Saturday, April 21, 2012

In review: Stevie's Wonderland

Stevie Wonder
Motown/Universal (1973)

Ah, Stevie, how did I forget you for so many years? I grew up with Stevie Wonder music surrounding me.  Then when I was in college, I took a dance class and our final performance featured Sir Duke.  However, after I discovered alternative rock, I stopped listening to soul music, and poor Mr. Wonder was relegated to the back closets of my mind.  That was until a few months ago when I heard Sir Duke playing the background at the food coop.  Stevie was back and just in time, since now I decided to include a chapter on soul music for my book-in-progress, Whole Music. Oh, I’m enjoying this.

When Stevie released Innervisions in 1973 I was in grade school, but I heard the gritty socio-commentary Living for the City, the catchy Don’t You Worry “Bout a Thing, and the funky Higher Ground on a pop radio station.  However, at the time I did not recognize Wonder’s musical genius.  I knew nothing about song crafting, ethnic rhythms, or music production.  Now, that I have listened to everything from Mozart, to Aretha Franklin, to field recordings of drumming virtuosos, I feel astounded by the beauty and power of Innervisions.

First, Wonder plays most of the instruments himself, including those salsa piano riffs on Don’t You Worry, his voice swoops and soars like a combination of a West African griot and a gospel singer of the black church.  His songwriting must have turned other musicians’ faces green with envy and these songs run the wide gamut between all-out gospel (Jesus Children of America and listen to that churchy piano at the beginning of Golden Lady), funk (Living for the City), ballads (Visions, Golden Lady, All In Love is Fair), and salsa (Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing).  The musician wonder also provides some cheeky humor such as his little Spanish skit at the beginning of Don’t You Worry and in the text of He’s Misstra Know-It-All, which in itself has a Beatles-esque quality.  I can hear Paul McCartney crooning this song.

It is not often that I sit mesmerized with my finger on the replay button, but I could spend an entire day listening to this single album.  Besides, all the glowing accolades I mentioned above, I feel the changing moods of these songs strongly.  I resonate with the keys on Visions, Golden Lady, and All In Love Is Fair in which Wonder’s vocals grab my heart and nearly yank it out of my chest.  I would need to listen to all Wonder’s albums to know which one has the best vocals, but I imagine this album is at the top of the list.  Wonder goes full-throttle on this flawless album.  He also experimented with the Moog and ARP synthesizers of that era.  And I will say, from a college class learning the ARP synthesizer, that you had to program each sound with patch cords (you did not just push buttons).  Here is just another memory, compliments of Stevie Wonder.

If you haven’t heard this album in decades, dust it off and give it a spin.  Better yet, get the CD version and hit replay.  One last thing, it seems appropriate to review a CD of a Taurus musician when the sun and moon transit through Taurus. 

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