With Stevie Wonder descending on Oakland, California tonight to perform the “Songs in the Key of Life” album in its entirety, I thought it would be good to give you a taste of Stevie’s vibes for todays “Anatomy.” A casual glance at “American Idol” would very quickly tell you Stevie Wonder is one of the most imitated singers today. His style, which was once considered highly unique even in the context of soul and funk music is now a bedrock of R&B vocalizing, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Throughout the ’90s and ’00s, various male singers, from R Kelly to Glenn Lewis, were judged by how close their vocals came to Stevie’s melismatic style. Something that was imitated far less than his vocals however, was Stevie’s expansive, electric and electronic, harmonically progressive, rhythmically vital musical style. However, as the time has progressed more and more artists have attempted aspects of this too. Todays song, “Can’t Turn Around” by Foreign Exchange, is a record, like Janelle Monae’s “Ghetto Woman”, Nicholas Payton’s “Freesia”, and the ending coda of Justin Timberlake’s “Strawberry Bubblegum”, that evoke an uptempo, synth heavy Stevie Wonder vibe. It expands upon the unique stylings of songs such as “Bird of Beauty”, “Superwoman”, and especially “As if You Read My Mind”, and “Can’t Help It” from Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall”, among others. This is a style that features a mid to uptempo Afro Latin beat, modernized with analog synths, both playing the bass and complimentary textures. Add to that Phonte’s steady midrange vocals, beatiful harmonies and pads, and Gwen Bunns vocals and you get a special brand of Afro Latin dance ecstacy.
On The Foreign Exchange’s LP “Love in Flying Colors”, “Cant Turn Around” follows a song called “The Moment.” “The Moment” itself is a triumph of ’90s house music vibes. “Cant Turn Around” follows in a seamless DJ disco mix segue. The song begins extremely hot on the tail of the peak in the preceding song, with an up front drum mix of a syncopated Afro Latin funk drum beat. Sweeping takeoff type sounds provide atmosphere, perhaps the “Flying Colors” of love the album is based on? After the already highly danceable four bar drum intro, the bass comes in stridently on the “One.” The bass part is a phat, analog sounding synth bass tone, playing a very staccato, short attacking bass line. The bass is happily married to the drums, especially the kick, but syncopated in Afro Latin dance fashion. In the second bar of the pattern, towards the end, the bass notes jump upward and tumble back down in a way that leads us back to the strong on the beat bass pattern. The beat builds itself up in layers, adding congas, muted guitar and a rising sound, along with what sounds like some chopped up vocal parts from Phonte.
After the beat is established, Phonte’s smooth, melodius multi tracked vocals come in singing “Flying High.” The groove is sweetened underneath his singing, with Rhodes tones, and rhythmic synth parts sequenced to provide backing rhythm. When Phonte says “Lets Ride”, they give you another harmonized vocal to the lyric, “Baby don’t look back/cause we can’t turn around.” Lead synthesizer lines are added. The synth parts are constantly changing and adding nuance, just as Stevie Wonder did in his 1970s classics. These parts add greatly to Phonte’s dulcet low mid range singing.
Around 2:30 the beat changes up, changing key and somehow intensifying an already intense groove, adding the vocals of Gwen Bunn with one of the catchiest lyrics on the whole album, “If you wont stop/then I won’t stop/Baby lets make a way/If you hold on I wont let go/cause baby you saved the day.” Acoustic piano sounds and synthesizer lines envelop and support her vocals, with Phonte vocalizing soulful ad libs. The song grooves out from there on one of the best joyful funky dance climaxes I’ve heard in a LONG time. The vocals and music just keep building intensity on a groove that sounds like it could go on and on and on.
I must admit, certain aspects of Stevie Wonder’s ’70s style I never even thought about being replicable. The care and creativity he put to his synth lines in particular, which was as much a matter of necessity as creativity, seemed too tedious for musicians to match today. So of course I’m thrilled when I hear a “Ghetto Woman”, a “Freesia, and a “Cant Turn Around.” “Cant Turn Around” is a song that has it all, exciting Afro Latin rhythm, extended dance structure, well arranged male and female vocals, and an insane amount of TEXTURE, an incredible arrangement of keyboards and other instruments that enables the listener to visualize the music. In short, the “Love in Flying Colors” the album promises. As Stevie himself wraps up his tour performing one of the greatest albums of all time, “Songs in the Key of Life”, I have to give the highest props to Nicolay, Phonte, Zo and the rest of The Foreign Exchange for using the synth based style that Stevie helped introduced and making their own thing out of it. Stevie himself moved on to other styles, but as any great artist his ouvere is full of sound that can be taken up by other creators to give their expressions of love color.