Random record reviews: Steve Earle, Prince

(Above: Prince gets funky on “1+1+1=3,” one of the best tracks his album The Rainbow Children, in Las Vegas in 2002.)

By Joel Francis

Steve Earle – Ghosts of West Virginia

Ostensibly a song cycle about coal miners, Ghosts of West Virginia, the newest album by singer/songwriter Steve Earle, also works as a metaphor for blue collar work. Although the songs were written years ago for a theater production, they seem particularly timely right now, in the midst of a pandemic when sectors of the workforce are literally labeled essential.

Steve Earle - The Ghosts of West Virginia

The album opens with an a capella song that sounds like an old Appalachian hymn. From there, Earle unearths the heritage and history of the coal mining profession and covers the folk song “John Henry” for further context. 

The emotional tour de force “It’s About Blood” opens the second side. As the guitars build, Earle names all 29 miners killed in the 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion. A climax this intense would conclude most albums. Instead, Earle pivots into the tender ballad “If I Could See Your Face” sung by Elanor Whitmore. This ability to empathetically explores different facets of a coal miner’s life, is not only what makes Earle a cut better than many other songwriters, but also makes Ghosts of West Virginia stand out in his own vast catalog.

Prince – One Nite Alone

Prince’s final shows were billed as the Piano and a Microphone tour, but One Nite Alone shows this context was not a new one. Recorded in 2002, this 35-minute collection finds Prince exploring his jazzier side. The recordings are gorgeous, elegant and intimate, putting the listener in the room with Prince. But like a decadent desert, these songs work best in small doses. Although some tracks, like “Here on Earth,” feature touches of synthesizer and percussion, they all work in the same stately mood, blunting the effect across the course of the album.

One Nite Alone is the album to play when you finally open that bottle of wine you’ve been saving, want to impress a certain someone or just want to curl up in the dark and escape with a gifted artist. Finally having it on vinyl will make the experience seem even more immediate. It won’t be played as much as Purple Rain, but One Nite Alone will be perfect when time comes.

Prince – The Rainbow Children

Once freed from the shackles of a major label, Prince was able to indulge all of his impulses, for better or worse. His 2001 album The Rainbow Children is a jazz concept album about … who knows. I’ve never quite been able to figure it out. The looser arrangements and nearly 70-minute running time allow Prince more space to jam and solo. Whether or not it works depends on your taste in jazz and self-indulgence.

The Rainbow Children is a long way from Prince’s groundbreaking, hit-filled albums of the ‘80s. That said, there are some stand-out tracks. The James Brown funk workout “The Work, Part 1” could have been an R&B hit in an alternate world. Closing songs, “The Everlasting Now” and “Last December” also number among the album’s strongest moments.

Long out of print, Prince completists will be delighted they no longer have to shell out exorbitant figures to own The Rainbow Children on vinyl. Less devoted fans may want to sample the album digitally before deciding if they want to take custody of The Rainbow Children.