Monthly Archives: May 2017

Anatomy Of The Groove: “I Love Makin’ Music” by Johnny Gill

Johnny Gill was born in 1966 in DC,known by the big and strong black population as “Chocolate City”. Coming from a religious back round,he started singing in his families gospel group the Wings Of Faith. He began his recording career in 1982,at the age of 16. It was his childhood friend (and soon to be duet partner) Stacy Lattisaw who convinced the baritone singer/songwriter/ bassist/ guitarist to submit demos to record companies. While he completed his education via tutoring, he elected to pass up studying electric engineering in college for a life in music.

Gill’s career took him from duets to a stint in New Edition (succeeding Bobby Brown) in the late 80’s to a revived solo career after that. One that extends to this very day. He’s also made over 80 appearances on television film in his duel career as an actor. One album that I always wanted to seek out from this multi talented teen prodigy was his debut on Cotilian Records from 1983. It was produced by Freddie Parren-famous for helming youthful family acts such as The Jackson 5 and The Sylvers.  One song that stood out to me on Gills debut was “I Love Makin’ Music”.

A percussion march and Gill’s call and response vocal lead into the main part of the song. The whole thing is built around a central groove. This consists a jumping funky drum built around heavy Afro Brazilian styled percussion. Gill provides a thick slapping bass thumps,a chunky rhythm guitar stomp while Perren plays a slippery synth bass. On the bridge of the song,the rhythm reduces down to a thick slap bass solo from Gill before returning to the main theme-urging pianist Clarence McDonald to “play some jazz” and such as the song gradually fades itself out.

“I Love Makin’ Music” mixes some of the kiddie funk style ultra singable melodic approach of Perren with some of the harder funk style Gill seemed to be going for. Not only are Gill’s often growling baritone vocals sound at least a decade older than he actually was,but if he plays as much as I can guess on this album his talents on guitar and bass are deep,strong and right in line with the 70’s soul/funk vibe which he came out of. Even though its not necessarily an aspect of Gill’s solo career that most people today might remember readily,it began the budding prodigy’s music career in superb form.

 

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Harriet Brown Does “Prince Weird” Right

brown

Is there any other musical influence as pervasive, yet elusive as Prince? Practically everyone in the contemporary pop landscape is influenced by him on some level–from Bruno Mars to Beyoncé to Young Thug–yet hardly anyone is able to capture what really made him great. D’Angelo has some of his electrifying stage presence; Miguel channels a bit of his sex appeal (albeit in watered-down, heteronormative form); DāM-FunK evokes his studio wizardry and occasional cantankerousness; but none of these are adequate replacements–nor would any of them claim to be.

Especially inimitable, and especially missed, is Prince’s weirdness. While the aforementioned Bruno Mars can do a serviceable enough version of “Let’s Go Crazy” at the Grammys, it’s hard to imagine him plumbing the psychosexual depths of a “Shockadelica,” let alone an “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” It’s that ineffably eccentric quality that sets Prince apart from his imitators: most of whom, quite frankly, know better than to even try.

To be clear, I’m not trying to set up an argument for Inglewood-via-Bay Area artist Harriet Brown as the one true inheritor of “Prince weird”; that would be hyperbole in the extreme. But of the legion of contemporary artists whose music echoes the Purple One’s, Brown is the one who seems to get “it” most. Just listen to the digitally-manipulated voices he puts on in the intro of his recent album, Contact, shifting from “Bob George” low to “Camille” high; or the way his elastic falsetto bends almost comically on the line “sometimes I think I’m an alien on your planet” from “ESP.”  Or hell, just look at the guy: that exaggerated bowl cut, like an Akira character come to life, with an inscrutable, gender-bending stage name that doesn’t seem to have any real-world frame of reference (unless he’s just a really big fan of the author of Brave Girl Eating). “I like people not exactly knowing everything going on with me,” Brown told the LA Weekly in a profile last month–an awfully Princely statement if ever there was one.

But I also don’t want to give the impression that Brown is just an imitator; his sound certainly channels Prince, but it doesn’t sound like an ’80s throwback. If anything, he sounds a bit like if Prince had evolved more gracefully into the ’90s and 2000s, subtly incorporating the influences of hip- and trip-hop into his sound rather than clumsily attempting to appropriate them. In other words, Contact is forward-looking, 21st-century music: music that builds on the past as a foundation, rather than trying to retreat into it. And that may be the best credit to Prince’s legacy of all.

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Anatomy Of THE Groove: “Eminence Front” by The Who

Pete Townshend is best known as the lead guitarist of The Who-one of the most long lived 60’s rock bands next to The Rolling Stones.  Townshend is often regarded for his onstage theatrics. He is also a talented multi instrumentalist. And an early proponent of synthesizers in early 70’s rock. The best example of this is the bands 1971 hit “Baba O’Reiley”,which was built around a European classic style melody played on the ARP 2600 synthesizer. After a very successful 60’s and 70’s, Townshend and the bands lead singer Roger Daltrey began to pursue solo careers at the start of the 1980’s.

Still The Who weren’t over quite yet. This came to my knowledge with a question I never got answered until learning about it online a few years back. From the mid 90’s onward,I’d often hear this song with an intro that had a terrific groove to it. Sounded like a prog/fusion style song,but it was during an era when classic rock radio didn’t often announce the names of artists for those not in the know. It wasn’t until hearing the song in a TV commercial that I was able to research it online through that stated what the song was. It was a song from The Who’s 1982 album Its Hard entitled “Eminence Front”.

A percussive drum box opens the song as a solo sound. The main groove of the song gradually builds in during the into. First it brings in a highly digitized,arpeggiated synthesizer. This is followed by a lower synth riff, as well as a jazzy Fender Rhodes solo floating over the higher notes. The main groove of the song adds a slow crawling drum groove,Townshend’s bluesy guitar. The chorus of the song brings John Entwistle’s thumping,fuzz toned bass in-along with a guitar build up on the outro of it. The Rhodes drives everything in the groove until the song finally fades itself out.

“Eminence Front”,written and sung by Townshend, deals lyrically deals with how the drug end of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle holds back creativity. And I can respect that alternate side of the coin. What really gets me is everything from the instrumentation to the vocal choruses of this song have a special musical interconnection. The song has the theatrical melodies of progressive rock opera (which The Who helped pioneer),but also a thick groove and harmony vocals of hardcore funk. It brings to mind the way the Stones embraced funk in their rock music: based on funk and soul’s current incarnations.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “I’m Back For More” by The Tavares

The Tavares are a group I’ve seen albums by in so many budget vinyl bins over the years, I didn’t have much context of their significance in the soul/R&B/funk world. Perhaps on their records being so common in Maine is a matter of geography.  This New England based group from New Bedford, Massachusetts got their start as different incarnations of The Turnpikes. Along the way,that group attracted future musicians such as Aerosmith’s drummer Joey Kramer and P-Funk/Talking Heads icon the late,great Bernie Worrell. By 1973, the five Tavares brothers alone signed to Capitol for a succession of R&B smashes.

One member of the group Butch Taveres is turning 69 this year. And so far,the only music I am all that aware of them for is their participation in the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever soundtrack-in that case covering The Bee Gee’s composition “More Than A Woman”. For some reason,always associated the singing siblings as being primarily based in slow jam ballads and Philly style disco songs. But just yesterday,I learned they had a far funkier side that showed up on the final song of their 1979 album Madam Butterfly entitled “I’m Back For More”.

A slow shuffling drum,bluesy filtered Fender Rhodes piano and a snarling,jazzy bass walk accompanies the harmonies of the Tavares along with horn and string accents on the intro alone. During the refrains of the song,its the drums,Rhodes and strings that carry the song along with the groups close and often jazzy harmonies. On the earlier bars of each refrain statement,the drum kicks up a bit more than shuffles. On the latter choruses,a wah wah guitar joins the musical mix. On the final choruses,the horn charts take presidents with the groups call and response exchanges as it fades out.

“I’m Back For More” brings to mind the feeling of three songs that define the funkiest side of the disco era for me. It has the rhythmic and horn/string cadence of Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby”,the jazzy keyboards and swagger of Edgar Winter’s “Do What” from 1979 and a melodic element similar to Toto’s “Georgie Porgy” from a year earlier. Its the type of song that bridges disco,funk and classic harmony vocal based 70’s soul with such a strutting,funky yet laid back kind of groove. Cannot think of a better song to pay tribute to Butch Tavares with,personally.

 

 

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Anatomy Of THE Groove: “Games People Play” by The Spinners

The Spinners were a Detroit band who at one point were actually co credited with the name of their home city-the Detroit Spinners. Also as the Motown Spinners at times because original members Billy Henderson, Henry Fambrough, the late Bobby Smith and Pervis Jackson recorded a number of singles for the famous Detroit label. Their biggest hit on the label was of course “Its A Shame”,sung by GC Cameron. Cameron was succeeded by the late Phillipe Wynn. Wynn was part of a three lead singer lineup of the band at Atlantic Records-for a series of albums produced by Philly maestro Thom Bell.

That period of the Spinner’s recording from 1973-1976 was their most commercially successful. While they’d go on to make some superb records after that,its that early/mid 70’s period that defines them in the public consciousness. Pervis Jackson was one of the three lead singers of the band. Though he passed away from cancer in 2008, his bass vocals were a key part of their five part vocal harmonies. There was one time where his vocals became more the star of the show. And that was on another huge smash hit for them from their 1975 Pick Of The Litter album called “Games People Play”.

A spacious drum thump starts out the song. A high pitched rhythm guitar,filtered piano and close knit bass line provide the basic melody along with accompanying horn lines. A string riser segues into that intro extended out into the refrain of the song. A second statement of the song extends out into a different chord-focusing on the horns and strings playing along with the lead vocals,which include female guest singer Evette L.Benton. The chorus of the song finds the groups vocal harmonies singing the the melodic string and horn orchestration. Its on this chorus that the song fades out.

“Games People Play” is one of my very favorite Spinners song. Its some of the finest produced mid tempo cinematic soul of the mid 70’s Especially the vocal exchanges. For Pervis Jackson’s part,his moment on this song occurs during the beginning of the third refrain where his bass voice sings “12:45”. As I understand it, that lyrical phrase became his nickname for a time. The end result is one of the best vocally oriented musical studio soul sounds of its era. Thom Bell was a master of highly musical vocal productions. And this is one of many fine examples of this from the Spinners during the 70’s.

 

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Go For Your Guns: 40 Years Of A Funky Voyage To Atlantis With The Isley Brothers

Go For Your Guns

Go For Your Guns is an album whose 40th anniversary occurred over a month ago. And it was something that pretty much demanded to be over viewed here. My interest in the Isley’s 70’s music flowed from Rickey Vincent’s book on funk during that time. He referred to them as the epitome of funky manhood-with Chaka Khan as the female equivalent of the time. How I ended up with a CD of  Go For Your Guns is a story in and of itself. And has a good deal to do with my great appreciation of this album over the years. Its actually included in my Amazon.com review I’ll include here.


Normally I tend not to do this. But there’s a personal connection with this album in my own life surrounding this album. During the Ice Storm of 1998,power was half out and everyone everywhere in the state of Maine was snowed in and/or iced in. It was an uncomfortably claustrophobic environment. The second day out,the driveway was cleared out just enough so people could get in and out of it. So we all ended up taking a drive to the nearby Borders Books & Music where,in their music section,they’d actually open and re-package a brand new CD if you wanted to listen to it.

I was in the R&B/soul section,where I always went first and say this album. I’d never heard any 70’s era Isley Brothers. Read about them during that period in Ricky Vincent’s Funk: The Music, The People, and The Rhythm of The One but had only heard them at that time via their newest album at the time Mission to Please. So I listened to the album and,since the price was exactly right for me that’s what I took home that night. I put my headphones on and listened. Listened in a context of great risk that the power might go out again and the family would swing into instant emergency mode. That didn’t happen. Yet this album made me feel very confident that better things were coming. Now,I’ll tell you why.

“Pride” starts the album out with some high octane wah wah and electric piano as Ron declares “when you finally break it on down/it’s your pride”-the Isley’s crowning manifesto of masculine consciousness that I think of as their most self defining funk jam of that era. With it’s creamily textured guitar and keyboard lines,the complicated melodic exchanges of the ballad type funk in “Footsteps In The Dark” evoke the lyrical imagery of a mature yet tentative romantic relationship with an uncertain future.

Chris Jasper’s pulsing synthesizer seems to call out from both above and below the spongy and melodic funk of “Tell Me That You Need It Again”-with Ron’s strong minded seduction oozing out of both the music and lyrics as well as the Isley’s ever did during this era. “Climbin’ Up The Ladder” goes right for the jugular of Ernie Isley’s guitar for a furious rocker with a clean,tight bluesy melody-again with Ron in his powerfully growling lower vocal range.

“Voyage To Atlantic” is a slower rocker focusing on an elaborate romantic fantasy. “Livin’ In The Life” and the instrumental companion title song are some of the most flat out amazing music the Isley Brothers ever made. It is the probably the most effective heavy metal funk ever made. The groove is solid and tight. Yet the synthesizers and Ernie’s guitar on the title song assault the music with a heavy biting steel. So the song accomplishes everything by embodying both funk’s instrumental cleanliness and rock’s instrumental passion.

Overall the one quality that defines this album is complete and utter confidence. It isn’t all necessarily testosterone fueled male ego by any means. Ron Isley goes out of his way to try to bring the feminine characters in this song to understand where he’s coming from-tending to respect their intelligence rather than demean them. More over however,on both an instrumental and vocal level,this album comes at the listener with the fervor of a sociopolitical musical preacher.

Some of the messages are non specific enough to be appealing to just about everybody,but the message is that love of the world begins with self confidence you can bring out in others. And the Isley’s all had plenty of reason to be confident with this album. As the 70’s wore on they gained progressively more and more control over every aspect of their music-from writing,producing and arrangement. Of course it wouldn’t be long after this that this would turn into some ugly ego regarding the generational differences of how the two sets of brothers conducted creative matters.

I do think that the strong level of confidence this album projects gives the listener the most positive overall view of the funk era. It certainly affirmed my appreciation of the music during a tense time for those around me even. And even at times when my confidence in funk itself was swayed for whatever reason? This album reminded me of what I loved about the music that no one could ever mistaken the sentiments of. So in that context along with the high quality music,this is one of a handful of funk albums I recommend as downright essential.


Go For Your Guns is album that hit me the moment I heard it,had the same effect when writing this review and its likely it always will. The Isley Brothers,especially during the 3+3 era combining the two generations of brothers in the family,dominated their funk in the recording studio much the same way they dominated the stage when performing live. Their music and persona was always a smoldering,passionately poetic funky fire that burns very strongly on every song on this album. Encourage all of you reading this who haven’t yet heard the album to check it out. You might just have a similar reaction.

 

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five Staring Grandmaster Melle Mel

Melvin Glover,the Bronx native known as Melle Mel,is known today as one of the first MC’s of hip-hop. He teamed up with another hip-hop innovator in the best known early hip-hop DJ Joseph Sadler-known to most as Grandmaster Flash. While they had their first single pressed with 1979’s “Superrappin”. After they moved to Sugar Hill Records shortly thereafter,they found themselves at the mainstay of recorded hip-hop. Which by 1980-81 was still considered largely a live medium-dances in city parks or after hours MC/DJ battles after a night at the discos.

Interestingly enough,it was a member of the Furious Five,Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins,is credited to have first coined the word hip-hop. The term came as a jest to a friend who was about to join the Army- mimicking of the sound soldiers make while marching. Seems pretty apropos as the Furious Five more or less became the first hip-hop army of the recording era. Their biggest (and often best known) contributions to hip-hop came from a record I first heard about in my mid teens. It was the title song to the groups 1982 album release entitled “The Message”.

A delayed drum machine with percussion effects opens the song-as a hi hat effect with lots of echo. That same rhythm sustains itself throughout the song. Addtionally, a pulsing synth brass sound keeps time with the delayed rhythm. At first,its accompanied by a very digitized synthsizer playing a reverbed,psychedelic sound and accompanied by brief rhythm guitar flourishes. After condensing down to the basics of the rhythm and pulsing synth brass,the main musically theme continues-with brief flourishes of synth bursts here and there before the song fades out after just a little over 7 minutes.

What amazed me about “The Message” upon first hearing it is that musically,it was still a straight up electro funk groove. It was sparse,the drum machine and percussion weren’t totally on meter and everything was set up to emphasize Mel’s rapping. The song is best known for being the end of hip-hop’s lyrical obsession with partying and upsmanship-as it presents different character vignettes about the harshness of young black American life in the ghetto during the early 80’s.  The he instrumentation follows Mel’s rap about “trying not to lose my head” in a world of people and music that was totally changing.

 

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A Time to Love, 12 Years Later: Reconsidering Stevie Wonder’s Last Studio Album on His 67th Birthday

timetolove

Yesterday, Andre marked Stevie Wonder’s 67th birthday with a writeup on 1987’s Characters, an underrated record from what many consider to be the singer’s wan years. Today, on the actual anniversary of Wonder’s birth, I thought I’d share an old review I wrote of his still-most-recent studio album, 2005’s A Time to Love. As you can probably tell, at the time I wasn’t a big fan of post-’70s Stevie: I’d pretty much taken at face value the critical consensus that he fell off after Hotter Than July. Now, my opinions are a little more nuanced (but I still mean what I said about the Woman in Red soundtrack). Anyway, in the spirit of celebrating birthdays and feeling old, here’s what I thought about Stevie Wonder at 21…a.k.a., 12 years ago. I need a drink.


What makes worthy artists–legendary artists, even–go bad? It’s a question that’s been asked countless times, and about few artists more frequently than Stevie Wonder. Don’t get me wrong: I love Stevie Wonder. “Maybe Your Baby,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “Living for the City“…these, and many others, have long since guaranteed a place in the pantheon for the former 12-Year-Old Genius. But I confess: this reviewer would be hard-pressed to describe Stevie’s latter-day output as “good,” much less “great,” “classic,” or “genius.” Indeed, if one considers Stevie Wonder’s “classic period” to have begun with “Uptight” and ended sometime after Songs in the Key of Life (with the execrable Paul McCartney race-relations duet “Ebony and Ivory” serving as the final nail in the coffin), 2005 marks at least the 25th year since the soul innovator and auteur began his disappearance into the depths of the MOR gutter.

Calling from the

Calling from the depths of the MOR gutter; © Motown Records

In this context, then, A Time to Love must surely be the most important Stevie Wonder album since 1980’s Hotter Than July. Not only was the record long in gestation and much-awaited–it’s been ten years since Stevie’s last, Conversation Peace, a significant chunk of which decade was spent recording (and delaying) Time to Love–but if Wonder’s people are to be believed, it also marks a massive return to form. This is meant to be the album that finally reconciles the brilliant artist of the late ’60s and ’70s with the corn-rowed, sweet-natured caricature of the last 25 years: a virtual pillar of inconsequence who hasn’t changed so much as a daishiki since he was immortalized by Eddie Murphy’s spot-on Saturday Night Live parodies. That, of course, is one tall order, and it probably needn’t even be said that A Time to Love is no Innervisions. But if we can allow ourselves to put our impossible expectations aside and give this album the listen it deserves, Mr. Wonder has a bit of a pleasant surprise for us all: this “return to form” may have its flaws, but it remains a remarkably solid effort.

And Wonder remains (The Woman in Red soundtrack notwithstanding) a singular talent, quite possibly the hardest person to dislike in all of popular music. Simply put, the 55-year-old’s voice is gorgeous, as clear and honey-smooth as it was thirty years ago. Actually, if anything, he could stand to turn it down a notch. “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved,” which opens the album promisingly with a contemporary R&B beat and dramatic, low-register strings, soon devolves into numbing histrionics from both Wonder and his guest, gospel singer Kim Burrell–a tendency that repeats itself on more than a few of Time To Love’s “ballad” numbers. Excessive length is also an issue, most notably with the first four tracks: cute songs like “Sweetest Somebody I Know” and the jazzy, theatrical “Moon Blue” overstay their welcome after the three-minute mark or so, when they start to feel like exactly the kind of lightweight sentimentality that has become Wonder’s unfortunate stock in trade. If those two songs dip their toes in the sugar water, however, “From the Bottom of My Heart” dives in head first, with a title straight out of the Backstreet Boys files and an arrangement you’d normally have to ride in a hospital elevator to hear.

To be honest, it isn’t until “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” comes along when the album really kicks into gear. A lite-funk jam worthy of Talking Book outtake status, the track breathes some much-needed life into the proceedings and reminds us that Stevie is still good for more than just the sappy ballads. Once “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” has come and gone, it feels as though what was missing at the beginning of the record has been miraculously restored; the soul is back, and better late than never. Even the soft numbers start to gel. “My Love is On Fire” is smooth and seductive, never maudlin, with funky touches of flute and Isaac Hayes-style strings; while the album-closing title track with India.Arie has all of the epic quality of “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved” but none of the distracting bombast. And oh yes, there’s more funk to be had: “Tell Your Heart I Love You” bolsters its bluesy groove with synth bass and Clavinet (remember Clavinets?); then, of course, there’s the first single, “So What the Fuss.”

It’s fitting that “So What the Fuss,” one of the highlights of A Time to Love, finds Stevie accompanied by a fellow erstwhile pop genius, Prince. Like Prince, Stevie Wonder was an artist in need of a comeback. His talent is just too great to fizzle and fade away, contained by half-assed, mediocre records and the occasional charity single or awards show appearance. And like Prince (whose 2004 release Musicology restored artistic and commercial credibility almost single-handedly), Wonder found his comeback in the form of a sort of compromise: strongly recalling his classic work, but mellowed, tailor-made for an audience that continues to mature along with Wonder itself. It may not have the same kind of resonance as those glory years–few records do–but A Time to Love is possessed of a charm and a beauty all its own. If Stevie Wonder’s “form” is quality and craft imbued with soul, then this is a return to form indeed. Welcome back, Stevie. You’ve earned it.

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Stevie Wonder At 67,’Characters’ Nearing Its 30th Anniversary

Characters

Stevie Wonder had entered the 1980’s in an interesting musical position. He began the decade on a political crusade with the late Gil Scott-Heron to make Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday. Musically however,his albums began coming fewer and farther between. Since becoming an innovative musical icon after his early/mid 70’s salad days,he was still commercially successful. But the blend of organic and electronic sounds and melodies he’d pioneered was mainstream by the early 80’s. So technically,he wasn’t considered to be so much of a musical innovator anymore.

That being said, Wonder’s songwriting approach was something very few could copy. Especially with all its jazzy complexities. Thus he began developing to the artist he is today: a man whose current music was based more on collaboration and songwriting for and with other artists. Most notably Jermaine Jackson’s “Let’s Get Serious” and Gary Byrd’s “The Crown” during the early 80’s. He only had three formal studio albums during the 80’s though. And the third of them was the 1987 album Characters. It had a home in my family’s cassette collection right when it came out. And fast entered my musical core.

Characters is an album that has garnered mix opinions from everyone from writers to critics to fans. A good deal of that has to do with it being from the late 80’s. And public opinion of changes in music during that time is a complex and controversial one. On a personal level however,its one of my very favorite albums by Stevie Wonder. It came out in a year that also included Prince’s Sign O The Times and when Michael Jackson’s Bad came out. So there was a renewed interests by soul/funk artists of making creatively and commercially successful music in what started as a rather rock based musical decade.

Now Characters is also an album that did indicate the continuing distance black American artists were having with the pop charts at the time. The Top 10 of the R&B charts in American placed the album right within it. He even did an MTV special featuring a guest appearance by the late Stevie Ray Vaughn to promote the album. But it landed only within the pop Top 20. Still that was enough for many people to appreciate Stevie Wonder making a new album at that time. Five years ago,I wrote a review of this album on Amazon.com going further into the albums more musical virtues.


Stevie Wonder had recorded his previous album In Square Circle in 1983 but released it in 1985. Even though its clear based on internet knowledge that Stevie didn’t write all of the songs on this particular album at the same time. On the other hand,the production was contemporary to its release. Stevie Wonder’s musical success was in a very interesting place in the late 80’s. At only a mere 37 years old Stevie,having been a child prodigy, was already a musically iconic figure before 40. Something of a modern day popular equivalent of a George Gershwin and Duke Ellington in terms of his body of musical accomplishment by this time.

He had created an entire template for funk composition in the 70’s. He was able to show the innovations of funk were not merely instrumentally challenging dance music,but could have its own style of songwriting to accompany it as well. By the 80’s,funk was changing into a more electronic style of dance music that didn’t (and still doesn’t) suit everyone’s fancy. The pop audience had also found a new darling in Michael Jackson,an artist Stevie once helped mentor. For his part Stevie seemed to have no trouble dealing with this. The R&B community still regarded him as their main man,and that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) changed. So in terms of his commercial output,on this album he went more for quality than quantity.

“You Will Know” is a beautifully dreamy mid tempo slow groove opener,with Stevie’s classic multi layered keyboards playing his complex chord structures on a song that pleas for hope among the hopeless. “Dark ‘N’ Lovely” is an intense,uptempo dance/funk piece with some heavy bass Clavinet type synthesizer work mixed with spacier electronics that reflected a theme of darker hued African American’s as being treated differently in society.

“In Your Corner” takes this modern electronic funk instrumentation on a song that reflects more the flavor of 60’s Motown-with a tale that basically picks up where “I Wish” left off:Stevie’s possible imagined (or real for all we know) life as a young adult. “With Each Beat Of My Heart” is a mostly acapella ballad,built upon some transcendent multi tracked harmonies from Stevie and him breathing in the rhythm of a heart beat itself-providing mainly piano and harmonica as the other instrumentation.

“One Of A Kind” is a deeply funky dance number,again built on dynamic harmony and Stevie’s poetically lovelorn lyrical preoccupation. “Skeletons” is a strong funk mashup of themes between “Superstition” and “Part Time Lover”-not too far in flavor from Cameo’s Word Up only a bit warmer and gentler in instrumental flavor.

“Get It” is a heavy dance/funk number-again duetting with Michael Jackson to return the favor from “Just Good Friends” on MJ’s Bad-finding the two aggressively trading off lyrics call and response. The clavinet based funk returns on the wondrously grooving “My Eyes Don’t Cry” whereas “Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down” marries Stevie’s electronic grooves with a heavy blues featuring a guitar solo from B.B.King playing Lucille herself.

“Crying Through The Night” is one of my own favorites here-a Latin flavored number updated from a song he recorded in the mid 70’s. The two most intriguing songs are “Galaxy Paradise”,which strongly anticipates R&B/funk’s near obsession with Arabic melodies in the 80’s funk context and “Free”,which brings to mind his Bach-styled Clavinet “classical funk” sound for some dynamic “people music”.

This album is actually one of my very favorites of Wonder’s-certainly his finest of the 1980’s for me,as well as his last release of the decade. Not only did he dip strongly into his celebration of the innovation of funk,jazz,soul and European classical that defined his blockbuster 70’s successes but also had the time to anticipate a few modern day funk/soul musical concepts along the way as well. As controversial as this might sound to some 1980’s musical naysayers,this album is easily as innovative and thrilling for its era as Songs in the Key of Life was a decade before this.


Just listening to any Stevie Wonder album,especially if someone is seriously learning about music,can be a school lesson in sound layering and composition in itself. And at the end of the day, Characters was no exception to that rule. Even myself making music on Garage Band with Apple Loops now, I find myself hearing melodic/rhythmic combinations the way Wonder might. Says a lot for Stevie Wonder’s music influencing the creativity of a non musician…sound mixer. Characters above all things showcases how no matter when he created,Stevie Wonder’s sound remained intensely vital.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Love Is All Around” by Eric Burdon & War

Eric Burdon’s best known for being the lead singer for The Animals,part of the bluesiest end of the 60’s British Invasion along with the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. Of course The Animals are best known for their version of “House Of The Rising Sun”. After that band split up in 1969, Burdon and producer Jerry Goldstein formed the band War out of a group of black LA musicians such as Lonnie Jordan, Thomas “Papa Dee” Allen,Harold Brown and Danish born harmonica player Lee Oskar. And they were a commercial and musical success right of the box.

The debut album of this outfit was 1970’s Eric Burdon Declares War. Its blend of Latin rock and soul was an important part of the funk process. Recording only two albums while together, Burdon left the band to their own devices after collapsing onstage of an asthma attack during one of their performances. The band officially reunited for a live performance at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008. Via YouTube listening,one of my favorite songs by the Eric Burdon led edition of War is the title song to their 1976 archival release-which was entitled Love Is All Around.

With a hi hat tapping away at the beginning,the low growling bluesy guitar that defines Burdon’s vocal melody start out the song. Its one that has a very basic groove throughout it. It consists of that same guitar riff from the intro,the hi hat and lightly shuffling funky drum. Each bar is accentuated by a grooving organ riff. After several bars of this, a pitch bent horn section plays the refrains with the organ. On the bridge,the drums rock out a bit more-with the organ and horns in a more sustained. The basic groove of the song repeats itself with call and response vocal choruses until the song fades out.

When I first heard the way this song was put together,it instantly reminded me of the sound that Sly & The Family Stone had on their first three albums. Those pitched up and down horns,the rhythmic organ andthe instrumental trade offs. Most of this very late 60’s style groove (both musically and lyrically) is actually very instrumentally condensed -consisting mostly of an evolving refrain. The bridge more or less serves as an in a break in sound to the choral vocals that end the album. Even though it was released later,its a vital example of War and Eric Burdon’s contribution to the funk process.

 

 

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