Tag Archives: Classic Albums

I’ve Never Heard… Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

Or, truth to tell, any Stevie Wonder record. Not all the way through. I’ve heard large tracts of the one I’m most familiar with, Songs in the Key of Life (I have my mother’s old vinyl copy at home), but none of them in their entirety.

So I decided to pick one, and ended up with Talking Book, though it was almost Innervisions. But Talking Book has Superstition on it, so that was that.

Like the Eagles and Pink Floyd, the two bands I looked at last year for posts in this series, Stevie Wonder occupies such a huge place in the canon of English-language pop music that you (or, more specifically, I) can have heard none of his albums in their entirety yet still feel pretty au fait with the man’s oeuvre. I’ve known music by Stevie Wonder for almost literally as long as I can remember; I Just Called to Say I Love You came out when I was around three, and I remember hearing it in my parents’ house in Maldon, which we moved from when I was four and a half.

But as I got older, I began to find a lot about Wonder’s music that I didn’t like. The floridity of his vocal style was at odds with the much simpler approaches taken by my favourite singers. The maximalism of his sensibility was counter to my preference for more minimally arranged and produced music. I found myself irritated by his sometimes clumsy lyrics that messed with syntax or stress to force a rhyme. Too many of his songs, particularly those on Songs in the Key of Life, go on far too long.

So as I acquired many albums by his peers in 1970s soul and R&B – Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Al Green – I picked up none by Stevie. I’d essentially decided that he was never going to be my guy, even as I had a couple of dozen songs by him, and listened to them and enjoyed them, and would never have argued with anyone proclaiming his greatness. Or even his genius.

So that’s my background with the great man. Let’s dive in.

You Are the Sunshine of My Life, which opens Talking Book, is a classic. There’ll be no contrarian take from me on this one. His inversion of the natural stress of the word “rescue” is an example of the kind of bone I find myself constantly picking with Wonder the lyricist (the clumsiness takes me out of the song as surely as an out-of-time backbeat, a bad edit or an egregiously flat note would do), but still, there’s so much to love here, from the gorgeous Fender Rhodes sounds to the buoyant congas, and the lovely, inclusive touch of having backing singers Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves sing the first two verses.

Maybe Your Baby is for me the weakest track on the album by a distance, so it’s a shame that it comes so early in the album. It’s not exactly bad – the verse groove is compelling enough, and the multitracked and varispeeded backing vocals are a creative arrangemental touch – but at nearly seven minutes, the track goes on far, far too long. Ray Parker’s soloing is a pretty major mark against for me, too. His tone, like an amplified bee buzzing around your head, is annoying, and without wishing to be cruel, he’s not the player you want pouring it out at this length. Wonder should have used Jeff Beck. But we’ll get back to him.

You and I moves back to ballad territory, with Wonder this time accompanying himself on piano, with a Theremin-like sound from TONTO (something else we’ll come back to). It’s a lovely performance, one of Wonder’s more restrained vocals, largely in the lower-middle of his wide range, where for me his voice sounds richest and most full. The use of delay on his voice gives it a slightly trippy, spacey touch that I think works brilliantly for the song.

Tuesday Heartbreak is a showcase for Wonder’s use of interweaving keyboards (Fender Rhodes and a prominent Clavinet), but something’s a bit off kilter about the vocal. It sounds nasal and pitchy, so much so that I wonder if something was awry with the tape speed when Wonder tracked his vocal. Whatever it is, something’s off, as I’ve never felt that Wonder was out of tune on any other other song. The backing vocals of Deniece Williams and Shirley Brewer could have been a touch higher in the mix, and I’m seldom well disposed towards David Sanborn’s alto (always so bright and hard-sounding), but the extended voicings Wonder plays are cool, and I love that change to Bb diminished in the verse.

Side one ends with You’ve Got It Bad Girl, one of the record’s most attractive pieces, and a song that illustrates the creative potency of Wonder’s partnership with engineers and co-producers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff.

Cecil and Margouleff were the owners-operators of TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra). TONTO was, and still is, the largest analogue synthesiser ever constructed – a room-sized behemoth of old-school analogue synthesis. Its many, many modules allowed its operators to construct new instrumental textures in real time, or produce credible simulations of real-world instruments.

tonto

On the jazzy You’ve Got It Bad Girl, Wonder, Cecil and Margouleff created a layer cake of keyboard timbres: Moog bass, Fender Rhodes chords and TONTO melody lines, several of which are instantly recognisable to anyone as “Stevie Wonder” synth sounds. Electronic it may be, but it’s also a wonderfully human and lyrical sound, so it beautifully complements the record’s acoustic elements: Wonder’s impressive drum performance (not “and-a-1, and-a-2” swing, looser and more impressionistic than that, but still clearly drawing on jazz), his gentle and intimate lead vocal, and the backing vocals of Gilstrap and Groves. A singular creation, but it works amazingly well.

Before the sessions for Talking Book began, Jeff Beck’s people at CBS told Wonder that Beck was a big fan, and would be keen to work with him in some capacity. Wonder did not need a vast pool of players to call on, as he was capable of playing almost everything himself, but he did tend to call in lead guitarists, so was open to playing with Beck. An agreement was made that Beck would play on Talking Book and in return Wonder would write him a song.

Superstition was the result of a jam session between Beck and Wonder that took place before the album sessions. Beck, apparently, came up with the opening drum pattern and Wonder improvised the Clavinet riff over the top. The two tracked a demo there and then, which Wonder took away to finish. In some versions of the story, Wonder loved it too much to give it to Beck without cutting his own version too; others say Motown told Wonder it was too good to give away and insisted that Stevie’s version came out first. Whichever is true, we’re lucky that Wonder did record it*, as the Beck, Bogert and Appice version is a sludgy mess with no verve or bounce, whereas Wonder’s version is the finest thing he ever recorded. Bar nothing.

A final word about the Superstition drum track. It’s a little sketchy in a couple of places, but Wonder’s drum performance on Superstition can stand alongside literally anything in the funk canon. Even if Jeff Beck came up with it.

Superstition crossfades into Big Brother. Wonder’s use of his Clavinet to create an acoustic guitar-like tone, coupled with the African-style percussion (djembe, I think), give this song a different feel to anything else on the record. It’s really cool, as is his harmonica playing. Lyrically, it’s probably the angriest song on the record (“I live in the ghetto/You just come to visit me ’round election time”; “You’ve killed all our leaders”), and a little blunter and sharper than I was expecting. On this song at least, anger sharpened Wonder’s lyrics into something cold and hard, with no syllable wasted.

Blame it on the Sun repeats the acoustic-guitar keyboard trick even more credibly (I guess from the sleevenotes, it’s the instrument referred to as a “harpsichord”, but Wonder plays it like lead acoustic guitar). It’s the arrangement’s most notable feature, but it’s hard not to be swept away by the song itself, which may be my favourite of the Talking Book tracks I didn’t already know. Those diminished chords in the choruses (under “the wind and the trees”) are heartbreaking, and the backing vocals by Gilstrap and Groves are sumptuous

Looking for Another Pure Love features the twin guitars of Jeff Beck and Howard “Buzz” Feiten. Over another of Wonder’s one-man-band arrangements of drums, Moog bass and Fender Rhodes, the pair play harmonised scalar lines, shadowing Wonder’s vocal melody. It’s a gentle and intimate production, with every nuance of Beck’s lead playing audible in the mix. Once again, the backing vocals – this time by Debra Wilson, Shirley Brewer and Loris Harvin – lift every chorus.

Final track I Believe (When I Fall in Love) is the third of the album’s masterpieces. Another of Wonder’s one-man sonic fantasias, its dreamy verses (carried by keyboards and a vaguely threatening Moog bass) are paid off by a slowly rising bridge and a chorus of cautious optimism that only gives way to anything close of celebration at the very end of the song.

As a recap of many of the moods explored by the album’s other songs, it’s a fitting end to a record that’s very good indeed, if not always quite at the level of its three most famous songs. After familiarising myself thoroughly with Talking Book over the last couple of weeks, I feel like it’s obviously the classic it’s always held to be. It has a couple of weaker moments, but Wonder’s sense of quality control was pretty tight on this one. And anyway, one or two lightweight songs or failed sonic experiments are understandable when you factor in that Wonder was making one record a year in the first half of the seventies. I’ve learned things, too, about the craft that went into these records: the creativity of Stevie’s arrangements and his work layering keyboard textures and harmonic parts, as well as his partnership with Cecil and Margouleff, which led to the creation of wonderful new timbres and atmospheres. While I do prefer the low end sound of the Stevie Wonder records that feature a bass guitarist, I’ve also got more of an appreciation for how he built rhythm tracks from Moog bass and his own drum performances.

Stevie Wonder’s records are probably never going to be among my very favourites – I’ve come around to more decorative singers in the last five or 10 years, but his sensibility is still a long way from that of the artists I tend to love most – but getting to know his albums was probably overdue for me. Having got to grips with Talking Book, I’ve already got Innervisions on my iPod**, and who knows, one day I may even get through the whole of Songs in the Key of Life without skipping the codas.

talking_book

*The incident strained the realtionship between the two considerably, and Beck remains convinced that his version would have been a huge hit had it come out first. It wouldn’t. It’s not even a tenth of the record that Stevie’s is.

**Yes, I still use an iPod Classic. 120gb. I work a lot on my music and Mel’s, and projects for folks like James McKean and Yo Zushi, so I don’t want to have to listen to them as MP3s.

 

 

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His Friends are More than Fond of Robin – Carly Simon

Other than You’re So Vain and Nobody Does It Better (both of which I love, though I have a few reservations over some of the former’s more convoluted lyrics), I’d never given Carly Simon much thought until last year when Mel and I watched a Classic Albums documentary on No Secrets that a friend of mine recommended.

It’s rare that I watch one of those without my respect for the artist increasing (even Duran Duran went up in my estimation after watching the one on Rio), and Carly Simon was no exception. If I’d scoffed a bit about the idea of a Carly Simon episode of Classic Albums when none exists for Joni Mitchell or Neil Young, I wasn’t scoffing 55 minutes later. Maybe No Secrets is not After the Gold Rush or Blue, but it’s a really sturdy early 1970s pop-rock record, with three or four excellent songs aside from the obvious picks (The Right Thing to Do and You’re So Vain) that were released as singles.

His Friends are More than Fond of Robin is foremost among them. Piano-led and intimate, with Simon’s gentlest vocal performance, it’s a beautiful, quiet interlude on No Secrets, which otherwise tends to be a little more grandiose. Simon’s producer Richard Perry was fond of bigness and stuffed Simon’s songs with chugging cellos, big undamped tom-tom fills and multitudinous overdubs of lead and backing vocals. Wisely, Perry let His Friends are More than Fond of Robin breathe, and Simon responded with what must be her best released vocal performance.

Even more than the arrangement, though, what’s really noticeable about the song is how stylistically at odds this kind of writing is with that practised by her contemporaries. The pre-rock reference points for most singer-songwriters were folk, blues and country, and there were also a few who dabbled a little with jazz (or more truthfully, with some of the signifiers of jazz). But His Friends are More than Fond of Robin is not jazz – rather, it’s a sort of Broadway art song (the sort of thing that Stephen Sondheim might have written, as Barney Hoskyns observed in the Classic Albums doc). That’s a tradition that, among her contemporaries in 1970s rock, only Randy Newman ever worked in, although he’s not tended to write such vulnerably romantic material to perform himself.

All of which brings up an interesting question: why isn’t Carly Simon held in higher esteem than she is among the critics, fans, writers and bloggers who’ve shaped the singer-songwriter canon if she was capable of delivering pop hits as well as something with the depth of His Friends are More than Fond of Robin? Certainly there’s an element of sexism to it, and class is definitely an issue too (Simon is the daughter of Richard L Simon, co-founder of publishing house Simon & Schuster – a fact that critics such as Robert Christgau and Ellen Willis repeatedly held against her), but on the whole I think it’s that you can’t attach an obvious narrative to her, and canon formers love a narrative.

She didn’t have a prolonged streak of artistic brilliance of the kind that gave Neil and Joni their cred, or the history in music and compelling life story of Carole King, or the doomed-outsider cool of Tim Buckley or Judee Sill. Unlike, say, Jackson Browne, she didn’t even stop having hits – through the late 1970s and all through the 1980s, every time she seemed to be done commercially, she came back again with a successful single: Nobody Does it Better, Jesse, Why (written and produced by Chic, from the soundtrack to the movie Soup for One), Coming Around Again and, as late as 1989, Let the River Run (from the soundtrack to Working Girl). She didn’t have a gigantic, era-defining album hit like Paul Simon did with Graceland, but she never really went away. Not forgotten, just simply there, in a lot of people’s homes and hearts. Not obscure, not cool, not a genius, not a beautiful loser. Such artists are all too easily overlooked when canons are constructed.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

Walter Becker RIP

I was away last week and read about Walter Becker’s passing in the New York Times. They gave him a full-page obituary – indicative, I thought at first, of the band’s  higher profile in the US compared to here, until I opened up the BBC News app on my phone and saw that his death was a top story there, too.

I’m no different from any other pop fan, and can’t keep the music and the artist entirely separate. It requires a particular cast of mind to do that, and I don’t have it. My thoughts about the character of the musicians whose work I admire (none of whom I know) feed into my understanding of that work.

But with Walter Becker, I had to make an attempt to consider the music as separate from the man, as he was always something of an enigma. His partner Donald Fagen made a somewhat autobiographical solo album (The Nightfly) in the 1980s, and published a book a few years ago detailing his teenage art-cultural obsessions. Moreover, he was the singer, and it’s hard not to hear the words being sung as a reflection of the singer, even when you know that he didn’t write all of them.

Reticent though Fagen is next to his rock’n’roll peers, Becker was even less forthcoming. Photographs of him suggest a stern character, or perhaps a supercilious one (his friend Rickie Lee Jones said in her tribute to Becker that he hated to be photographed, which may explain why he could look off-putting in photos). His work suggests a bottomless sarcasm and cynicism. In the Classic Albums documentary on Aja, he’s gimlet-eyed and brutally dismissive about the faults he hears in recordings and performances that appear faultless to we ordinary mortals. Yet those who knew him speak of a gentle, patient man, generous with his time, but shy and affected by a difficult childhood and some troubled adult relationships.

What we know for sure is what we know from his work. Like Fagen, he was a studio perfectionist. He was egoless in pursuit of the best record possible, handing over tracks to trusted players whenever he thought someone else would do a better job than he could – despite being a crackerjack guitarist himself. For years, I didn’t know that he played one of my favourite ever guitar solos (the one on Aja‘s Home at Last), simply because he so rarely allowed himself the luxury of taking a solo when Denny Dias, Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon, Elliott Randall, Rick Derringer and Mark Knopfler were a phone call away. Think about that: a guitarist working in rock music who was self-effacing to the point where he was willing to not play on songs off the last two albums at all (songs that he wrote) in pursuit of the best possible records.

That kind of musical humility deserves applause. But really, everything he did as part of Steely Dan deserves applause.

Give some to the bass player, part 9 – Dreams by Fleetwood Mac

To be John McVie is to be Fleetwood Mac’s That Guy. Not the instantly recognisable 7-foot-tall drummer who’s on the record covers, bald on top, long at the back, with the nose. Not one of the two crazy, glamorous American singer-songwriters. Not the other singer-songwriter who gets her turn alone at the piano. The other one.

To be John McVie is to have an unerring sense of the right thing to play, all the time. To be able to take a two-note heartbeat pattern and make an instantly recognisable signature out of it.

To be John McVie is to be a yeoman, whose qualities are possibly only properly realised by that lanky drummer, the guy who’s been with you through good times and bad for 48 years now.

The sweetest moment in the excellent Classic Albums documentary on Rumours is when Mick Fleetwood is sitting next to the album’s producer Ken Caillat while the latter picks apart the mix of Go Your Own Way to highlight Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar playing. Fleetwood suddenly hears McVie’s bass as if with fresh ears.

“Listen to John! Listen! It’s like a whole orchestra going on. He’s creating the whole counter—”

“It’s that magic,” says Caillat, shrugging.

Fleetwood then does what I can only assume is a McVie impression, sort of singing along with his bass line before adding his final word on the subject.

“You’re a monster, John!”

Monster or yeoman, McVie is crucial to the band’s sound and no bass pattern is more synonymous with John McVie than the heartbeat pattern he plays on crucial Mac track Dreams from Rumours (as well as Sara from Tusk, Say You Love Me from Fleetwood Mac, and Gypsy and Hold Me from Mirage and probably more that I’m not thinking of right now). Locked in tight with Fleetwood’s bass drum, the string is picked on the one and the three, and on the quaver before the three and before the next one, like this:

heartbeat

It’s undemonstrative, it doesn’t call attention to itself, it supports the vocal while giving the song a subtle internal push, and at some point most bassists have found themselves playing this pattern along with the drummer. Yet when Fleetwood and McVie do it, it just cooks. These guys could never do anything else and I’d still want to hear them do it.

John McVie
John McVie, yeoman bass player

A new song!