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The Boston Phoenix Royal Mess

Peering into the Prince vault

By Robin A. Rothman

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  According to legend, there's a vault of unfathomable size, shrouded in mystery, where Prince, now the Artist but sometimes still Prince, has squirreled away a collection of recordings so immense, he could put out an album a year for the rest of his life without ever entering a studio again. Another, somewhat-easier-to-verify bit of pop lore has Prince ranked among the five most-bootlegged artists of all time. Add to that a history of contract battles, name games, old masters, new masters, remixes, and limited-edition and Internet-only releases and you've got one of the more confusing discographies ever perpetrated by a mainstream pop star.

The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale (Warner Bros.) is the latest twist in the twisted plot. It's the fourth in a series of contractual-obligation (or "throwaway") releases the Artist has quietly dropped in order to emancipate himself from his contract with Warner Bros. The first was 1993's The Hits, a three-CD set of singles and B-sides. Next came the limited edition The Black Album, which enjoyed only a brief shelf life in 1994. And in 1996, we got Chaos and Disorder, a poorly received batch of new numbers that kinda rocked. Kinda.

A collection of leftovers recorded between 1985 and 1994, The Vault may be new to most. But a dedicated Prince fan will have already heard the majority of these tracks in some form, on unofficial bootleg collections like Dreams and Jewel Box, which are as well known to hardcore fans as are Sign "o" the Times and Emancipation. The Vault's apropos title track is an old friend indeed: it dates back to Prince's heavily orchestrated Parade era (circa '85/'86) and has been turning up on unofficial releases ever since. The disc's opening cut, "The Rest of My Life," and the spoken-word trip "My Little Pill" are both salvaged from the work Prince did for director James L. Brooks's 1993 flop I'll Do Anything. Brooks didn't end up using the music, but that hasn't kept it from reaching Prince fans on the black market. Unfortunately, The Vault omits two of the scrapped soundtrack's other best numbers -- "Be My Mirror" and "Empty Room." But the disc does feature two real gems -- "There Is Lonely," and "5 Women," a tune originally written for and recorded by Joe Cocker. Prince's "5 Women" demo has been circulating for years, but this version is tighter, faster, and fuller-sounding.

The problem with The Vault is that it's just bits and pieces thrown together without any real context. In that sense, it amounts to a less extravagant follow-up to 1997's Crystal Ball, a three-CD scattershot set of "previously unreleased" but frequently bootlegged tunes. Initially sold only on the Internet, Crystal Ball included an acoustic album titled The Truth, the New Power Generation Orchestra dance suite Kamasutra, and a T-shirt, all packaged in an awkward circular collector's box. After Internet distribution turned into a logistical disaster, Crystal Ball was repackaged for retail outlets, without Kamasutra or the shirt but with cover art and track listings that the mail-order version lacked.

So, depending upon your point of view, Prince is the epitome of a collector's dream or a collector's nightmare. And rumor has it that the Artist is currently in the process of making things even more confusing and convoluted. Earlier this year, on NPG, he released a CD of remastered/remixed versions of "1999," and there have been reports that he intends to re-record all 17 years' worth of the work he did at Warner Bros. Beautiful Strange, a BBC-recorded concert video featuring footage from a Paris show and an interview with Mel B (a/k/a Scary Spice), is now available from NPG via mail order, and confirmed upcoming treats include Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, a new album featuring cameos by Sheryl Crow, Maceo Parker, Ani DiFranco, Chuck D, and Gwen Stefani.

Best of all, though he's still calling himself the Artist, production on this new album is said to be credited to "Prince." Add to that the fact that the Artist recently signed a distribution deal with Arista, which will release Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, and the news that he's planning to tour in support of the CD and you've got all the makings of a genuine mainstream comeback in place. In the meantime, if anyone knows where to find the Crucial sessions on CD, let me know: my vinyl's pretty worn out.

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