The answer to the question would be Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew, covering the O.S.M. himself, who proclaimed himself as much on The Black Album back when people actually paid retail for Prince bootlegs. Maybe "covering" is too misleading a word, the same way "fucking awful" can be misleading when discussing the Texas Rangers' pitching staff; it doesn't begin to describe what's really going on here. He's reinterpreting, actually, since only the scholar or obsessive fan could find the link between original and redo by the end of this dirty dozen in which the songs grow more alien with each listen. McNew, who's been recording as a one-man Dump since 1993's beguilingly low-fi Superpowerless, opens the Prince songbook, digs up songs familiar ("Dirty Mind," "Raspberry Beret"), forgotten ("Girls & Boys," "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore?") and lost ("An Honest Man," a buzzy and turgid take on Sheila E.'s "A Love Bizarre"), takes them apart like a curious kid with a busted transistor radio, then reassembles the mess till it only resembles something familiar. You can tell that's "1999" beneath the whirring keybs and drum-machine mumbles, but no longer can you shake your ass to it; you can barely nod your head with McNew, who renders the apocalyptic anthem anemic and sad as hell. Turns out the beginning of one man's future is the end of another man's past and present: "Woke up this morning/Coulda sworn it was judgment day," McNew repeats, this time like a man with a fresh hangover and a death wish--oops, out of time, indeed.

That Skinny Motherfucker is the album to which all so-called tributes should aspire: The roots don't grasp and strangle the results found here. The first half is faithful enough to the originals, the same way John Kennedy was faithful to Jackie O. "Raspberry Beret" is fuzzy but still funky; "Erotic City" is even more nasty and bump-and-grind than it was first go-round (unlike Prince's, this one actually reaches a climax); "The Beautiful Ones" is still the prettiest pop song about longing ever written and barely sung; and "When You Were Mine" sounds like it was recorded in a closed garage with a car running. But halfway through, McNew stops suckering you in and sucker-punches back instead: "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore?" winds up at a coffee-bar hootenanny, after hours; McNew sounds almost happy she's lost his phone number. And when he gets around to "Pop Life" and "An Honest Man," any surface novelty gives way to fragile revelation: The former becomes lush and languid, like Burt Bacharach if he never moved out of his folks' house and stayed in the basement; and the latter, culled from 1998's "official" bootleg Crystal Ball, winds up sounding like every song on Neil Young's Comes a Time, only catchier. Play That Skinny Motherfucker once for grins, then play it a hundred more times because you've got no choice.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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