Monday, July 30, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Vanity 6 (1982)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Thirty. Archive here.]

As was the case with so many records emanating from Minneapolis in the early 80’s, the record sleeve for Vanity 6’s debut doesn’t tell the full story. Scanning the back cover, we learn the group is made up of Brenda, Susan, and Vanity, a tough-looking, interracial trio who favor lingerie. We see the racy song titles, including the opening salvo of “Nasty Girl,” “Wet Dream,” and “Drive Me Wild.” And there, at the bottom, it says “Players: The Time; Produced and Arranged by the Starr Company and Vanity 6.”

So there you have it--Vanity 6 features the instrumentation of The Time and the production of Jamie Starr. Which means that Prince wrote, produced and arranged the entire thing, with zero input from either The Time or Vanity 6.

As with The Time’s debut, this album is a struggle for Vanity 6 to carve out their own identity, while singing Prince’s words over Prince’s music. The quality of the songwriting makes that tough. First single “Nasty Girl” features the slipperiest beat Prince ever threw together. Like “Sign ‘O’ The Times,” the sound might have been too futuristic for its own good. The song was a dancefloor hit, but didn’t make the Hot 100. Twenty years later, Timbaland was constructing beats that sound remarkably like “Nasty Girl,” and they still sounded futuristic. It’s a classic, with a vocal from Vanity that writhes and preens as much as the funk guitar that adorns the song.

Elsewhere, Vanity 6 tends towards the new-wavey funk that Prince explored in the early 80’s. “Wet Dream” is a companion to 1999’s “Delirious,” and “He’s So Dull” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Blondie album.

Those tracks all feature lead vocals from Vanity, the most distinctive of Vanity 6’s singers. On their lead vocals, Brenda and Susan sound more anonymous, overshadowed by the crisp pop-soul, with the ubiquitous synthesizers and LinnDrums of the Minneapolis Sound.

Predictably, the album’s best vocal comes from Prince himself. “If A Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)” is framed as a phone conversation between women arguing over a man. Over a bouncy funk bass, Brenda and Vanity call Jimmy, only to discover a woman on the other line. They verbally assault the lady, Vanity sounding a bit stiff, Brenda reeling off some serious insults. But the woman on the other side of the line--that’s Prince as Jimmy’s girl--is a high-pitched, sharp-tongued force of nature. Jimmy’s Girl is basically rapping, with an impressively loose and angry flow.

Vanity 6 is rounded out by a couple songs that sound a bit like “Computer Blue,” and a sappy finale. It was the only album this group would release, as group members chafed under Prince’s control freak tendencies. Today, Vanity 6 is a mostly forgotten Minneapolis Sound footnote, and that’s a shame. These three nasty girls--gleeful and matter-of-fact in their forwardness--and the prolific genius manipulating things behind the scene had it going on.

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