The Artist Formerly Known as Prince
Crystal Ball
(NPG Records)

"I've got grooves and grooves on the shelf," a cocky Prince boasted on 1990's best-selling Batman soundtrack. He wasn't kidding. Never a minimalist, His Royal Badness rarely seemed to lack inspiration or the means to capture it on tape. Following the completion of Paisley Park studios, his state-of-the-art recording facility on the outskirts of Minneapolis, the Artist availed himself of the finest equipment, engineers, and musicians on the planet. The result is his latest and twentieth release, Crystal Ball, a 5-disc, 52-song tour de force.

Few contemporary musicians have been more prolific than the Purple One, who practically dares his audience to keep up with his astounding output. Since making his debut in 1978 with For You, the Artist has released at least one album per year (not including best-of and B-side compilations), masterminded two feature films (Purple Rain and Under the Cherry Moon), written songs for various artists (he penned the Bangles' "Manic Monday") and served as star-maker for other dance-music hopefuls (such as Vanity, Apollonia, and the Time). No one can ever accuse him of resting on his laurels.

Labeled an "official bootleg," and available only through the Internet until recently, Crystal Ball compiles live cuts, alternate takes, and assorted odds and ends accumulated throughout the Artist's outrageous, twenty-year career. It comes without cover art or liner notes, but the package encompasses every genre from gospel-tinged R&B ("So Dark") to guitar rock ("Interactive"), from trip-hop ("Boom Boom") to blistering electric blues ("The Ride"). And of course, practically everything on this album oozes sexuality.

It's hard not to be impressed with the sheer scope of Crystal Ball. From the sexy reggae of "Ripopgodazippa," to the Morris Day-inspired satire of "Movie Star," the Artist has provided a collection overflowing with bold ideas and standout songs. The title cut is a complex, moody track that ranks among his most wildly creative work, while the raw funk of "Cloreen Bacon Skin" (an improvised drum 'n' bass jam) features him at his most playful, despite the fact that the song lasts for more than fifteen minutes. One can understand why such an extreme workout might wind up on the cutting room floor, but there are songs here that are every bit as accessible as previous releases. "Sexual Suicide," for instance, has a groove so powerful it could shake the hips of the dead, and its horn arrangements are complex enough to satisfy even the snottiest jazz purists.

The fourth CD, an all-new acoustic work titled The Truth, is full of stripped-down, bluesy tracks that are sure to stun the Artist's dance-floor fans. Here the emphasis is on the spiritual rather than the sexual, the yin that has always sought to curb his overwhelming yang. The disc begins with the gritty delta blues of "The Truth," which features the lyrics, "What if half the things that I said/Turned out to be a lie/ How would you know the truth?" The songs on this disc are personal, reflective, and subdued, despite the Artist's propensity for lewd innuendo. On "Don't Play Me," he warns, "You couldn't play enough of me now to make me feel like a star/Don't play me, I already do in my car."

Those who pick up Crystal Ball at a music store won't get the fifth disc, which can only be obtained by ordering the set through the Website ( The final disc is a full-length ballet, titled Kamasutra, which blends the sounds of a symphony orchestra with electronic in-strumentation. There's nary a funky beat to be heard here. It's ambitious and impressive, but it's also grandiose and bloated, much like the "serious" classical music Paul McCartney insists on composing. Still, it has its intriguing moments: Is that the snipping of scissors being used as a percussive effect?

Overall this package is the Artist's wildest set ever, and that's saying something. While the man has been the butt of many jokes about his name changes, silly outfits, egomania, and diminutive stature, he remains one of the most uncompromising and interesting musicians in pop music today. As the Unpronounceable One himself sings on "The Truth," "My only competition is, well, me in the past."

-- Manuel Pila

Eric Clapton
(Reprise Records)

The Beat. It's what Eric Clapton's latest album, Pilgrim, is all about. The Beat sounds like this: a steady 4/4 rhythm punctuated by the clap of a snare drum. It's the soulless sound usually associated with electronica and bland dance music, but now it has infected the music of rock 'n' roll's most bluesy guitarist. In fact the clapping snare drum on Pilgrim isn't even real: It's a drum machine. Eric, how could you?

Ten of the album's fourteen songs are all but ruined by the Beat, including the loose, acoustic "Circus" and the delicate ballad "Inside of Me." What might have been powerful epics (such as "My Father's Eyes") sound sterilized. "Broken Hearted," featuring Paul Brady playing tin whistle, is somewhat refreshing, as is the wah-wah heavy "She's Gone," which recalls Clapton's rugged Journeyman (1989). There are satisfying guitar solos on the almost funky "One Chance" and the cacophonous "Sick and Tired," but the album as a whole lacks musical fire.

Lyrically, Clapton still has blood in his veins. His mood here is mournful yet hopeful, and his words are fiercely self-revealing. The tone is set with the opening track, "My Father's Eyes": "How did I get here?/What have I done?/When will all my hopes arise?/ And how will I know it?/ When I look in my father's eyes."

On the title track, Clapton asks, "And how do I choose?/And where do I draw the line/Between truth and necessary pain?/ And how do I know?/ And where do I get my belief/That things will be all right again?" These musings are similar to those on Bob Dylan's recent Grammy-winning effort. Like Dylan, Clapton was once immortalized by fans; on Pilgrim he sheds tears, becoming all too human.

Yet computers are making much of the music here, and they just don't provide the kind of emotion to match Clapton's lyrics. Short of Guns n' Roses with a string section, there's nothing more inappropriate than Eric Clapton with light, monotonous beats.

-- Jonathan Lesser

Sixteen Horsepower
Low Estate

Sixteen Horsepower takes traditional bluegrass and country and sears them over some coals. This isn't a particularly new idea, but instead of the tossed-off melancholy or loner sentiments found in much cowpunk, this Denver-based band offers a haunting theatricality, courtesy of evangelical, lake-of-fire lyrics and a downright slithering sensuality. The multi-instrumentalist band -- David Eugene Edwards on vocals, banjo, and accordion; Jean-Yves Tola on drums and piano; Pascal Humbert on bass; and Jeffrey Paul on guitar, fiddle, and cello -- have definitely learned a thing or two from gloomy cowboys such as Nick Cave and the Louvin Brothers.

When Edwards, the band's chief singer and songwriter, wails, "The devil's brand is on my bones/And from the inside the Holy Ghost groans," he's not speaking metaphorically. Edwards, a Christian who has actually composed hymns for his hometown church, wants to do God's will. But Edwards' religion doesn't involve warm hugs and chubby angels watching over you. Most of the lyrics on Low Estate tell tales of despairing, self-flagellating sinners and hard-earned redemption. The band's debut album, Sackcloth 'n' Ashes (1996), thumped the same Bible but was musically starker. Sackcloth boasted an absolute gem of a song called "Black Soul Choir," a banjo-driven, back-porch jeremiad with a marvelously catchy chorus; Low Estate doesn't have a similar centerpiece, but its songs cover a wider range of moods. "My Narrow Mind" gallops along like a Wild West hootenanny; "Golden Rope" sounds like wobbly carnival music from the Nineteenth Century; "For Heaven's Sake" verges on a techno beat a la Nine Inch Nails.

Edwards hoots and hollers like a preacher who has some sordid habits and who knows we do, too. ("Where could I go but to the Lord/I've been to your house and seen what you adore.") Sometimes these two sides stand out in sharp contrast, as when the creeping gothic fog of "The Denver Grab" is immediately followed by the Appalachian bluegrass of "Ditch Digger." At other times the influences fuse into a postpunk confessional. The obvious reference points here are Cave, Gordon Gano (of the Violent Femmes), and Will Oldham (of the Palace Brothers). Edwards deserves to take his place among those and other artists who are troubled by the shadows over their souls.

-- Theresa Everline

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Theresa Everline
Jonathan Lesser
Manuel Pila