Wednesday, May 30, 2001

The singer, not the song

Posted By on Wed, May 30, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Originally released in 1999 on cassette, Dump’s That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice? reinvents a Prince we thought we knew — on four-track. As bass player for Yo La Tengo, James McNew (aka Dump) has proved himself as a team player and accomplished pop dreamer. But Dump allows McNew to go even deeper into the bedroom fantasies of home recording, exploring some of his hero’s best-known songs — “Raspberry Beret,” “1999,” “When You Were Mine” — with a stripped-down intimacy that is as beautiful and testimonial as it is stalking and blasphemous.

At times McNew walks the line by breathing life into the dirty underbelly of Prince’s lyrical message. In the Prince throwaway “A Love Bizarre,” McNew near-whispers the song’s unimpassioned warning, “It gets kind of rough in the back of my limousine, under an insistent rattle and an aborted bass clarinet, licking the funk off his basement tape recorder. At other times, McNew succeeds by providing an unmistakable low-fi enema for songs such as “Erotic City,” or a front-porch acoustic translation, like the wistful “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” if only to remind us that pop-democracy is only as strong as our willingness to murder what we love.

But McNew’s imagination isn’t bound by the novelty of reprogramming Prince’s drum ideas. Instead, his talent lies in teasing out the emotionality of lyrics that have been sung to the point of numbness. In McNew’s sparse arrangements and lucid vocals, songs such as “Pop Life” become the honest pop gut-checks they always were. “What you putting in your nose/is that where your money goes…/life it ain’t really funky/unless it got that pop, baby.” By the end of the track, it’s obvious that McNew knows what many of us don’t always want to remember: that our heroes are a lot closer to home than we think.

E-mail Carleton S. Gholz at


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