince’s puckish self-description on the Black Album’s “Bob George”—by the indie-rock act Dump. Dump was, like Prince, a one-man band: in this case, the man was James McNew, the bassist for indie-rock stalwarts Yo La Tengo. Through the nineties, McNew moonlighted as Dump on a series of albums, including Superpowerless (which nodded to the Shaggs and the Tall Dwarves) and I Can Hear Music (which featured covers of songs by Bob Dylan, the Fugs, the Ronettes, and others). The records were modest almost to the vanishing point, with lo-fi sonics and hand-colored covers.
In 1998, Dump released a cassette-only mini-album composed of eight Prince covers. It caught on at college-rock stations, and McNew rereleased it three years later on CD with five extra tracks. The final project presented a broad selection from the Prince catalog, at least up through Parade: there were hits like “Raspberry Beret,” album tracks like “Girls and Boys,” and rarities like the instrumental “An Honest Man.” Throughout, McNew worked with love. It wasn’t just that he had affection for the songs, though he clearly did. It’s that he took the time to understand them as pop compositions. Keith Richards once maligned Prince’s songwriting, claiming that while he could sit down and play any Stones song at the piano, he couldn’t do the same with Prince songs. McNew’ disproves this theory conclusively. The songs migrate nicely into the lo-fi context. That Skinny Motherfucker… opens with “1999,” or more accurately, with a ramshackle drum machine in which McNew, without the benefit of two additional vocalists, gently makes the rounds at Prince’s apocalyptic dance party. The sexual fantasia of “Erotic City” becomes even more fanciful, traveling to a magical land where rockabilly, ye-ye, and surf music all coexist happily. “The Beautiful Ones” remains bewitchingly sung and perilously intense, and “Pop Life” has never been more winsome. McNew only goes off the rails once, for “A Love Bizarre,” which emerges, worse for wear, as a downbeat drone with tinkling wind-chimes.
One of the absolute finest Prince tributes is even rarer than Dump’s record. It’s a five-CD set curated released in Norway in 2008. On Shockadelica: 50th Anniversary Tribute To The Artist Known As Prince (they mean birthday, not anniversary), bands virtually unknown outside of Norway did right and then some to the Prince songbook. Congratulations to Ephemera, for turning in a rendition of “Manic Monday” that’s so sweet and innocent that sounds like a lost Frente! classic. Bravo to Mattias Tellez for convincing “Do U Lie” to turn its back on its roots in woozy cabaret and dress up as ramshackle Replacements-style punk. Kudos to Jake Ziah for his creepy, slowed-down “Kiss.” And let’s all hear it for the fine work of Charlotte and the Co-Stars (“Anna Stesia”), Minor Majority (“If I Was Your Girlfriend”), and Loch Ness Mouse (“Money Don’t Matter 2 Nite”), not to mention all the slashed o’s and ring diacritics (Isabel Ødegård, Brødrene Lowenstierne and, last but not least, White Lord Jesus featuring Bård Torstensen).
The uniformly high quality should be credited at least in part to the project’s curator, Christer Falck, a Norwegian record producer and television personality (he starred on the country’s version of Survivor, where he was nicknamed “riksklysa,” or “asshole,” for his unscrupulous behavior) who also co-authored a book about Prince. Shockadelica demonstrates an uncommon degree of sensitivity and nuance regarding Prince’s compositions. Seek it out.