It's been a snow-filled February week here in Jersey City. My personal cold has subsided, only to be replaced by an exterior, bone-chilling coldness. A perfect setting for me to hibernate and work on this project, and [thankfully] to also write a new song for my beloved for Valentine's Day. You can listen to a demo of Already here. For the first time in this project, I've come upon not one but two albums that I have heard in their entirety--and luckily for me, have loved before. I hadn't heard either of them in the past 10 years, so it's been a good opportunity to listen to them again with [perhaps] a wiser pair of ears.
Stevie Wonder -- Talking Book (1972)
When I recorded my second album, Rebirth, I got many comments from people thinking that I must have been a big devotee of Stevie's. At the time, I only knew a few of his songs, and as I mentioned last week with Elton John, most of them his late career hits (i.e. "Jungle Fever", "Ebony and Ivory", etc.)--not his best work.
So, in the late 90's, I started exploring his golden era which, according to most accounts, started in 1972 with Music of My Mind, followed closely in the same year by this record, Talking Book, then Innervisions in 1973, Fulfillingness' First Finale in 1974, and finally his masterpiece Songs In The Key of Life in 1976 (the year I was born). I devoured each of them, and quickly became obsessed, listening to each CD on constant repeat. Fulfillingness' is still my favorite record of these, but it's, I suppose, like choosing a favorite child. I loved the opportunity to come back to focus on Talking Book, a record I remember loving, but not one that garnered my deepest devotion.
What's crazy to me is realizing that Stevie Wonder is 21 here. His earnings from the royalties of his earlier successes had been placed in a trust, only available to him upon turning 21. So, Stevie comes of age, and is finally given access to the millions of dollars he's earned. Instead of going on a drug bender, he spends some of this money on expensive synthesizers, and devotes himself to 'round-the-clock recording sessions.
The record starts off with You Are The Sunshine of My Life. This song gets a lot of flack for its unrepentant sweetness. It's a song I had awareness of growing up (of course), and I heard it a lot, even on an 80's Minute Maid commercial (start the video at 3:54). But unlike Candle In The Wind, it's a song I can still hear and appreciate--it doesn't seem any worse for the wear. One of the things I noticed this week is that Stevie doesn't even sing the first line of his opening track, that's Jim Gilstrap, followed on the third line by Lani Groves. Stevie comes in on the fifth line, appropriately with the lyric "I feel like this is the beginning..." The other new thing I noticed on this song is that killer, fast underlying drumbeat starting at around 2:11. This song was recorded at Electric Lady Studios, which is a few blocks from where I now work. I love you, New York.
Maybe Your Baby seems a precursor to some of the Prince recording techniques from Sign O' The Times, with the many timbres of Stevie's voice, some slightly sped up for that funked up, helium sound. Then comes the first ballad of the record, You And I, which Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger of PopMatters refer to as "wispy" and "gloopy", in their blog Counterbalance covering the greatest albums of all time (Talking Book covered here). I am more of a ballad kind of guy, and I find Stevie to be one of the best ballad writers of all time. If that makes me gloopy, I'm OK with that.
The songs that follow are each as impressive as the preceding--not a single filler track in the bunch. Of course track 6, Superstition, is the biggest hit from this record (his 9th best of his career, with You Are The Sunshine Of My Life coming it at #10).
Dusty Springfield -- Dusty In Memphis (1969)
Dusty has one of the sexiest voices I've ever heard.
I was talking about this with my girlfriend, who asked what exactly it was about her voice that I find so sexy? I read the 33 1/3 book covering this record. The author, Warren Zanes, puts it best when he says that there is a "vulnerability we hear in her voice, it seems, [that] is not some fluke but the sound that pain makes when it comes out of a certain body." I have to say that I was disappointed with the book otherwise, as it spoke more about The South, and its general influence than it speaks to this particular album.
This album, however, is anything but a disappointment. I remember first hearing Dusty, as I'm sure many did, for the first time on the song Son Of A Preacher Man from the soundtrack to the 1994 film Pulp Fiction. The album was re-released in 1999 (for its 30 year anniversary), and this is when I stumbled upon it. I fell in love with her then, this CD too stuck on repeat for a while.
The first time around, I fell in love with her voice, the band, and the production. What I was struck by coming back to it was the songwriting. Gerry Goffin and Carole King provide the most songs (4) of the impressive songwriters gathered here (So Much Love, Don't Forget About Me, No Easy Way Down, and I Can't Make It Alone). Each song is solid and soul-packed. Randy Newman wrote 2, I Don't Want To Hear It Anymore (one of my favorites here) and Just One Smile. Just A Little Lovin', Son Of A Preacher Man, and Breakfast In Bed each draw you in, for Dusty's playful and sensual delivery.
The Windmills Of Your Mind is a track that stands out from the others, for its psychedelic leanings. I love all of the musical embellishments that change through each verse (especially that Spanish guitar). In The Land Of Make Believe also stays in that psychedelic space, with those lush strings and sitar.
Dusty doesn't write a single track--but she embodies each song as if they were fragments of her life. Reading a little about her, you learn that she had a troubled life (battling with insecurities and addiction). It seems that vulnerability in her voice is hard-won. Her sensuality, threaded through almost every raspy line, reflects her sexuality. In 1973, she tells Chris Van Ness of the Los Angeles Free Press:
I mean, people say that I'm gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. I'm not anything. I'm just ... People are people... I basically want to be straight ... I go from men to women; I don't give a shit. The catchphrase is: I can't love a man. Now, that's my hang-up. To love, to go to bed, fantastic; but to love a man is my prime ambition ... They frighten me.
That's a vulnerable and bold statement, especially at that time.
I enjoyed dropping in to see these two old loves, both holding time at bay, as beautiful as the day I last saw them. Talking Book finds Stevie entering his golden age. Dusty In Memphis is a sexy album that shows love in many of its facets: playful, heartbreaking, contradictory, vulnerable, and mischievous.