Saturday, January 21, 2012

Music Reviews-Songs in the Key of Life, Hardcore Jollies and Etta James

Songs in the Key of Life

Stevie Wonder is often considered to be a genius. I can't call if but if he is then Songs in the Key of Life is the release that proves it. He had never created anything as fantastic before and would never do anything as sublime afterwards. This is without a doubt the best release Wonder ever created, a top ten seventies album and arguably one of the best albums of all time.
Growing up, I listened to this album obsessively. It was one of the few current pop albums that my parents also loved. There were many times that I would come home to hear this album playing. So it brings back a ton of good memories. Wonder's writing here is top notch. Listening to it makes you think why can't people write lyrics like that today? His love songs get the point across without getting lost in explicit descriptions. The blues and protest songs are angry and direct but don't slide off into pity or hatred. 

I can't really compare this album to many others, inside Wonder's work or out of it. It transcends simple comparisons. I don't listen to a lot of modern music because I generally find it soulless and lacking in rhythm with too many electronics but Wonder proved back in 1976 that electronics and modern sounds didn't necessarily have to impede soul or rhythm. The album is seamless-literally. There is no way to tell if or when Wonder transitions from playing almost all the instruments himself to working with a full band or if he is recording live in studio. He combined the most up to date synthesizers and electronic orchestration with skilled talented band members, great song writing and really warm mixing and production. There are too many session musicians to mention but some special guests included luminaries such as Herbie Hancock, Minnie Ripperton, Syreeta Wright, Dorothy Ashby, George Benson and Deniece Williams.

Sonically juxtapose this album to almost anything released after say 1990 and notice the difference in recording volume. Songs in the Key of Life is recorded very warmly with a full rich sound. You can hear everything and nothing is too loud. Modern music is often recorded way too loudly which gives a sterility that thankfully is nowhere to be found on this album.

At a time when many contemporaries were either turning amps up to 11 and playing the simplest blues riffs they could steal, or boasting about not even being able to play their instruments, or running pell mell into disco, Wonder showed that there was still room for someone who took music seriously and didn't let cynicism dominate his worldview.

Musically this album runs the gamut from the updated hardcore urban blues of Pastime Paradise and Village Ghetto Land to gospelized masterpieces like Joy Inside My Tears to jazz inspired tunes like Sir Duke , afropop like I am singing to pop ditties like I wish and If it's Magic  and Isn't She Lovely to R&B like As or Knocks me Off my feet to funk/rock like All Day Sucker or Contusion. There is literally not a bad song or filler on this release. That's unusual for any album let alone a double one. Double albums tend to be sprawling and virtually always have a few duds or indulgent navel gazing songs on them. Not so here. The quality control is incredibly high. Everyone should have this album. If you don't shame on you. Go out and get it. Now. If you do have it, take it out and listen to it. This album is medically proven to cure loneliness, confusion, depression, rage and melancholy.

Hardcore Jollies
Funkadelic was always the more outrageous, dangerous, rock oriented half of P-Funk, George Clinton's conglomeration of musicians, and this release lives up to that billing. Hardcore Jollies is "dedicated to the guitar players of the world" and proceeds to show why from the first cut, a demented take on Coming Round the Mountain.

After guitar legend Eddie Hazel left the band, he was replaced by a man known as "Kidd Funkadelic" -Michael Hampton. Although Hardcore Jollies was not Hampton's first outing with the band it may be -in my opinion-the one in which he had the most impact. It's hard to say. I like this album a lot but it is VERY heavy on guitar wanking. The man himself, Eddie Hazel also shows up to play on a few cuts. Unless you are a guitar junkie or completist collector this might not be an essential Funkadelic album for you. But if you LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE guitar then this album is a must-have. The only "hit" that is on this release is Cosmic Slop but to me that was more than worth the price. Of course to me almost anything P-Funk did in the seventies was more than worth the price so there's that.

Unfortunately by 1970's America, music critics, radio programmers, record companies, and most shamefully musicians and audiences that should have known better had begun to redefine "rock" so that the term excluded (with the exception of Hendrix and Chuck Berry) almost everything that any black musician ever created. Thus David Bowie or Talking Heads doing James Brown inspired music are still rock musicians but James Brown or Funkadelic? Nahhhh. This is silly, racist and most importantly untrue. Hardcore Jollies is a rock album. Period. As I mentioned it's full of extended nasty midrangy guitar solos played by Hazel and Hampton that sound like Godzilla and Mothra put aside their differences and decided to kick everybody else's a$$ for a change. Bootsy Collins and Cordell Mosson hold down the bottom end here. Hendrix Alum and drummer extraordinaire Buddy Miles also can be heard on this release. This album, sounds for lack of a better word, out there. There's judicious use of synths and reverb. Listening to it makes you feel like you entered another world. The lyrics are often explicit with plenty of double entendres. Check out Smokey and You Scared the Lovin Outta Me.

Etta James
Etta James passed away yesterday. Unfortunately some of the younger generation only knew her from her song At Last or from the film "Cadillac Records" which was full of exaggerations and artistic license (Etta James did NOT have a relationship with either of the Chess brothers-yes there were two, not just one) or as an older cantankerous woman who didn't appreciate Beyonce's versions of her songs or depiction of her life.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. All music is related. This is especially the case with African American music. And before say the late seventies, many black musicians grew up in an era, where although they may have eventually specialized in whatever genre their interest lay, they had to be able to acquit themselves well in a variety of different music styles. Jimi Hendrix backed up Wilson Pickett and Little Richard.  George Clinton started out singing doo-wop. Fred Wesley hit it big with James Brown but his true love was jazz. Jazz giant David Newman got his big break in Ray Charles' band. And Ray Charles played anything he damn well pleased.

This is the world in which Etta James grew up. She was comfortable singing in a wide variety of genres. I love blues but Etta James was more than a blues singer. She came in at a time and place when blues was both influenced by and transitioning to rock-n-roll, R&B and soul. She also had quite a way with pop and gospel songs. Ironically and sadly she died the same week as Johnny Otis (a Greek-American bandleader who for all intents and purposes decided to be black), the musician who "discovered" her. 

Back in the day there was a song called Work with me Annie by Hank Ballard. This was a pretty suggestive song because "working" was exactly what your dirty mind thinks it was. It was followed up, just in case any really dim person missed it, by a song titled Annie had a Baby, can't work no more. A teenaged Etta James sang an answer song titled Roll with me Henry and her career took off. If you haven't heard her sing you really missed a treat. She had struggles in life as we all do but her personal issues* aren't important to me. What is important is the incredible voice James had. She should have copyrighted the term "smoky alto".

Do yourself a big favor and take some time to listen to her sing Something's got a hold of me, Baby what you want me to do (in which she takes a vocal solo in which she imitates a harmonica), You can leave your hat on, I'd Rather go BlindBall and Chain, A Sunday Kind of Love,  Only Women Bleed,  Fool That I am or many many more. You may be interested in her seventies album Only A Fool, which had very bass heavy production and was chock full of rock and soul covers aimed at the younger audience. There's also a cover of Prince's Purple Rain floating around there somewhere. I'm not a huge fan of her post eighties work but like a lot of people from the old school she worked until she couldn't any more. Much respect. Nothing against Beyonce or Aguilera or Adele or Joss Stone or whoever but this right here was the real deal.

*Fun fact-James was also known for not taking any stuff. In the Howlin' Wolf biography Moanin' at Midnight, the author describes an incident at a 1955 Apollo show where the lovestruck but then illiterate Wolf had someone write a note of sweet nothings to the seventeen year old James. James responded by confronting the 6-6 300lb Wolf and rudely rebuffing his advance in front of his entire band. "Old country man" was the nicest thing she said. Undeterred Wolf had someone write another note to take to her. James wrote back a note that was simple and sweet. "You m******f****! F*** you!!" At this point Wolf got mad. But he took the hint.
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