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POP MUSIC | RECORD RACK

The Artist's 'Crystal' Isn't Clear

** 1/2 THE ARTIST "Crystal Ball" NPG Records

March 01, 1998|Marc Weingarten

At first blush, it would be easy to dismiss "Crystal Ball" as merely the latest in a series of self-sabotaging career moves by the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. It's a four-CD set that will set you back $40 or so.

But, hey, let's cut the guy some slack. Any collection that's top-heavy with outtakes, B-sides and previously unreleased tracks is by definition only going to attract his most fervent fans, anyway.

So why is this set--three discs of from-the-vaults tracks (each labeled "bootleg") and a fourth disc of new material called "The Truth"--such a frustrating mess? (For those who are gluttons for punishment, there's a five-disc version of the album available through the mail by calling 1-800-NEWFUNK.)

For years, Prince has boasted of his cache of literally hundreds of previously unreleased finished tracks and has long expressed a desire to get them into the marketplace. Judging by the desultory smattering presented on "Crystal Ball," however, he may want to rethink that strategy.

With a few exceptions, nearly all 30 tracks on the three "bootleg" discs are unstructured, uninspired studio jams that either cling to half-baked musical notions or wander aimlessly in search of a decent hook.

And to make matters worse, they are primarily culled from the last decade's worth of Prince's work, an era marked by musical conservatism and heedless trend-chasing.

"Crystal Ball" simply doesn't dig deep enough; some choice outtakes from the "Purple Rain" or "1999" sessions would have made for an inherently more interesting collection.

But wait. Here's where the really frustrating part begins: "The Truth," a new album of acoustic material, may be the most cohesive and satisfying record he's made since 1991's "Diamonds and Pearls," but the only way to get your hands on it is to shell out the big bucks for the entire "Crystal Ball" set.

Using little more than a vigorously strummed guitar and only the most discreet instrumental touches, the Artist has created a folk-funk gem whose attributes are endearingly modest. It's a remarkable exercise in self-restraint from an artist whose hubris continues to blind-side him at every turn.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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