Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Stevie Wonder - Innervisions

It is actually quite exciting sitting down and re-appraising "Innervisions" from beginning to end.  All of Stevie’s most acclaimed output was made before I was 10 years old, so I, like many others, came to the LPs late.  In my formative teenage years I was aware of the much maligned but then contemporary stuff like “I Just Called” and “Ebony and Ivory”, songs which I won’t slate here, they were of their time and the time was pretty tacky.  The saddest thing about those songs is what I call the “High Fidelity” effect, and though I’d normally argue against snobbishness generally, I still feel the need to go all evangelical on Stevie’s other work when discussing him with people who are not fans, but this turns you into a bit of a bore!

Luckily, as well as the tacky 80's stuff and courtesy of some old Motown greatest hits records and tapes belonging to my family, I was aware of Stevie’s 60s work too, but the period I knew nothing about was the period that I later found to be Stevie’s most successful in terms of creativity, the 1970s.

“Songs In The Key Of Life” was my way in, and I still have great affection for it, I then bought “Music of My Mind” and then “Innervisons”  before collecting all of Stevie's LPs.  It is "Innervisions" though that thanks to Greg Wilson’s “Living To Music” project I listened to on Sunday night.

Now let’s get right on down to the skit…..Stevie is a genius, even people who are not fans may have heard the old “Little Stevie played every instrument in the Motown studio aged 11” story, and must admit, that is pretty special for a blind kid who must have had limited educational opportunities.  He is an amazing songwriter, musician and important political figure.  But what of Innervisions?

It is a great LP, and one which demands to be listened to as a whole, sure the singles are good, but the whole LP just “makes sense”.  “Too High” is as jazzy as some of the crossover stuff that came out of Blue Note at the same time, in fact I’d dare say that it is as close to jazz in it’s changes and delivery as the tracks from those great Mizell bros LPs from Donald Byrd et al.  The harmonica solo is wonderful and the way it skips around the chord changes adds a very funky jazzy edge to the whole thing.

“Visions” continue this jazz theme and the vocal is delivered in a beautiful reflective style.  Stevie must have spent all his time thinking, writing playing.  Thinking, writing playing.  Again and again until he had knocked out all those 70s LP.  Genius?  Hard worker too.

I’m less keen on the more funky numbers like “Living For The City” (there, I said it), it is not that it isn’t great, the whole decade of Stevie is superb, it is just that I like my funk served up a little different.  Still a great song though, and rounds things up nicely before my favourite track, “Golden Lady”.  Listening to it for the first time in years gets me reaching for the player credits on the sleeve.  That bassline is 100% James Jamerson, but….. hang on….. it’s a moog isn’t it?  Damn straight it is, and Stevie is playing it.  And Fender Rhodes, and drums. And no doubt the other synth parts and goodness knows what else.  Did I mention he was a genius.  It’s a great song all the way to the key changes on the fade out.  Takes me right away.

This would normally be the point where the vinyl is flipped except for the fact that Innervisions is a cursed album for me.  I have two dodgy UK vinyl copies, one with a nasty scratch on side a, one with a jump on side b.  So I bought a CD (two for a tenner at Asda), that skips on the last two tracks having spent some time under the passenger seat of my car, so I’m listening to a CD copy up to the last two tracks, then getting on the youtube express to save dusting off the dodgy vinyl.

Back to (ahem) Side b.  I’ll take back what I said earlier about Stevie’s funky stuff.  The way that clav kicks in on “Higher Ground” is funky like grandma’s bloomers, and Stevie is playing all the instruments on here.  Not the most clever lyrics Stevie has ever produced, but the bit where he goes “I’m so darn glad he let me try it again” is a very catchy relief from the kind of call/response lyric form of the rest of the song.

The great synth work continues on “Jesus Children Of America” Stevie must have been doing as much as anyone to promote synth music, and this LP sold shedloads, bringing Avant Garde to the masses, with a little preaching and questioning thrown in, and a nod to the Beatles if I’m not mistaking.  Round about 3min 40secs the song goes into very funky shuffle before fading out and into All In Love Is Fair”, a sad and contemplative love song that shows Stevie’s songwriting maturity.  Don’t know how old he was in 1973 (I avoid googling when writing these), but he’s bloody convincing as a man who’s lived a long eventful life.  It builds like the kind of ballad you might expect someone like Barbra Streisand to have used as a big showstopper, and in some ways it signals a change of mood on this LP too.

Paris Peru, Iraq Iran,”  I’ve listened to the start of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” loads of times and I’m still not sure exactly what relevance it has to the rest of the song, perhaps someone can explain.  Lovely percussion work and shuffling Latin jazz piano work underpin the soulful vocals and lift the mood perfectly from the previous track ready for the LP closer, “He’s Misstra Know-It –All.”

Nixon?  Berry Gordy?  Someone better read than me can elucidate I’m sure.  And why “Misstra?”  I’ve never heared the word “Misstra” in any other context?  Perhaps that is just my limited travel experience, I doubt they call people “moosh” in Detroit like we do here in Pompey.  What I do know is that this is a great way to close an LP.  It’s an uplifting mid-tempo soul song with some classic Stevie scatting.

So there it is, “Songs In The Key Of Life” is still my personal favourite for reasons more to do with nostalgia and packaging than musical content (yeah, that’s shallow!), but this is without doubt a more rounded “package,” in equal parts challenging, reassuring and soothing.  The way that Stevie uses synths and plays so many of the other instruments himself is astounding, the writing is great, even the artwork seems to fit the mood of the LP perfectly.  Thanks Greg for organising the event, please check out the responses !! HERE !!

“Songs In The Key” same time next year perhaps?

A1 Too High                                4:37    
A2 Visions                                   5:17    
A3 Living For The City                 7:26    
A4 Golden Lady                           5:00    
B1 Higher Ground                        3:54    
B2 Jesus Children Of America       4:04    
B3 All In Love Is Fair                    3:45    
B4 Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing  4:55    
B5 He's Misstra Know It All            6:06

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