Sunday, February 26, 2017

Band Review: Stevie Wonder

Regular readers may have noticed a reversal, where the travel blog post went up yesterday, and the traditional Friday music review is going up really late Saturday, That is because Stevie Wonder has such an extensive catalog that I have been locating and listening to his music for over two weeks now. I should have started three weeks early.

It was worth the time, and it felt very necessary. I had written him down for review a while ago, when Feminista Jones had recommended him, especially for Fulfillingess. Critical mass was reached as Franchesca Ramsey recommended Songs in the Key of Life and Sassycrass started talking about him, and it felt like everyone was talking about "Happy Birthday". It was just time.

I am glad I went through the entire catalog. There were good memories and new finds and some clarifications on partial memories. I still do not feel in any way equipped to do a normal review, so this will just be thoughts and impressions.

I went through chronologically, and found great growth. That makes sense. He started as a child, and he was a gifted child, but there was still all of this experience to gain (and a voice to change). I didn't like  With a Song in My Heart much, and Tribute to Uncle Ray seemed gimmicky, though that could have just been that someone so young lacked the gravitas that Ray Charles brings, and suffers by comparison.

The early exception was The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie. I know they were mostly songs by other people, so the background was probably similar to the other albums, but it is amazing. Being instrumental takes away any reminders of his youth (though you still know), and the music is so alive! That is where I hear why he is a "wonder" and get an idea of how much of a prodigy he must have been.

Stevie at the Beach through I Was Made to Love Her (1964 - 1967) were better, with him finding his voice and coming into his own. Part of that growing up would include getting married and letting his contract expire in 1971 so that he could establish terms with more control. I don't know if all of those decisions came from what he learned working with the label, or how much his wife helped with that navigation. Syreeta Wright had been a secretary for Motown, as well as a songwriter, and secretaries know things. It is interesting to me because lately I have come across more cases of recording contracts stifling careers instead of helping them. I am curious about that.

It becomes an interesting period. 1968's For Once In My Life is growing funkier, and 1969's My Cherie Amour sets familiar lyrics to some really different tunes, so there is playfulness and development already, but Music of My Mind - 1972, so now out of the old contract - feels a lot more experimental, and Fulfillingness' First Finale in 1974 sounds more mature. If I can't necessarily articulate what makes them sound that way to me, I still trust that Wonder knew what he was doing and was making choices that led to growth.

I'm going to say one more thing about his youth (and then he is getting older anyway), but I read that Where I'm Coming From (1971) was compared unfavorably to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On which also came out that year, so I listened to that too.

On one level I think the critics were being overly harsh, but I have to admit that What's Going On is a gut punch. I had heard some of the songs, but putting them all together it's on a whole different level. It makes sense that the man who was a little over a decade older and painfully divorced is channeling a deeper pain than the newlywed 21 year old. That doesn't mean that the younger one doesn't have anything to say; but it's different.

Both of those albums were attempts to explore and try new things. One thing Wonder's contemporaries know him for is his ability to hear new possibilities, especially with new ways of using instruments. I learned that he is also a bit of a technology junkie, which makes sense. There was a lot of use of synthesizers on Stevie Wonder's Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants, still pretty new at the time.

That one got a lot of criticism too, though that may be more related to the movie itself, which was considered pseudoscience. It sounds very New Age-y, but I know it references things that came in the sequel to A Wrinkle in Time so I suspect it fit in with the era.

The music is interesting, and often moving. Without seeing the movie I can't know how well it fits, but the thing that amazed me reading about that is that Wonder a description of what was going on and how long the segment took, and had to compose that way. I keep forgetting that he's blind.

I mean, I know, but I forget what it means, and what it would make difficult, because he just does things anyway. His discography includes three film soundtracks, without him ever being able to watch the films. It's astounding.

New discoveries I liked included "More Than A Dream", "Ruby", "If You Really Love Me", "You and I", and "Don't You Worry About A Thing". Fulfillingness is good, but I responded more to Songs in the Key of Life. That had "Contusion" and "Another Star", plus "Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)" which I just think is brilliant; I can't explain way. I like "Rocket Love" and "Land of La La", "One of a Kind" and "It's You".

"Happy Birthday" is great, and despite loss it is so joyful. That was another thing that was interesting. I'd heard "Sir Duke" before, but I didn't understand that it was a tribute, and in part that tribute came from people dying before he could collaborate with them. Missed opportunities make a lot of sad songs, but also you can just be grateful those people existed.

I like "Cold Chill" and "Sorry". (I have no idea what I will choose for his song of the day, but once I listen, all songs are in play forever.) "If Your Love Cannot Be Moved" is very dramatic; it's hard to believe that it is on the same album as "Moon Blue" which has such a different tone. And I liked "Passionate Raindrops" and "A Time to Love" too.

He is wonderful.

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