What do a white boy from Charlottesville, Virginia and a skinny black, platinum-recording artist have in common? The white boy is James McNew, the bass player for Yo La Tengo, and that skinny artist is Prince. Both were present for the Purple Rain Tour show at Capital Center in Washington, D.C. back in 1984. One was lost in the crowd and possibly bought a T-shirt; the other took the stage in a purple suit and a fog of dry ice. But between them, there's more than just a 1980s tour concert. And the McNew record, That Skinny Motherfucker With the High Voice? proves it.
Initially recorded as a seven-song cassette, this interpretation of many of Prince's best songs has bloomed into a full-length CD, released recently on Shrimper Records under the name Dump. Save for a little help from Stereolab organist Margane Lhote on the first track, "1999," McNew is the vocal and recording mastermind behind all 12 tracks.
"Although there wasn't a concept at the beginning, eventually a concept came out of it," says McNew. "Far be it for to draw comparisons between the one man recording act of Prince and way over on the other side of the chartme, but the idea of me interpreting the other side of these two sides of the spectrum [made sense]. I thought there were things, as hilarious as it sounds, that we kind of had in common."
Perhaps in the context of his day job as bass player for Yo La Tengo, this seems all the more hilarious. Yo La Tengo has done covers, sureusually from bygone eras safely outside the current pop culture lexicon. You'll hear Kinks and Velvet Underground songs on Yo La Tengo recordings, but the grinding beat behind the often horny or just cryptic lyrics of Prince would seem merely ironic coming from them. McNew's singular comprehension of these songs, though, is arresting.
"There's parts of some of Prince's songs that are really sensitive and beautiful that get kind of steam-rolled sometimes, and I like accenting those points," McNew explains. "There were also parts that I thought were aggressive and sinister that also would get lost. There's all different sides of the personalities of the songs, and I kind of liked drawing out the sides of those songs."
For That Skinny Motherfucker, McNew chose only a few straight-ahead send-ups like "Raspberry Beret" and offset these with complete transformations from the Prince discography. On "An Honest Man," a vault pick from the Under the Cherry Moon movie, McNew morphs the song and finds an even rawer way to express it. Though other tracks show off his wicked falsetto, it's this track that showcases McNew's vocal abilities best. And in a Neil Young-ish croon, he renders as much as he can from the lonely lyrics. "Erotic City" is a pared-down punk version with a fuzzy indie rock bass riff. The B-side, "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore?" calls to mind a lounge act.
"I could never pick one track from the Sign of the Times album because they were all so good," says McNew. "'Forever in My Life' was one I started but never finished." Spanning from Purple Rain to Around the World in a Day and dipping into The Hits/The B-Sides, each song was chosen with a peculiar insightthat of a fan who has spent many hours getting to know the recordings intimately.
It's not so hard for a fellow musician to tip his hat to the immense talent of one of the smallest men in rock, but to be a Prince fan is not as easy, according to McNew. "It's not an easy thing to be a Prince fan. I'm not ashamed," he qualifies. "Nobody should be. But I think he has made it difficult to be a fan for a long time and that kind of bums me out. When I did the first batch, I was just doing the first songs that came to mind, but when I was looking for songs to record for the CD, I just couldn't find anything that stuck to me from the last ten years or so. I couldn't believe it. I had just listened to 11 albums and I didn't like any of them. I was stunned. I tend not to dwell on the current era." Prince's descent into full-time curmudgeonry puts another strain on a fan's loyalty. "Every time I hear him speak now, the only words out of his mouth are basically how bitter and distrustful he is. It's a real downer," says McNew. "If he wants it, he's got some amazing years ahead of him but I don't know if he wants it anymore. He seems so sick of it all. He signed the contract. It's not like somebody signed it for him. I know he got completely screwed out of zillions of dollars but he's gotta let that stuff go. It'll make you awful."
Prince's grapes gone sour and all, there's still a yen to see what the "skinny motherfucker" is doing with his time. For this reason, McNew probably would shell out the ticket price to see him in concert again. "But I don't think I'd go backstage and hand him a copy of this CD. I think he would have me killed at that point."
As for the Dump CD, McNew seems to prefer it to be thought of as a fluke brought about by some new gear he bought. "It was a totally fun project and a way to experiment with getting freaky with new approaches to recording songs and making noises. A lot of people don't mention the fact that this is funny. It's over an hour long, for crying out loud. What was I thinking?"