Monday, July 1, 2013

Stevie Wonder and Jack Black

Here's cause to offer a sigh of relief: PCPL has in it's catalog the four most important albums Stevie Wonder ever released!  Well, OK, that's "most important" in my opinion, and humility has been left by the wayside....  If you've ever wondered just what Mr. Wonder did back in the 1970s (after "Little" Stevie grew up but before he "Just Called To Say I Love You"), well, the library's got the answer to a question Jack Black poses in the film High Fidelity: Can one bad song invalidate all of an artist's prior genius?

Steveland Judkins was among the superstars of Barry Gordy's Motown records back in the mid to late 1960s.  With major pop hits like "Fingertips" and "Uptight" released on Motown while he was a minor, Wonder was able to amass a substantial trust fund and make himself indispensable to Gordy's hit-making empire.  When he turned 21 in 1971, Wonder used his trust fund and leverage with Gordy to build his own recording studio, establish his own publishing company, renegotiate royalty rates he received from Motown, and--most important--take full control over the writing, arranging, production and recording of his music.  Wonder's music changed from that moment on as much as the manner in which it was created, and his albums throughout the 1970s reflect a matured perspective fully cognizant of political, social, spiritual and racial issues confronting the nation at the time.  Wonder's best albums are not mere compilations of short, catchy hit singles collected on a full LP, but rather are unified artistic works where each song is part of a larger story.

From 1972, Talking Book opens with his classic funk tune "Superstition," and its signature clavinet groove.  Intriguingly, Wonder created the song's keyboard groove by overdubbing multiple takes of his clavinet playing the fundamental line, building a simple idea into a very complex and original sound.  Talking Book also features what was to become a pop standard in "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life," and classic gospel/funk, "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)" (which is used in the film High Fidelity, just to bring things back to Mr. Black).  Beyond the hits, Talking Book contains sharp criticisms of politicians obsessed with reelection ("Big Brother"), and a blunt consideration of infidelity in "Maybe Your Baby."  For those with an interest in making music on computer, "Superstition" has been legally released online with each vocal and instrumental part separated onto discrete individual tracks.  Even just recreating the original's clavinet sound is an challenging and educational experience. 

Originally released in 1973, Innervisions remains for me Wonder's defining moment.  "Living For The City" is one of the most important and powerful indictments of racism, injustice and poverty ever released in popular music.  The album as a whole works as a meditation on the state of our society in 1973, ranging from the increasing popularity of what would become New Age consciousness ("Higher Ground," "Jesus Children of America"), drug abuse ("Too High") and the political corruption of Watergate ("He's Misstra-Know-It-All").  The really amazing thing about this record though is not it's intelligent lyrical commentary, but rather the unforgettable and original pop hooks which ground each song deep in your memory.  "Too High" uses a upbeat, jazzy instrumental and vocal arrangement which bounces around as the songs protagonist seeks sobriety, "Higher Ground" and "Jesus Children" are both powerfully propulsive funk numbers, catchy no matter what the lyrics might describe.  "Living For The City" could almost be described as a work of funk opera, as an extended break features dramatic voice-overs and sound effects to bring home the lyric's depiction of a country boy who finds nothing but misfortune in the big city.

A double-album (with a bonus EP as well) released in 1976, Songs In The Key Of Life, is a lengthy and complicated record which Wonder spent two years working on in his studio.  It ranges from concise pop numbers like "I Wish" and "Sir Duke," to longer and funkier social commentaries and existential meditations like "As" and "Black Man."  The record also features art-pop explorations such as "Pasttime Paradise" (which was sampled by Coolio for "Gangsta's Paradise") and "Ordinary Pain," which makes use of two different tempos as backdrops for two very different accounts of a relationship gone wrong.

Finally, Hotter Than July (from 1980), marks Wonder's last great full album release.  Complete with homages to Bob Marley ("Master Blaster Jammin'") and Martin Luther King ("Happy Birthday"), Hotter Than July reaffirmed Stevie's commitment to creating socially conscious popular music.  "Cash In Your Face" is a striking depiction of racial discrimination in housing, while "I Ain't Gonna Stand For It" takes on dissolution of a marriage.  There's even a nice disco ballad ("All I Do") to keep things fun.  Hotter Than July could really benefit from an expanded re-release, as there were several dub and extended versions from the record which were released only as vinyl 12" singles back in the early 1980s, and have since become hard to find.

As I sit here with "Happy Birthday" percolating along in the background, it seems to me that Wonder's best musical moments can never become invalid.  However, the last time I tried to watch High Fidelity, I fear some of Jack Black's humor has worn pretty thin....

PCPL has 'em all, and you can reserve a copy for yourself by clicking on the links below:

Talking Book:


Songs In The Key Of Life:

Hotter Than July:

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