Prince records — like The Ramones and Black Sabbath — are a curious candidate for the high resolution audiophile-grade 180-gram treatment. Just because the album was great doesn’t necessarily mean the album itself will sound spectacular. Many times, that boxy sound of radio in the ’70s and early – mid ’80s was the intended sound of the recordings and no amount of re-mastering of the final mix down master will change the essential flavor of that album — and nor should it! — unless it gets completely remixed from the multi-track recording elements with the input of the artist or someone intimate with the original recording sessions.
That process can be hugely successful (as in the recent resuscitation of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson) or to some people it can sound… well.. dubious… as in the fairly radical rethinking of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon by James Guthrie ( which sounds good, don’t get me wrong) that sounds quite a bit different than the original vision by producer engineer Alan Parsons, which, arguably, made the record a landmark hit in the first place.
So when I received a timely stack of Prince reissues from the good folks at Rhino Records, I knew it was going to be an interesting listen. I’d actually entered into Prince mode a number of months back when I realized I no longer had his Sign of the Times album on LP, just the CD. Shortly before the Rhinos arrived I had located a mint original pressing (a lot harder than I anticipated!) and was enjoying the warming vibes of my Bellari Tube pre-amp when playing it over my Music Hall 7.1 turntable and Goldring cartridge. But as good as it sounds, it still sounds boxy at times in that ’80s radio sort of way and just a bit better than the CD overall. That is in no small part due to Prince’s extensive use of the LINN-1 drum machine and the Fairlight digital sampler (which if I’m not mistaken, were 16-bit resolution). Point is: these records, while good, can only sound as good as the original source material (in audiophile terms: these ain’t Shaded Dog RCA Living Stereos on LP or SACD!)
Jumping to the Rhino reissues, I compared my mint original pressing of 1999 to the new pressing and, ya know what? It’s a tossup! The original pressing was made on fairly thin flexible vinyl common to the early ’80s, yet it sounds pretty good, with a nice balance of bass and highs (this is a pretty funky album, afterall!). The reissue, on the other hand, is on lovely thick 180-gram vinyl, pressed perfectly centered, quiet, and clean. The artwork on the new issue is better than the original print, with lovely rich colors on the glossy label and a solid cover identical in look to the original — original inner sleeves are reproduced as well. The two sound almost identical, with the original getting an ever so slight nod for thicker bass — but again, I’m splitting hairs here, the difference is subtle.
For the other two Prince reissues — Dirty Mind and Controversy — I can’t really compare them to to anything else, as I only had them on a long lost cheesy cassette a friend gave me while I was in college.
Things I noticed: the sound on both of these is pretty similar to 1999 — drum machines, thumping bass, altered voices, spikey guitar riffs, etc.
Things I remembered: these albums are pretty short.
But they are good funky rock soul records! Of the two, I’d give Controversy the nod for better songs (“Annie Christian,” “Sexuality,” “Ronnie Talk To Russia,” and the title track). It also comes with a reproduction of the big poster of Prince in his skimpy black skivvys — for some people, that will be worth the price of admission to this reissue itself! Dirty Mind reproduces the original inner-sleeve artwork.
My recommendation? Well, you can’t really go wrong with these reissues if you have the money to spend on them and want some Prince vinyl in your collection. Chances are if you have the original pressings, you have played them out fairly well over the years and they are scratched up from many the housequake you had back in the day. Or perhaps you went for the CD versions and yearn for the original artwork and inserts you never had (admit it: you really want that Controversy poster hanging on your office wall or man cave). These reissues are well made, crisp, punchy, and for all intents and purposes, identical to the original pressings. Until Prince decides he wants to remix the albums for a higher resolution presentation (Sign of the Times in 5.1 surround would be sweet!) I suspect his will be as much as we can expect to hear. And that should be fine for most of us. After all , you’ll probably want to be up dancing anyhow when listening to these! So don’t worry. Be happy. Pick these up and and party like its 1999 all over again!