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The Perfect Chord looks back at albums you may have missed when they dropped, or miss now that they’ve faded from memory. This week’s glimpse into the crates:
P.M. Dawn – Jesus Wept
New Jersey-based P.M. Dawn blew up in 1991 with their genre-warping, Spandau Ballet-sampling, Joni Mitchell-quoting beat poem “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss.” The single (and still their band’s biggest—but not contrary to recent belief, only—hit) walked a line completely perpendicular to the prevailing trends in popular Black music at the time—just barely too hip-hop to be New Jack Swing, too melodic to be purely hip-hop, with elements of psychedelic rock, New Romanticism and baroque pop thrown in for good measure. De facto frontman Attrell “Prince Be” Cordes’ airy vocals carried lyrics that were either abstractly romantic or ambiguously spiritual—or both simultaneously, as they often were—and the band’s music (produced in equal part by Prince Be and his brother, Jarrett “DJ Minutemix” Cordes) jumped freely between styles. Naturally, U.S. record labels had difficulty finding a way to market the band; British imprint Gee Street, on the other hand, felt no such restrictions, and when Island acquired Gee Street, P.M. Dawn serendipitously found themselves heavily promoted stateside.
By 1995, the music industry on the whole had begun its backslide. The grunge bubble had burst, leaving nü-metal and its uncomfortably ham-fisted followers; likewise, gangsta rap had all but completely taken over hip-hop music almost entirely by design, with even major news outlets fanning the flames of the East Coast/West Coast rivalry, and P.M. Dawn found themselves on the periphery of the zeitgeist yet again. Quietly, and with little popular attention, they released their third album: Jesus Wept.
The album begins with an otherwise-untitled “Intro,” a minute-and-a-half-long overture that essentially presents all of the band’s sonic elements in one burst: cryptic, pseudo-spiritual romantic lyrics (here provided by a variety of old film samples) over classical piano stabs, suddenly and abruptly tossed into a blender with breakbeats and, of all things, a sample of Linus from Peanuts composing a letter to the Great Pumpkin. The intro ends with Prince Be, a capella, declaring “You, me, and time. We always are, because we never were,” before the sound of a cocking gun. Rather than a gunshot, however, the band instead launches into “Downtown Venus,” a rolling, bouncing, guitar-driven number (and the album’s first single) leaning heavily on a sample taken from Deep Purple’s “Hush.” The effect is shocking—profoundly so, signaling the band’s penchant for completely sidestepping expectations. “Downtown Venus” also provides a perfect showcase for the band’s unspoken hero: session guitarist Cameron Greider, whose major-key solo arrives at the perfect moment in the song, cavorting acrobatically through the arrangement like a flute in Tchaikovsky’s Dance Of The Mirlitons. The band wisely chooses to ride the momentum Greider creates by coasting out on a shortened verse and refrain. The song fades out over a long twenty seconds, leading to a Little Rascals sample that, in turn, cues the slow fade-in to “My Own Personal Gravity,” a glacial-paced song that is equal parts love song (“I’m no guardian angel/but I can loan you mine,” Be suggests) and self-criticizing beat poem (“why does everybody want me here/but no one here can give me the reasons why?”). Greider slides through the spotlight again, this time with a trippy, heavily-treated, Hendrix-esque solo before sliding back into his two-chord rhythm progression, before the song ends with Be doubling the end of Greider’s solo with his voice.
Only after a lengthy fade-out ten minutes and three tracks into the album, does P.M. Dawn turn to the harmony-centric, hip-hop-flavored R&B that made them popular. “I’ll Be Waiting For You” boom-baps along, solid but dependable, a straightforward fastball among a vast repertoire of trick-pitches. It works, and quite well (as does the Al B. Sure-sampling “Sometimes I Miss You So Much” toward the end of the album), but the band wisely proceeds to keep the unexpected coming with “Forever Damaged (The 96th),” a tender synthesis of Caribbean bass, smooth-jazz drums, and Greider’s open-chord acoustic strumming. Defiant to the last note, the band eschews a guitar solo in the song, instead presenting a steel drum solo (courtesy of session percussionist Len Sharp) that seems head-scratching until the sounds blend with the bassline and subsequently make total sense. “Apathy…Superstar!?” follows with a more soft rock-oriented sound (echoed later on “Miles From Anything” and “A Lifetime”), before “The Puppet Show” pops up. The song’s a low-key, lyrically-simple song built around a call-and-response description of an otherwise-unnamed “baby” doing various things at the titular show, until, without any real warning, a twenty-three-piece orchestra shows up, mixed fairly low over a sampled breakbeat. The aptly-named “Silence” follows, a field recording of a serene scene at the grave of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Immediately after, another sample appears, one of a peculiar young urban man, describing plainly why God loves him; the subsequent “Why God Loves You” is another straightforward, almost Ralph Tresvant-sounding R&B cut. The song has a sense of finality to it (which, as it serves as the closing track on Side A of the cassette release of Jesus Wept, makes complete sense); indeed, the subsequent five songs (“Miles..,” “The 9:45 Wake-Up Dream,” “Sonchyenne,” “A Lifetime,” and “Sometimes…”) are more ponderous and slow than the preceding nine.
The album ends with a medley of covers, entitled “Fantasia’s Confidential Ghetto,” which begins with an unusually sparse, piano-acoustic guitar-vocal rendering of the first verse of Prince’s “1999.” Prince Be expertly navigates the song, keeping his voice more hushed than normal, allowing Greider and pianist Etienne Lytle (whose keyboard work on the album is as understatedly spectacular as it is ubiquitous) to carry the listener through. The arrangement—a faithful, if stripped-down, rendering of Prince’s major-key piece—simultaneously makes the song sound sonically lighter and more pleasant (especially Lytle’s soloing), which in turn makes the lyrics sound even more chilling. Abruptly after Be sings “tonight I’m gonna cry like it’s 1999,” Lytle’s sound changes to that of an electric keyboard, and the full band launches into a psych-pop version of Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime,” ascendant vocals swirling around keys and organ while session bassist Tony Bridges holds the song together—until, just as jarringly, that portion of the medley ends, and a slow, dirge-y sample (of the introductory Wurlitzer solo in Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come”) triggers a lurching drum beat, and the band launches into a surprisingly faithful rendition of Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut.” Greider doubles the Wurlitzer sample on acoustic guitar, Bridges’ bass noodles along, while Be and Minutemix harmonize frantically throughout. The suite overall is the perfect culmination of the album, ending Jesus Wept with a bewildering churn of sound, all musical, all beautiful.
Unfortunately, the album would be the closest P.M. Dawn would ever have to another commercial success. Jesus Wept peaked at #48 on the Billboard chart; its follow-up, 1998’s Dearest Christian, I’m So Very Sorry For Bringing You Here. Love, Dad, didn’t fare as well. By 2000, the band was largely inactive owing to Prince Be’s struggles with diabetes. In 2005, Be suffered a stroke that temporarily paralyzed his left side; that same year, despite obviously still suffering from the after-effects of the stroke, Be and Minutemix appeared on the NBC reality competition show Hit Me Baby, One More Time, competing with other ostensible ‘one-hit wonders’ by covering contemporary pop songs. The band won with a cover of Puddle Of Mudd’s “Blurry” and embarked on a small club tour in 2006 with plans to record a new album the following year. Sadly, this wouldn’t come to fruition; Minutemix left in ’06 to pursue a solo career, replaced by his (and Be’s) cousin Doc G. In 2009, Be suffered a second stroke, and developed a gangrenous infection in his right leg, which was amputated at the knee. While Doc G continues to perform P.M. Dawn songs alongside his own solo material, the band’s run seems to have come to an end, leaving behind a handful of singles, numerous compilation appearances, and four proper albums; Jesus Wept, for its relative obscurity, remains the band’s creative high-water mark.
A. Darryl Moton is a freelance writer/Iowan/curmudgeon attempting to escape Portland, Oregon.